An Expert Guide to Boutique Amps

I frequently receive messages from guitarists who are in the market for something new in a boutique amp, but are baffled by the broad selection available today. We thought it would be a good idea, therefore, to devote some space here to exploring some of the boutique brands currently operating in the amp space today.

Below, we'll dig into each company's history a bit and, most importantly, highlight some of the brands' best models and explore what they're good at. This list isn't exhaustive by any means, but it's a good overview of some of the most popular boutique amp companies worth checking out.

Dr. Z Amps


Dr. Z Amps

Founded in 1988, Dr. Z has long been one of the biggest names on the boutique scene, and several key factors have helped to keep it that way. The amps are hand-wired using high-quality components yet they sell at prices somewhat below the average for the breed, they are consistently reliable, they are relatively simple to use and to dial in, and they sound great.

The Dr. Z lineup is broad with plenty of diversity, but the amps tent to be linked by certain signature characteristics of clarity, punchiness, and playing dynamics—and perhaps an equal blending of British and American voicings. While you can cop plenty of classic tones on Dr. Z amps, this maker doesn’t offer copies or clones of any vintage amps and instead develops original circuits aimed at achieving specific voices that are of use to the contemporary professional guitarist. Dr. Z amps are also frequently applauded for how well they pair with effects, making them go-to pedal platforms many gearheads.

Asked if he has any over-arching build philosophy, Dr. Z’s Mike Zaite told me he strove to "not over-process the signal, but just give a nice, broad bandwidth and let the player’s fingers be the manager… Make something that’s reliable, and simple, and bring it in at a great price."

  • Key Model: Carmen Ghia (as well as the Maz 18)
  • Recommended For: Juicy cranked-up EL84 tones with a lot of touch sensitivity, where lower volumes and a compact platform are desired.
  • Famous Users: Brad Paisley, Buddy Whittington

Fryette


fryette amps for sale

Fryette Amplification is based in Los Angeles, where former pro guitarist Steve Fryette made a name for himself repairing and modding amps on the kicking musical scene of the ’80s and early ’90s after departing his native Seattle. Fryette founded VHT in the late ’80s (only changing his brand name to his own surname a few years ago), and quickly developed a reputation for scorching preamps linked to bold, punchy power amps, which together made a major splash on the contemporary rock scene.

The majority of Fryette’s amps are built on quality printed-circuit-boards. Today, Fryette offers a select yet diverse palette of flavors, from super high-gain channel switchers to meaty old-school single-channel amps, and all are known for their impressive signal purity and useful versatility. When you need an amp with three channels that each run the gamut of vintage to modern voices, footswitchable boosts and FX loops, and a plethora of back-panel connectivity, Fryette is a good place to look.

  • Key Model: Sig X
  • Recommended For: Modern high-gain rock and metal, especially where big power and optimum versatility is required.
  • Famous Users: David Torn, Page Hamilton

Soldano


soldano amps for sale

One of the first big post-Boogie names on the California hot-rod scene, Michael Soldano still enjoys a reputation as one of the most talented designers of high-gain contemporary rock amps. Soldano entered the game in 1987 on the back of his hugely popular Super Lead Overdrive (SLO). The brand released the ferocious Decatone in 1997 to celebrate his 10th anniversary, and is still going strong with a wide range of offerings, from the small but mighty Astroverb 16 to a selection of 100-watters such as the Lucky 13 and Avenger (while still producing the popular SLO, Decatone and others).

Flavor-wise, Soldano amps are very much "American rock," and to that end, he mostly favors 6L6 output tubes to get the job done. Construction is of the printed-circuit-board variety, but done to a high standard with quality components and thick, robust boards.

  • Key Model: SLO
  • Recommended For: Contemporary American high-gain tones plus respectable cleans, where a ton of output power is needed.
  • Famous Users: Mark Knopfler, Steve Vai, George Lynch

Swart


swart amps for sale

The clever, compact, and groovily space-retro creations of Michael Swart have frequently been the choice of guitarists demanding a lot in a little bitty package. Working out of Wilmington, NC, Swart is a long-time musician and recording studio owner who took to building his own amps to achieve what he was looking for in the studio. His work is best recognized for the throwback Valco-like cabinets that house most of his combos, and for the ton of tone and features they squeeze into a small package (witness the single-ended ST-Atomic Jr with tube-driven reverb, and all weighing in at just 18 lbs).

