Any metal fan will tell you that there is nothing quite like the roar of a guitar through a high-gain amplifier. The guitar is one of the driving forces of metal. Whatever the style of metal, a thick and distorted guitar tone is crucial to the power of metal.
The guitar sound that most people think of as being “metal” can’t be obtained with just any gear. While guitar pickups and other gear can have an effect, the most important factor is a quality amplifier that can provide a good high-gain distortion.
Guitar tones and taste in amplifiers vary from player to player. When I set out on this search for the best high-gain amp, I wanted to find the best amp for metal players in general, rather than just the best amp for me.
I tested almost two dozen amplifiers. Amplifiers were used at various volume levels, in solo and band situations, and at varying distortion levels. I have played a number of these amps in both live shows and recording sessions.
I also observed other musicians to narrow the list. I also researched artists associated with each model to find their opinions and preferences.
Choosing the Right Amplifier
Deciding to buy an amplifier is easy, but deciding which amp to buy may not be. With so many options and features available, it is best to know exactly what you want when shopping for an amplifier. Let’s break it down into sections.
Tubes, Solid State, or Modeling?
Tube amplifiers use vacuum tubes to amplify the guitar signal. Traditionally, it has always seemed that tube amplifiers are the solid preference of professional guitar players. Many players prefer the sound of a tube amp, and for good reason.
The classic cranked amplifier sound that we all know is a smooth, musical distortion that many believe can only be achieved with tubes. Budget is something to be considered before buying an amplifier, taking into account the purchase itself and future maintenance costs.
As the majority of the electronics world has moved on from tubes to solid state, tube prices have risen. Tube amps also tend to be more exwpensive than their counterparts, but they remain hugely popular due to their incredible tone.
Tube amps are more sensitive than solid state amps, allowing for varying tones based on how hard or soft you play from moment to moment. If you want high volume, a tube amp is the natural choice.
At comparable power ratings, tube amps are louder than solid state. I prefer tube amps and feel they are the better choice sonically, as long as the budget can handle the expense.
Instead of using tubes, solid state amplifiers amplify the guitar signal through the use of electronics such as diodes and transistors. Solid state amps are usually much more affordable than tube amps, and they are more reliable in general.
It is more common to experience a problem with a tube than with a solid state component. While I do not see that increased risk of an issue to be a deal-breaker, it is something to keep in mind when choosing an amp.
While solid state amps are not well-known for distorted tones, they excel when it comes to powerful clean tones. That being said, the late Dimebag Darrell (of Pantera and Damageplan) greatly preferred the distorted tone of his solid state amplifiers.
Hybrid amplifiers are an option that has entered the amp world in recent years. These amplifiers combine the technologies of both tubes and solid state.
Tubes are used in the preamp section to provide some of the overdrive and distortion for which tube amps are known. However, solid state components are used in the power amp section.
This allows for a lower cost, reduced tube expenses, and often an overall smaller footprint. While hybrid amps don’t sound exactly like tube amps, I think many hybrids sound great and are an excellent compromise.
Modeling amps are one of the newest entries into the world of amplifiers. This type of amp uses digital technology to emulate the sound of a tube amp, often allowing a player to model the amp’s tone after a specific tube amplifier.
Some modeling amps will even emulate the tone based on variables such as speaker cabinets and specific speakers. A player can program the sound of a 100W Marshall through an open-back 4×12 cabinet loaded with Celestion 30W speakers, with the resulting tone coming out a 60W modeling combo amp.
Some players feel the emulations are lacking in comparison to the real thing, but it is an amazing technology that is advancing continually.
Some of these amplifier types may be a better choice than the others, depending on the player’s needs. If the player has the ability to crank the volume to reach heavy tube saturation, a tube amp will deliver an amazing metal tone.
A bedroom player who wishes not to anger the neighbors may want to choose a solid state or modeling amplifier, or perhaps a hybrid to include some tube sounds.
Combo or Head and Cabinet?
When buying an amplifier, the choice of configuration should be based on a few important details. Some players may prefer a combo amp, while others will opt for a separate head and speaker cabinet. I use both, depending on the situation.
A combo amp is an all-in-one amplifier, a combination of head and speaker cabinet as one unit. Years ago, combo amps were limited to home use, recording sessions, and very small gigs.
They just did not have the power to deliver enough sound for bigger venues. But many manufacturers now produce more powerful combo amps, and it is not uncommon to see them on stages.
Despite their smaller size, combo amps can be quite heavy. Even so, many players still consider them more portable than separate heads and cabinets. Speaker configurations vary in combo amps, with the most common being one or two 12” speakers.
