Xmas is looming... What practice amp should you buy?

I'm recycling an article I wrote in July 2014 with a few updates where needed. I often get asked questions by my electric guitar students on buying gear, advice on practice amps is near the top of the list.
iRig2: makes great use of your phone

Practice amps.. they're intended to help us practice aren't they?  Let's face it, there is a huge amount of music gear for us guitarists to acquire, some of it meeting our needs, some of it falling well short, some of it keeping its treasures buried deep in the technical manual that came with it, never to be discovered.  So, it's worth pausing a moment and considering what do we actually need?  Does the stuff that we think (we are often told) we need, actually serve its purpose? And very importantly, how easy is it to use?

This blog discusses the pros and cons of the many different types of practice amplifier, and looks at some of the many features useful in your practice routine.

At the bottom of this blog entry there is a list of amps by type, with links to the manufacturers' websites. Just Google the name of the amp to get many independent reviews on these products.

'What amp should I buy?' Good question. If you're a beginning guitarist or an experienced player looking at making the most of your practice time there are some great features that some modern amps have built in that are helpful to your practice routine. Some of these have extra 'fun' features, like DSP effects (Digital Signal Processing - i.e. chorus, flanging, phasers, delay etc) that can, if you like their sound, help you keep your fingers on the frets, but can also be distracting rather than being useful in your practice sessions i.e. you spend more time messing around to get specific sounds rather than practicing that new song, set of chords or scales..
The Roland Cube RX: Tiny, loud, battery powered

Some of the advertising, even in 'independent' reviews, dwell on the quality of the multitude of overdrive tones, the speaker simulators, DSP effects, the analogue quality of many digitally produced sounds (modelling amps) and the 'this famous person plays this same brand' factors.

While some of these features are amusing it's important to consider what existed before the practice amp? Well let's see; records, a metronome, your guitar and your ears..! Ok, I'm being facetious but those basic things will still cover 90% of what you need to practice on your instrument, and not one of them includes the word amplifier!

There are a pretty wide range of practice amps available with a variety of prices and functions. So what kind of things would be useful in a practice amplifier:

 - simplicity
 - small size/portability
 - a decent clean tone
 - a decent overdrive sound
 - straightforward EQ controls
 - a good authentic sounding reverb
 - a simple phrase looper
 - a built in tuner
 - a metronome or simple drum machine
 - headphone socket for quiet practice
 - connections - inputs and outputs: main in, headphone out socket, 1/8" auxiliary (phone/MP3 player) input,
 - good speaker quality at low/modest volume

Practice aids (these are the really useful features so long as they are easily accessible on the amp)

  - Phrase looper: loopers allow you to play a phrase (e.g a riff or chords) and practice scales, arpeggios, improvisation etc., over it.  Essentially it is a form of short direct recording. The looper should have an auto-quantise feature (switchable on/off) so any slight slips in time that you make are automatically corrected on playback.

  - Built in tuner: a very common feature these days, and essential to be at concert pitch (i.e. A = 440hz) when playing to backing tracks etc. Still some practice amps do not have built in tuners.

  - Metronome and/or drum machine: a simple click to keep you in time, to help perfect your speed and phrasing, is really useful when you are learning. Drum track loops also help you to learn to sync with the drum parts in a variety of styles.

  - Auxiliary input: for playing along with backing tracks apps etc: In most cases this will be your smart phone, mp3 player or a tablet.
Some amps look like they belong on the kitchen table

  - Speed variation: ability to slow down tracks while keeping the music at the original pitch. These are great practice tools for working out and playing along with original song recordings. Unusual in practice amps, but are separately available in smartphone app form but still need to be played through something so it can be heard, i.e. the amp's auxiliary inputs.

  - Centre cancel: cancels the sound of the main instrument or voice being played on any recording, you can then use your instrument/voice in its place. Again these are sometimes available as linked smartphone or tablet apps, and are very useful to practice getting your guitar parts correct.

