What do you need from a practice amplifier?

June 2020

This is an update of a blog post that I originally put up in 2014.

The following post runs the rule over different types of guitar 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.

So.... 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 (or we are told) we need, actually serve its purpose? And very importantly, how easy is it to use?


CUBE-GX Guitar Amps with iOS Connectivity - Roland U.S. Blog
Roland produce an ever popular range of small amps


'What amp should I buy?' Is a question I get asked a lot from electric guitar students. 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 are more likely to help you keep your fingers on the frets, but can also be distracting rather than being useful in your practice sessions... and you end up spending more time messing around to get specific sounds than practicing that new set of chords or scales..

Some of the advertising, even in reviews, dwell on the quality of the multitude of amp types, 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 generally what kind of things would be useful in a practice amplifier:

 - simplicity
 - small size/portability
 - headphone socket for quiet practice
 - a decent clean tone
 - a decent overdrive sound
 - straightforward EQ controls
 - a good quality authentic sounding reverb
 - connections - inputs and outputs: main in, headphone socket, auxiliary input etc.
 - good speaker quality at low/modest volume
 
                                          Fender Amp Mustang I V2 Combo: Amazon.co.uk: Musical Instruments

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.  Basically it is form of short, direct recording. The looper should have an auto-quantise feature so any slight timing slips 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 along to backing tracks, recordings 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: 1/8" socket for play along device (phone, mp3 player, tablet etc). Note a number of amplifiers are now adding the option to connect by bluetooth instead of/as well as a 1/8" socket.

  - 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 often available separately as a smartphone app but still need to be played through something so it can be heard, usually the practice amp's auxiliary input, and in some cases through Bluetooth.

  - 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. 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)

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

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

 - 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 as above. 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.


                                             
Orange Crush Mini 3-Watt Guitar Combo Amp | PMT Online
** 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!

 - 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... to be honest they are the icing on the cake, it's pretty rare that only a certain, very 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/touch wah etc (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:

Well established small combo amps with varying amounts of practice aids/features:


Hifi - doubles as a mini PA, or sound system:


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

  • Yamaha THR 10 (&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 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.

                            amPlug 2 - Vox Amps

Personal favourites:
 - Vox Mini5 Rhythm - small, loud (5w), great sound, separate mic input, onboard drum loops, 1/8 inch auxiliary input, 'phones output, mains or battery powered. Suitable for busking, practice, small gigs. 

 - Roland Cube 40XL - great sounds, loud (40w), good modulation FX, built in looper, 4 channels, 1/8 inch auxiliary input, 'phones output. Suitable for small to medium size gigs too. Only available second hand (been superceded by the 40GX model, which doesn't have a looper). Check eBay etc.

Useful online review of mini guitar amps here from Guitar Brain: 
The 13 Best Mini Portable Guitar Amps

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!