Metal players usually love to play at high volume, and you can frequently see amplifier heads with separate cabinets on stages. These are often referred to as “stacks.” A full stack is a head and two cabinets with four 12” speakers each (4×12).
A half stack is a head with one 4×12 cabinet. Other cabinet configurations are available. I usually play through a 2×15. Using a separate head and cabinet can be less convenient than using a combo.
An amplifier head can weigh as much as a combo by itself, and many speaker cabinets are fairly heavy.
The separate components will require multiple trips into a venue or studio, while a player may be able to carry a guitar and combo amp at the same time. If you have to frequently move your gear, considering a combo amp is worthwhile.
Cabinet design has an effect on the sound. A closed back cabinet is completely enclosed. An open back cabinet is not completely enclosed, with the back usually in two parts with an opening between. Closed back cabinets tend to have a greater bass response than open back cabinets.
More Power is Better, Right? Not Necessarily.
When buying an amplifier, a player needs to choose the right tool for the job. This is especially true when it comes to the power rating.
In an apartment, it would be unlikely that a 100W stack could ever be used to its full potential. At a gig with a loud drummer, a 5W amp would be buried and probably difficult to hear, even for those on the stage.
Amplifiers with higher wattages are most commonly used when playing live. A live performance provides an environment in which enough volume is possible to really use the power.
Low-wattage amps are useful at venues in which the sound engineer will mic the amp, but they truly shine in the studio or home. They can be turned up loud enough to get a great tone, while not being so loud that a neighborhood mob is formed. I prefer to record with a low-wattage tube amplifier.
Although volume is an important factor, the amplifier’s power rating has an even more significant effect on a player’s tone. An amplifier with a high power rating will provide more clean headroom.
Headroom is the amount of volume available before tube saturation and signal compression begin. An amp with a lot of clean headroom will not produce a distorted tone until it is at a very high volume. A low-wattage amp will not have much headroom and will distort at low volumes.
Even though the sound of a distorted guitar tone is a staple of metal, many players also like to use clean tones. This can produce a complex issue. You want enough power to reach your desired clean volume, but you also want to be able to get a nice distorted tone from your amp.
Also, high-wattage amps almost always have a better low end, or “thump,” than low-wattage amps. While some players choose to use more powerful amps and obtain distorted tones through the use of effects pedals, I prefer to choose 50W-60W amps as a good compromise.
Other Features and Options
Many amplifiers will include additional features, and these will vary from amp to amp. When deciding between two similar amplifiers, these extra features should be considered.
Many amplifiers include an on-board reverb unit. Spring reverb units can deliver a very natural sound. Some amps include digital reverb units. While spring units are used in both tube and solid state amplifiers, digital units are found most often in solid state and modeling amps.
Players who like to easily switch between a variety of tones may want to purchase a multi-channel amp. One and two channel amps are the most common, although amps with three or more channels are available.
Multiple channels allow a player to easily switch between clean and distorted tones, or between a few distorted tones. Channel switching is usually accomplished with a footswitch, which may or may not be included.
To truly take advantage of multiple channels, it is best to have independent EQ controls for each channel.
Effects loops are output and input jacks that allow a player to connect outboard effects between the amplification stages. Most effects pedals are usually placed in the signal chain before the amplifier.
Effects such as overdrive perform best this way. Some modulation effects such as digital delay sound better when run through the effects loop. Using the loop avoids the preamp section amplifying any noise or distorting the sound of the effect.
Some amplifiers include built-in effects other than reverb. The types of effects vary depending on the manufacturer. Some Fender amps are known for having an excellent tremolo. Ibanez has produced amps with a built-in version of the company’s legendary Tube Screamer.
Modeling amplifiers often include numerous effects emulations, allowing a player to virtually build a rather complex rig. Using built-in effects can provide an all-in-one solution, but the ability to precisely adjust each effect is sometimes lacking.
Additional output jacks are common features in amplifiers. Outputs with speaker emulation are becoming more common as home recording continues to grow in popularity.
External speaker outputs are a standard requirement on amp heads, of course. Combo amps frequently include these jacks now, allowing players to expand their rigs by adding additional speaker cabinets.
I do not consider the presence or absence of any of these additional features as critical to the purchase of an amplifier. Some of these are great to have, but it is not difficult to find external options for many of them. Don’t pay extra for these features unless you know you will use them.
