For many, pedalboards sit at the heart of their guitar rig. And rightfully so – pedals are exciting, affordable and can lend bucketloads of character to your tone. But what of amplification?
- READ MORE: The best budget tube amps under $500
If you’ve spent some time and money assembling a pedalboard, it’s only fitting that you should run it through an amp that will let your stompboxes sing. Let’s dive into the best amplifiers to provide a platform for your pedals.
What is headroom in guitar amps?
In the context of guitar amplifiers, headroom refers to the maximum level your signal can be before it starts pushing the amplifier into ‘natural’ overdrive. There are a number of factors that determine how much headroom an amplifier has. Generally speaking, the most important of these is an amp’s wattage, with a higher rating meaning more clean headroom.
The design of the preamp, whether the amp is solid-state or tube-driven, and how you’ve dialled it in will also drastically affect the amount of headroom you have. In tube amps, the specific set of power amp tubes can also have a big effect on headroom.
High-headroom amps will give your effects more room to breathe – your pedals, and not the amp, will colour your tone the most. You can hear the full character of a loud fuzz pedal without the high output causing preamp distortion. Delay and reverb will ring out clearly, rather than get compressed and distorted themselves. Your strange synth sounds created by your chain of a Mel9 into a Rainbow machine will be unfettered by amplifier distortion.
There is another side to this coin, however: you don’t want to lose that dynamic/lively/responsive (pick your amp buzzword of preference) feel. The way a preamp responds when you really dig in, even one set for sparkly, high-headroom cleans, is important – not just for the sound itself, but also for how an amp feels to play. Amplifiers that allow you to bypass the preamp stage one way or another, or amplifiers that don’t have a preamp stage at all, work best when your pedalboard is correctly set to replace the work the preamp is doing, even if your goal is a variation on a clean sound.
Giving them lots of headroom is also not the only way to use pedals – the sound of a preamp getting obliterated by high-output effects is its own thing, but not applicable to every musical situation. Let’s dive in.
The best pedal platform amps to buy in 2021 at a glance
- Fender Hot Rod DeVille IV
- Boss Katana 50 Mk II
- Blackstar Silverline Stereo Deluxe 100W
- Orange Pedal Baby 100
- Vox AC30
- Matchless Laurel Canyon 112R
- Morgan SW50R 50W
- PRS Sonzera 50
- Rift Amplification Wheelhouse 40W
- Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120
- Two Rock Studio Signature Head
Fender Hot Rod DeVille IV
+ Classic Fender combo tones
+ Incredibly loud
The fourth version of Fender’s 60-watt combo only provides a minor set of tweaks over its predecessor, mainly because there was nothing crying out to be improved. 60 watts provides a hefty amount of headroom, with that signature Fender sparkle on the clean channel. All this, plus two 12-inch Celestion speakers, make the DeVille capable of getting very loud while staying very clean. Perfect for getting to gigging volume while keeping the best platform for your pedals.
And, in the event that you need to keep delay and reverb pedals clean while using the amp’s onboard overdrive channel, there’s a handy effects loop for just that purpose.
The downside to all this power is that the amp isn’t the most portable. At the cost of a little headroom, the 40-watt Hot Rod Deluxe is also a great option for a similarly-voiced pedal platform, and one that’s a little easier to lift.
Price: £1,049/$999.99 Design: Two-channel tube combo with Channels: 2 Preamp Tubes: 2 x 12AX7 Power Amp Tubes: 2 x 6L6 Power Rating: 60W Speakers: 2×12” Celestion Type-A Effects: Spring reverb Effects Loop: Yes
Boss Katana-50 Mk II
+ Great-sounding amp models, which can be bypassed if needs be
+ Loud enough for most gigs
– Lack of tubes and/or presence of digital modelling may deter some
Boss’ second version of its digital modelling combo tweaks the amp models, expands its effects capabilities and does a few other little upgrades over the first generation. You can check out our full review of the Boss Katana-50 Mk II for more on that.
But in the context of this list, these upgrades pale in comparison to the addition of a Power Amp In socket on the back of the amplifier. This means you can bypass all of the Katana’s amp models and effects, and use any preamp pedals you may have as actual preamps, rather than having them immediately coloured by a second preamp.
Why choose this over something like the Orange Pedal Baby 100, if you just want a power amp? Well, a speaker comes bundled in, so no worrying about a cabinet – and the versatile tones found in the front end of the amp won’t go amiss in most situations.
The Katana-50 Mk II still works great as a more traditional pedal platform thanks to its clean amp voice, and thanks to the powerful digital modelling being leveraged, the front of the amp does respond naturally to being pushed hard. 50 watts also means it’s more than loud enough for gigs, too.
