4 Tiny, Powerful Combo Amps

As much as guitar players are in love with the sounds that big amps make, most of us are not in love with lugging them around. It's something we tolerate, reminding ourselves that the only way to get the big tone is with the big amp, and that this is just one of many ways we suffer for our art. Also, it's sometimes the only real exercise we get (besides lifting pints), and we wouldn't want what little muscle tone we've managed to develop tossing 4x12 cabs around to wither away, now would we? Of course not. If we're being honest with ourselves though, most of us secretly wish that we could get the “brutalest tonez” from something that was both easier to carry, and didn't require a van or U-Haul trailer to move from place to place. Imagine if we could just sling a guitar over our back, snatch up a briefcase-sized powerhouse of tone, and head out the door to the gig, perhaps walking, riding a bike, or at most, driving a compact car, leaving the van and the heavy lifting to the drummers. Sounds dreamy, doesn't it? Well amigos, wakey-wakey, because the dream is real. Recent advancements in amplifier design—specifically the solid-state variety—has made possible a whole swarm of tiny, adorable guitar amps that will absolutely melt your face off without breaking a sweat, and sound damn good doing it. Here are a few of our favorite firebreathing miniature monsters of tone:

ZT Amplifiers Lunchbox

The engineering geniuses at ZT Amplifiers, a Berkeley, California company that's been on the scene since 2008, are positively obsessed with shrunken guitar amps that don't trade size for sonics. The company's whole line is quite wee, and its most well-known product, the Lunchbox combo amp, is indeed the size of a standard Hello Kitty lunch box. It's sound, however, is shockingly large, rich, and tube-like. That's quite a feat for any amp with a 6.5-inch speaker, much less a sub-ten pound solid-state combo that could fit in a small backpack. Hearing one for the first time, it's difficult for one's brain to reconcile the sound happening in the room with the source of said sound. It's fairly amazing. Despite its cuteness, however, the Lunchbox packs 200 watts of tasty Class A/B tone juice, with knobs for tone, volume, gain, and ambience (which is an open-back cab simulation, rather than a standard reverb). Output is plentiful, and the gain range goes from sparkling clean, to rich saturation, to chunky classic rock crunch (especially with humbuckers). The tones are superb, and nothing at all what one would expect from any solid-state amp, much less one this small. On top of that, the Lunchbox takes pedals like a champ, responding just like a good tube amp would. ZT Amplifiers have made quite the name for themselves with this little beast, and devotees include Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Gibbons, and Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

Quilter MicroPro 200

Pat Quilter, founder of QSC Audio Products, and now Quilter Labs, is a man who knows solid-state amplifier design like few others do, using it to create spectacularly compact, lightweight, and toneful guitar amplifiers. Quilter specializes in what is called "switchmode," or "Class D" solid-state technology, a newer evolution of solid-state amplification that has seen prior use in pro audio, car audio, and audiophile systems, but has only just begun to become a regular in the woefully behind-the-times world of guitar amps. Besides delivering tons of power, extremely efficient operation, and very light weight, Quilter's Class D amps have a very tube-like tone and responsiveness that should quiet a lot of crusty old anti-solid-state naysayers. The MicroPro 200 series comes in 8-inch, 10-inch, or 12-inch combos (or in head and cab form), and even the eight-incher, at 200 watts and 19 pounds, can put the hurt on just about any sub-60-watt tube combo. Its intended to be a travel-ready Swiss Army Knife of sorts, and while you probably won't be able to open a bottle of chardonnay in the field with it, the MicroPro 200 can handle just about anything else one might want to do with it. Besides its full range of active tone controls, built-in limiter, and extensive boost, drive, and 'verb functions, it features five modes based on various classic tone profiles. In addition, Quilter amps are ideal vehicles for pedal fanatics, as these amplifiers take effects in the front end (or the effects loop, if you're into that) extremely well. It’s even got a combo-jack XLR mic input!

Roland Cube Series

This series of amps from Roland, now offered in a broad range of sizes and wattages, is an industry benchmark in compact, powerful, and highly affordable guitar amplifiers. Despite looking rather...umm...cubic and utilitarian, the Cube series amps are very well-made and are stuffed full of excellent tones and effects derived from Roland's well-known COSM modeling technology. These are great amps for any player that needs one small amp to do it all, from jamming along with the iPod, to full-band rehearsals and traveling gigs where larger, fancier amps would be both impractical and subject to abuse. The Cube is one tough travel buddy. Naturally, it’s outfitted with COSM versions of the classic Roland JC-120 amp and its delicious chorus circuit, but it also features some rad tweed and British distortion tones, as well as reverb, delay, phaser, flanger, octave, and tremolo, among other things. One wouldn't necessarily expect this sort of amp to be friendly with pedals, but the Cube is, in fact, an excellent platform for the pedal person on the move, handling even gnarly fuzz tones with the greatest of ease.

Polytone Mini-Brute

Founded in 1968 by accordionist Tommy Gumina, Polytone is the original maker of the lightweight, powerful, highly portable guitar amplifier. These compact solid-state combos have historically been known as THE amps for jazz guitar (and bass...and accordion), with George Benson, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, Jim Hall, and just about every other jazz virtuoso on the planet taking advantage of the Brute's warm clean tones, ample output, and travel-ready size at one time or another. The Brute's Spartan design ain't much to look at, but the tone is all classic jazz. The company itself has always been somewhat enigmatic, with few dealers and little apparent interest in marketing and sales, so finding a new Polytone may be impossible, but they are widely available used, usually for a few hundred bucks.

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