  - Headphone out socket: so you can practice quietly, without disturbing other folks in your house. Most of us hate to be overheard practising anyway, makes us self conscious and takes away some of the magic of when we finally perform it to the same listeners! In any case listening to someone practise their scales can be a form of torture...

Note: All of the above things are only really useful if you know how to access and use them. But many are also available in other forms, separate from the amp, and can be bought as separate units, e.g. loopers, centre cancel, drum loops, slow downers, metronome etc., some of these features are available as apps on your smart phone or tablet.. (watch our for a separate blog article on smart phone apps coming up on this very subject).

OK so you may be considering using a bigger practice amp that can also cover dual duty for band rehearsals or small gigs:

Desirable but not essential: (these features are sometimes available on practice amps)

 - Recording output (USB) direct to a computer or tablet or smart phone, or memory card.

 - Powered by mains and batteries - batteries are great for playing outside, on the street, in a field etc..

 - Foot-switchable channels - great if your amp is loud enough to compete with a live drummer..

 - Loud enough for rehearsal/small gigs as well as practice. **See my note below on how to make your practice amp louder..

 - Line out for recording, that also doubles as line out for slaving another (bigger) amp, or feeding a line direct to a PA mixing board, could be useful if your amp is good enough/loud enough for small gigs.

 - Mic / line input for sing-along or another instrument, think restaurant's and coffee bars.

 - Full range speaker and flat band power stage, so acts as a reasonable sounding MP3 player as well as a guitar amp, a jack of all trades.. there are some out there.
Not all amps are boring colours: The Crush series by Orange

** Note - to make your practice amp louder, do the following:
 - Put it up on a chair. Or tilt it upwards slightly... OK it's not really louder but everyone can hear it better, including you!

 - Add a clean boost pedal, such as a Boss Graphic EQ, TC Spark Booster, Mooer Audio Pure Boost or similar, in front of the amp, and adjust the level as required.

Less useful: (most practice amps have these and the advertising spiel and non-independent reviews often make much of them... but, to be honest, they are the icing on the cake, it's pretty rare that only a single specific type of sound will do, especially when you are practicing)

  - A plethora of amp types that sound roughly the same but with varying amounts of cleanness or drive/distortion.

  - A wide selection of modulation affects: flanger/phaser/chorus/delay/auto wah etc. These are all 'time based modulation' effects and many sound similar. Remember one effect of decent quality is enough!

So, having identified what we might need lets have a look at some of the gear out there:
Above: the Blackstar Fly 

Well established small amps with speaker and varying amounts of practice aids and features:

Hifi - doubles as a mini PA, or sound system. 
Above: Yamaha THR Practice Amp

Small, house friendly, desktop size, stuff.....

  • Yamaha THR 10 (&THR 5) - nice looking, good range of sounds.
  • Roland JS-10 - lots of practice features, read the manual to get the best out of it.
  • Roland Cube Lite - nice looking practice amp, good features, includes an iOS dock.

Direct from your guitar to headphones, or computer, or through your phone!
(i.e. tiny! No speakers, just a headphone socket, great for quiet practice and very portable)

  • Tascam GB-10 -  mini practicing device. Range of features.
  • iRig - plugs directly from guitar to your phone to headphones/mini speaker.
  • Vox Amplug - plug from guitar to headphones or mini speaker.
  • Apogee Jam - interface to use with your smart phone/computer.
  • Boss BR80 - mini recording studio, with practice features, drum loops etc.
  • Zoom G1on - small multiFX unit with aux input/looper/tuner/drum machine/USB. Can also use it in front of a regular amp as a multiFX pedal. I'm a big fan!

Finally.... a guitarists' health and wallet warning: GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is often used as a substitute for practicing, i.e. buying equipment in the hope it will make up for a shortfall in playing technique, or worse in the vague hope that getting new stuff will improve you as a player!

Useful article? Share it below ⇩  Many Thanks! - Dave