Price: £229/$239.99 Design: 50-watt digital modelling combo with variety of amp voices and in-built effects and open-back design Channels: 1 Power Rating: 50 watts Speakers: 1×12” Katana speaker Effects: Reverb and delay, configurable with software Effects Loop: No, but direct Power Amp In functions like an effects return
Blackstar Silverline Stereo Deluxe
+ Super Wide Stereo is a great complement to effects
+ Response rotary switch makes this amp incredibly versatile
– It’s still a modelling amp so not for everyone
There are many reasons the Blackstar Silverline Stereo Deluxe is the best pedal platform amp – the on-board voices and effects are great, the “super wide stereo” lets you get immersed in your playing, and the 100 watts and two 12-inch speakers mean it’s unlikely you’ll ever want for volume.
Especially interesting for the pedal fanatic, however, is the Response rotary switch. This allows you to choose a set of simulated power amp tubes: KT88, 6L6, KT66, EL34, 6V6 or EL84. A massive selection of power amp responses allows you to change how the amp responds to being pushed with drive – from saggy and compressed to pristine, high-fidelity and high-headroom. Ideal for a player with a wide range of pedals lined up.
Price: £699/$849.99 Design: Stereo digital electric-guitar combo amplifier with partial open-back construction Channels: One Power Rating: 2×100 watts Speakers: 2×12″ Celestion V-Type Effects: Variety of modulation effects, delays and reverbs with deep editing via software Effects Loop: Yes, but has to be enabled via a software tweak
Orange Pedal Baby 100
+ Allows your rig to completely speak for itself tonally
+ Loud, and compact
– Might be too barebones for your rig
This is an amplifier whose approach couldn’t be further from Blackstar’s digital modelling combo. It is, in short, a class A/B power amplifier with an EQ. That’s it. It’s designed to colour your sound as little as possible, allowing you to feed it any amount of overdrive, fuzz, reverb and delay. As you’re not contending with any traditional preamp stage in the amplifier side of things, your pedal settings might need to be adjusted accordingly. Similarly, to get a clean tone with more ‘sparkle’ than the warm and rounded sound of the Pedal Baby alone, you’ll need to kick on a preamp pedal or overdrive and roll back the gain.
One of its main appeals is also its compact size. As long as there’s a cabinet of some kind already at the venue, it’s remarkable for a 100-watter to fit into the front pocket of a gig bag.
Price: £299/$399 Design: 100-watt class A/B standalone power amplifier head Channels: 1 Power Rating: 100 watts Speakers: N/A Effects: None Effects Loop: N/A
+ A great platform for vintage-leaning pedal enthusiasts
+ More than loud enough for most gigging situations
– Might be too trebly for some genres that need more low-end oomph
It’s the Vox AC30. What more needs to be said? Well, in approach and aesthetics, not much has changed since 1958, but the latest Celestion Greenback-loaded edition of this classic combo comes with a few modern appointments. There’s a true-bypass-switchable effects loop, alongside both an external and extension speaker jack socket.
This maybe isn’t a pedal platform for those looking for extremely out-there sounds, or for those with a meticulously-crafted preamp tone already being provided by their pedalboard. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better pairing for vintage-style pedals – treble boosters, germanium fuzzes, Univibes and similar have been good pals with the AC30 since its inception, their friendship the core of countless classic sounds. If you do want to mix the old and the new, the aforementioned effects loop will let you engage as many Strymon BigSky pedals as you want.
Price: £849/$1,399.99 Design: Old-school valve combo amplifier with a few modern tweaks Channels: Two Preamp Tubes: 3 x 12AX7 Power Amp Tubes: 4 x EL84 Power Rating: 30 watts Speakers: 2×12” Celestion Greenbacks Effects: Spring reverb, tremolo Effects Loop: Yes
Matchless Laurel Canyon 112R
+ Stays clean very loud, despite relatively low watts
+ Lots of control over gain staging
The Laurel Canyon is Matchless’ first foray into the world of 6V6 amplifiers – taking more after the brand’s American forebears than the British-style amps it has focused on before. Typically, that means ‘glassier’ cleans and more headroom – despite just 20 watts, our review of the Matchless Laurel Canyon found that it provided more than enough in that department.
Given the amp’s tonal approach, it’s maybe not for those who need a completely dry preamp character. It will colour your sound in some ways, but even the most characterful of drive pedals will expect to be routed into some sort of preamp. The amp does offer a lot of control over its preamp gain structure – great for players who like to carefully assemble their signal chain and stack various gain stages.
Price: £2,995/$2,780 Design: No-nonsense tube combo with master volume and valve rectification Channels: 1 Preamp Tubes: 3 x 12AX7 Power Amp Tubes: 2 x 6V6 Power Rating: 20 watts Speakers: 1×12” Celestion Heritage G12H30 Effects: Reverb Effects Loop: Yes
+ Crystal-clear cleans that retain punch
+ 50 watts is a great sweet-spot for volume and headroom
Morgan describes the SW50R as “intentionally designed to be the loudest and cleanest it could be with two 6L6s”. This means there’s a lot of headroom and punch, and it responds incredibly well to overdrive pedals. The hefty amount of headroom means the lack of an effects loop shouldn’t worry you, even if you do want to use a lot of reverb and delay. You can add one to your order for $100 if you truly can’t live without one, however.
