Our panel of pro guitarists offers hard-won advice on pairing your electric guitar with an amp that’ll do it justice.
Whether you play blues, rock, punk, country, jazz, funk, or something else entirely, you’ve got to have the right guitar and amp combo to make the magic happen. But with over 2,000 electric guitars and 900 amps to choose from at Musician’s Friend alone, creating just the right rig can look like a daunting challenge. However, it doesn’t have to be. We asked five professional guitarists about their preferred combinations and how you can find your own.
Where to start
Opinions differ on where to begin when finding the best amp and guitar combo. Most guitarists recommend starting with your instrument; a vocal minority focus on first finding the right amp.
Guns N’ Roses and Art of Anarchy guitarist and producer Ron Thal (better known as Bumblefoot) has been honing his craft since the early 1980s. His newest project, Art of Anarchy’s eponymous debut album, just dropped in early June. In addition to playing, he has a passion for teaching and will be at a clinic in Greece next month. His attitude towards pairing guitars and amps is distinctly modern, but one tempered by his early solo career in the ‘80s.
First consider the sound and style that best reflects the majority of how you like to sound - scooped, distorted thrash metal? Punchy, warm blues? Consider the character of the guitar and pickups, keeping in mind that you can change your pickups to further fit the direction you want to go. I want… warm classic mid tones and modern hi-gain energy.
Lower output pickups will sound more raw and organic; higher output pickups will be more consistent. Then [you should] pick the amp that best completes the sound.
Will Kimbrough, multi-instrumentalist, solo artist, producer and member of Willie Sugarcapps, has a lengthy list of collaborators that reads like the guest list to the Americana Music Awards’ official after party. The Alabama Gulf Coast native takes the same approach to pairing guitars and amps as he does to his music: sticking with the roots.
My taste runs to the roots of rock n’ roll: blues, gospel, rockabilly, country. Of course I love my Zep, Stones, Beatles, Kinks and Who. And that's why I love the combination of just about any electric guitar with a Fender amp. My mainstays in the world of Fender are the Deluxe Reverb and the Princeton Reverb. I own a Tweed Deluxe too.
Go hear Nashville's top players, and you'll see Fender combos on stages and in studios because they too need to cover the bases of roots music and classic rock n’ roll. Kenny Vaughan, Guthrie Trapp, Big Al Anderson—they're getting those great old tones.
I love small amps with reverb and tremolo…I always feel good about recommending these amps with any guitar, and for most styles—not for metal, of course, where you're getting into much higher amp gain. But if you need to cover the bases between classic rockabilly, country, blues, gospel, and classic rock n’ roll, these amps will serve you well on stage and in the studio.
Trust your ears
Paul Masvidal is currently touring the East Coast with his progressive metal band Cynic. The band’s debut album Focus back in 1993 is widely considered a defining prog metal album. Cynic still tours heavily on both sides of the pond, most recently in support of their newest album, Kindly Bent to Free Us.
It always begins and ends with trusting your own ears. My advice would be to learn what it is about certain guitar tones that inspire or interest you and discover how that tone can best manifest through the right amp.
Masvidal takes a very practical view on finding the best combo, recommending taking breaks when searching for that sweet spot to fight ear fatigue. He also acknowledges the difficulty—even after more than fifteen years in Cynic—of finding the perfect tone.
Finding the perfect tone is much like trying to write the perfect song, it doesn't exist. It's more about the journey and being open to what you discover through your own curiosity and effort.
Cowboy Mouth guitarist Matt Jones has played Paul Reed Smith guitars for decades. No doubt you can catch a look at his rig as they tour the country this summer. His mainstay is a PRS single cut, but he acknowledges what is right to his ears may not be right for everyone.
It all comes down to what feels right for the player. When you sit down with the right guitar mixed with the right amp you just know. It is like connecting with a pitch in baseball. You know right away if you hit a home run.
Bumblefoot has his own line of signature guitars by Vigier, but the most important parts of his sound are his DiMarzio pickups—a Tone Zone in the bridge position and a Chopper in the neck—and Engl amplifiers.
I personally prefer lower output pickups with a hi-gain tube amp, matching the more natural guitar sound being energized by the amp. Some prefer active high output pickups into a solid state amp. We each have our own voice…have fun finding yours!
James Mead, guitarist and founding member of the Christian rock band Kutless, is also no stranger to custom instruments. He prefers Elliott guitars, but like Bumblefoot, he focuses heavily on pickups.
They are handmade in America, and Andy [Elliott] makes everything himself, including the pickups (a combination of a P90 and a wide range humbucker) and even the brass saddles in the bridge! I also use another Jazzmaster guitar, a heavily customized Fender Jazzmaster with a Mastery bridge, McNelly 46/58 Pickups, and a custom made neck from Rust Guitars in NYC.
There is no reason why musicians on a budget can’t customize their own guitar, maybe experimenting with pickups as Bumblefoot mentions. Paul Masvidal knows that experimentation and exploration are just as important as the destination when it comes to tone.
I never know what I'm going to encounter until I get in there and start exploring. So it's often quite an unpredictable process and I never quite know where I'll end up.
Matt Jones sums up the experimental attitude of today’s musicians when it comes to guitar and amp combinations.
I don't believe in limiting a player to a certain brand based on what they play. Some of the coolest tones on records have come from oddball mismatches. Pave new ground and do it loud.
Make it your own
At the end of the day no one but you will know the combination of guitar and amp that best suits your needs. Even your favorite guitarist may prefer (or be able to afford) a very different stage rig than yours, so don’t be afraid to set your own course. Explore the various guitar buying guides from Musician’s Friend, as well as the amp buying guides within our Live Sound Buying Guides section to begin your search for the ideal sound.
And for Gibson fans considering a pickup swap, check out our tech tip about installing Gibson pickups in Epiphone Guitars.