After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.
|Offers as much volume and gain as any player might ever require|
|Delivers great classic metal tones|
|Had one tube-powered channel with no reverb or other effects||$2,599.99|
|Excelled in producing clean and distorted tones and could provide singing lead tones||$999.99|
|Possible to set it so every channel sounds good||$299.95|
|Offers two power levels of 15W and 7W||$649.00|
|Good-sounding tube amp at a good price||$699.99|
|Built by hand and are built to last||$140.25|
|Included an XLR jack to allow easy connection to a mixing board or PA system||Check on Amazon|
Our Recommendation: The Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier
The Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier is the best overall guitar amplifier for playing metal. It offers as much volume and gain as any player might ever require.
The Triple Rectifier can deliver up to 150W of power, providing an incredible amount of headroom. Its ample clean headroom helps this amp produce clean tones at volumes that would have most amps well into distortion.
It produces a wide range of distorted tones. Tones with even higher gain can be achieved by using an overdrive pedal, but many players will be more than happy with the amplifier’s natural distortion.
There are three channels, each with its own independent EQ controls. I like to set one channel to a clean tone, the second to a crunchy rhythm tone, and the third to a singing lead tone.
One of my favorite features is its ability to switch the power level from 150W to 50W. Using the 50W level, it is possible to push the power amp section without having to play at a painfully loud volume.
Players who enjoy the sound of overdriven power tubes will be able to get that tone more easily than they would in the 150W mode. Another excellent feature is its versatile effects loop. The usual features are present, of course: send jack, return jack, level control.
The Triple Rectifier also includes a rotary switch to select whether the loop is active or bypassed, as well as to choose whether the loop effects all channels or only one specific channel.
I find this very useful. I really enjoy being able to place a delay in the loop to only affect the clean channel, keeping the other distorted channels tight and crunchy.
Players that enjoy playing with reverb will need to use an outboard source in the effects loop. This is not a major concern for me. I enjoy a bit of reverb on a clean tone, but rarely use it when playing metal.
For a player looking for an amp that consistently deliver great modern metal tones, this amp is the one. If the goal is a more classic metal tone, other amps may be considered.
The Triple Rectifier’s controls can easily be tweaked to find just the right sound. Mesa/Boogie has built a reputation on building great-sounding amplifiers, with bands like Metallica making them part of their signature sounds.
Pricing for the Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier starts at just over $2,000. Those players who are willing and able to buy this amp will be rewarded with the ability to play with many fantastic metal tones.
The Runner Up: Laney GH50R
Second place in this battle of the metal amps goes to the Laney GH50R. Laney amps are not as well-known or as widely used as some other amps I tested, but they are excellent amps for playing metal. The GH50R delivers great classic metal tones.
A unique feature of the GH50R is the addition of controls to control power tube saturation. Many players never get to experience the sound of power tube saturation because it occurs at high volume levels. The GH50R includes a control to increase power amp output while maintaining a reasonable volume.
The GH50R is also unusual in that it has two truly independent channels. With most amplifiers, each channel is designed for a specific purpose. Amplifiers will usually have a clean channel and at least one distortion/overdrive channel.
The GH50R has two channels that can be set however the user wishes. I appreciate the possibilities in having two clean channels, two distorted channels, or one channel for each.
The GH50R includes digital reverb. I would have preferred a spring reverb, but still, consider this as a good feature as many Laney amps do not include reverb.
The Laney GH50R is priced around $1,000 for the head alone and approximately $1,500 for the combo version. I feel either version would be a great choice for a player who seeks versatility along with classic metal tones.
The Marshall JCM 800 is a fantastic 100W amplifier for playing classic rock. Used with an overdrive pedal to increase the gain, it is the best Marshall amp for metal. The JCM 800 is a no-frills amp. It had one tube-powered channel with no reverb or other effects.
The JCM 800 2203 is a new re-issue that retains the glorious sound of the original. The tone can be heard in the majority of metal songs from the 1980s. If you do not like that tone, this is probably not the amp for you.
This amp really needs a boost or overdrive pedal to get into metal territory, which some players may consider a negative. Cranking the volume and boosting with an overdrive pedal will produce a great metal tone, but few players will be able to use this amp at the resulting volume level.
I actually prefer this amp for hard rock tones, which I think it does exceptionally well. This classic Marshall sound is not inexpensive. With prices starting around $2,600, some players may find the cost a bit too steep for this amp.
Peavey based the 6505+ on their legendary 5150 line of amplifiers. The 6505+ is a good amplifier, but it may disappoint anyone who believes this will be a cheaper 5150. The 5150 excelled in producing clean and distorted tones and could provide singing lead tones.
The 6505+ is just satisfactory at all of those tones; it’s not bad, but it is not great. It has 120W of power, so it is very loud.
Unless a player is using this on sizable stages, it is unlikely that this amp will ever be used to its full potential. There is a significant amount of background noise, even on the clean channel.