The 50-watt rating might also appeal given the recent trend for a reduction in stage volume – in some areas of guitar playing, at least. This means that if you do want to get that sound of a completely cranked amp, you won’t have to repaint your practice space or take out extra window insurance.
Price: £2,479/$2,549.99 Design: 50-watt Class A/B tube head with spring reverb, hand-wired in the USA Channels: 1 Preamp Tubes: 3 x 12AX7 preamp tubes Power Amp Tubes: 2 x 6L6 Power Rating: 50 watts Speakers: N/A Effects: Spring reverb Effects Loop: Optional extra, $100 more
PRS Sonzera 50
+ Extensive tone-shaping with a busy front panel
+ 50 watts is a great sweet-spot for volume and headroom
– Heavy for a gigging 1×12
The PRS Sonzera 50 sports a number of features that make it pedal-friendly. Dedicated clean and overdrive channels mean you can pick your poison when it comes to gain staging, and an overall presence control will help you tame any unexpected harshness from pedal sounds. It will also let you dial in some sparkle if you’ve managed to filter out some high end with something like a fuzz pedal.
The two channels are especially handy if you often change up your pedalboard, and need to have the option of running into a dirty amplifier.
Price: £649/$999 Design: 50-watt 1×12” combo with clean and dirty channels, voiced to range from classic American-style cleans to raucous British OD tones Channels: 2 Preamp Tubes: 1 x JJ ECC83S, 3 x 12AX7AC5 HG Power Amp Tubes: 2 x EL34BHT Power Rating: 50 watts Speakers: 1×12” Celestion V-type Effects: None Effects Loop: Yes
Rift Amplification Wheelhouse 40W
+ Beautiful boutique design and build
+ Clear, compressed cleans
The Rift Amplification Wheelhouse is billed as capturing the “Nashville sound”, despite its origins on the other side of the Atlantic. The clean guitar sound so associated with country players is a subtly compressed one, accentuating fingerpicked notes and keeping dynamics consistent across lightning-fast runs across the fretboard.
Handily, that compression makes the amp a great companion to overdrive pedals. And to avoid your reverb and delay trails becoming too squished by the front end, there’s a bypassable effects loop. The 6L6 power amp valves, along with the 40-watt rating, mean that you’ve got boatloads of headroom to play with, but turn the master volume down and the preamp volume up for some smooth, rich overdrive.
Price: £2,499 Design: Premium 40-watt tube combo, hand-wired in the UK Channels: 1 Preamp Tubes: 1 x 7025, 1 x 12AY7, 2 x ECC83 Power Amp Tubes: 2 x 6L6 Power Rating: 40 watts Speakers: 1×12: WGS G12C/s Ceramic Speaker Effects: Reverb Effects Loop: Yes
Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120
+ Great platform for stereo effects
+ Blisteringly loud
– Tube purists need not apply
This rather unique combo from Roland has a reputation for being one of the best pedal platforms out there, thanks to its complementary-yet-still-neutral preamp character. Its reputation has only grown with the expansion of the fully stereo effects market, as the JC-120 has a left and a right input, meaning you won’t need to mess around with ABY boxes to make full use of your stereo delays and reverbs. Even if you don’t have any of those lying about, the famed on-board stereo chorus will lend some real depth to drive tones. It’s also a great option for amplifying modelling effects boxes, letting you make full use of their stereo capabilities.
While the JC-120 might negate the need for a tangle of cables, there’s also a fully stereo effects loop for even more in-depth stereo rig building.
Price: £649/$617.99 Design: Stereo solid-state Channels: 1 Preamp Tubes: N/A Power Amp Tubes: N/A Power Rating: 120 watts Speakers: 2×12” Silver Cone Roland speakers Effects: Chorus, vibrato and reverb Effects Loop: Yes, stereo
Two Rock Studio Signature Head
+ Boutique build
+ Compact, but more than loud enough for gigging despite “Studio” name
– You might want to opt for the even louder and cleaner Classic Reverb Signature
This amplifier comes rated at 35 watts, but Two Rock has still injected it with a 100-watt flavour. It’s effectively a downsized version of the Classic Reverb Signature head, aiming for the same versatile set of clean tones at friendlier volumes. It’s still capable of getting real loud, and sounds fantastic sitting on the edge of breakup, ready to be cranked by your overdrive or fuzz of choice.
The three-band EQ is complemented by three toggle switches, allowing you to boost each band a little more. For pedal-tweaking tone-chasers, this is a great set of switches – they allow you to easily compensate for any problematic characteristics of any pedals.
Price: £2,699/$2,699 Design: Single-channel 6L6-based clean amplifier head voiced as a lower-watt version of the Classic Reverb Channels: 1 Preamp Tubes: 4 x 12AX7, 1 x 12AT7 Power Amp Tubes: 2 x 6L6 Power Rating: 35 watts Speakers: N/A Effects: Reverb Effects Loop: Yes