There have been numerous reports of quality control issues, especially with the electronics. If not for these problems, the 6505+ would be a good value at approximately $875 for the head or $700 for the combo version.
I love tube amps. I feel that solid state amps lack the warmth found in the tone of a tube amp. That said, I was impressed with the RG1003H. It is designed for the metal guitarist.
The clean channel is not particularly clean, yielding more of a slightly overdriven tone. The high-gain channels are thick and crunchy, but I doubt many players would mistake their sounds for the roars of good tube amps.
It would be nice if each channel had an independent EQ, but it is possible to set it so every channel sounds good. At a retail price of around $300, the RG1003H is an excellent value. It should get serious consideration from any guitarist who is interested in a solid state metal amp.
The Dark Terror is a high-gain “lunchbox” amplifier. Unlike many similarly sized amps, it is an all-tube amplifier. I like this amp, and I recommend it, with some reservations.
The Dark Terror offers two power levels of 15W and 7W. This makes it a practice or recording amp for me, as it may have trouble being heard over a powerful drummer.
It has no EQ controls other than a “Shape” knob. The Dark Terror definitely has more than enough gain for metal. Stoner rock or doom metal players will love this amp for its thick, loose bass response.
Those players looking for a more precise metal tone will have to use an overdrive pedal or EQ pedal to tighten up the low end. The Dark Terror is small and easy to carry, which are things not often said about tube amps.
It is reasonably priced for an all-tube amp, usually selling for less than $650.
I looked into the Bugera TriRec, considering it possibly to be a budget version of the Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier. While it is not a perfect copy, it is a good-sounding tube amp at a good price, though it seriously lacks the low-end power.
For players in search of a tighter distortion, this could be a feature rather than a flaw. The TriRec has a Varipower dial that scales the output power from 1W to 100W. However, this amp is still louder than “bedroom volume” at the low end of the scale.
The tone also seems to greatly suffer as the output power is scaled down. Bugera has a history of customer complaints in regard to quality control. Many players have reported excessive noise, failed components, and even new but non-working amps.
Unfortunately, I have seen similar reports for the TriRec. I hesitate to recommend an amplifier from a company with such known issues.
This is unfortunate, because the TriRec sells for around $700. That would be a great deal for a hand-wired amp that delivers much of the Mesa/Boogie sound for one-third of the price.
The SLO100 is an incredible amplifier. Its clean tones are warm and full. The SLO100 is revered for its distorted tones, ranging from bluesy overdrive to extremely crunchy metal tones.
The natural compression of the SLO100 is disliked by some players, but it is what gives this amp the singing sustain for which it is known. The sound of the SLO100 can vary greatly depending on the speakers used with it, so it is a good idea to try it with various cabinets and speakers to find the best combination.
Soldano amplifiers are built by hand and are built to last. They even come with a lifetime transferable warranty: Soldano guarantees your amplifier even if you bought it used.
Any player who loves classic metal tones should play through this amp at least once. I feel the SLO100 is one of the finest amps ever built, but it comes with a price to match that status. The Soldano SLO100 commonly sells for over $4,000.
Modeling amplifiers have greatly improved in recent years. The Peavey Vypyr Pro 100 is among the best, with significant improvements over even the other amps in the Vypyr line. Many of its models are convincing emulations of popular amps.
Other models are not impressive. This is not surprising. A modeling amp often turns out to be a jack of all trades but master of none. It is difficult to do so many things and do them all well.
Still, it is a great choice for a player who wants a modeling amp. For someone who has little experience with this type of amplifier, there is a bit of a learning curve. This is acceptable, considering there are over 100 different models of amplifiers, instruments, effects, reverbs and delays available.
I find it less acceptable that the Sanpera Pro foot controller is needed to fully utilize the Vypyr Pro, and yet it is not included. This amp is fun, especially when playing with the instrument models such as the sitar and electric violin.
Peavey included an XLR jack to allow easy connection to a mixing board or PA system. But they were mistaken in not also including a speaker output jack to allow the Vypyr Pro to be used with an additional cabinet.
- Guitar World Staff. (2014, June 16). Dimebag Darrell Talks ‘Far Beyond Driven,’ Amps and More: Previously Unreleased 1994 Interview. Retrieved from http://www.guitarworld.com/dimebag-darrell-talks-far-beyond-driven-amps-and-more-previously-unreleased-1994-interview
- Englund, O. [Ola Englund]. (2011, May 26). Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier – Playthrough [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kebaRe2AOOA
- Tolinski, B. (2012, November 20). Interview: James Hetfield Discusses Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’. Retrieved from http://www.guitarworld.com/interview-james-hetfield-discusses-metallicas-death-magnetic