The Atomic Space Tone has long been the flagship of the brand—offering 15 watts of 6V6-generated tube tone, tube-driven tremolo and reverb, and a single 12-inch speaker all in a 18x15.5x9.5-inch package weighing just 29 lbs—but the lineup now also includes the dual-6L6-powered, 45-watt Space Tone Forty-Five, a true-stereo dual-single-ended ST-Stereo head, and other variations on the theme. All are distinctly Yank-leaning tone-wise, and are built with hand wired circuits throughout.

  • Key Model: Atomic Space Tone
  • Recommended For: Players seeking über-compact grab’n’go functionality in a great-sounding 15-watt tube combo with tremolo and reverb.
  • Famous Users: Jeff Tweedy, Dean Wareham, Matthew Sweet

Two Rock


Two Rock amps for sale

Bill Krinard and Joe Mloganoski founded California-based Two-Rock Amplification in 1999 in a quest to achieve extremely clear and articulate clean tones and creamy Dumble-like overdrive, using ultra-high-end components and construction. The pair sold an amp to Carlos Santana while the company was still in its infancy, and quickly gathered a string of major players on its artists roster, developing a reputation as one of the premier makers at the upper echelon of the boutique market in the process.

Although they do make some relatively smaller 22-watt models in the Studio Pro series, Two-Rock is mainly known for its big, powerful 50- and 100-watters, which typically have footswitchable overdrive channels and useful extra performance features such as buffered effects loops, added FET preamp stages, and other extras.

The company continues to evolve and several of its earlier models have been retired, but the current lineup remains comprehensive. Two Rock has also made a point of offering amps that are optimized for players who use front-end effects for their overdrive and distortion tones, such as the Sensor range, which includes 22-, 50- and 100-watt heads.

  • Key Model: Classic Reverb
  • Recommended For: The full gamut from pristine cleans to thick, creamy overdrive, with useful performance features.
  • Famous Users: John Mayer, Matt Schofield, Steve Kimock

Carr


carr amps for sale

Rather than copying or updating the classics, Steve Carr of North Carolina’s Carr Amplifiers has long been dedicated to devising inspiringly original circuits and amp designs to achieve great tone and superb functionality for today’s guitarist. Carr amps shout "simplicity!" from the hilltops like Henry David Thoreau, yet every one carries performance features to help the modern gigging and recording guitarist achieve great tone in a range of venues.

The two-channel Slant 6V, for example, has a half-power mode to silence two of its four 6V6s (and fixed or cathode bias options within that), while the single-ended Mercury has a built-in attenuator to drop it from eight watts, to two, .5, or even a mere 1/10 of a watt. The Raleigh delivers three watts of juicy single-ended EL84 tone in a 1x10 combo for the home and studio player, while the more recent Skylark has won plaudits from the guitar community for its updated-Princeton vibe and performance. All Carr amps or entirely hand wired, using top-quality components, and each comes in a stylishly individual cab—many of which nail an extremely cool retro-modern aesthetic.

  • Key Model: Carr Rambler
  • Recommended For: Outstanding clean American-voiced 6L6 tones that still drive when necessary, with sweet reverb and tremolo and other performance features.
  • Famous Users: Jeff Tweedy, Bill Frisell, Neko Case, Charlie Hunter

Tone King


tone king amps for sale

Prior to founding Tone King Amplifier Company more than 20 years ago, Mark Bartel trained as an electrical engineer and worked building main-frame computers. An obsession with all things guitar got the better of him, however, and after building amps on the side for several years, he made tube electronics his full-time gig. Tone King amps are most known for their versatile update on the classic Fender black panel-inspired tone, although many incorporate a second channel that goes from tweed to Marshall for gnarlier lead tones—often with lush reverb and tremolo onboard too.

The current-day stable includes the MkII rendition of the 20-watt Imperial (Tone King’s first production model), the versatile Sky King, the diminutive Falcon, and the Fender-inspired Gremlin, which nails a great rendition of classic Marshall tones updated for the performance needs of the contemporary player. Tone King uses high-quality printed circuit boards in the majority of its amps.

  • Key Model: Imperial MkII
  • Recommended For: Players who might have used a Deluxe Reverb many years ago, but seek a broader palette of tones and greater performance versatility.
  • Famous Users: Lou Reed, Colin Hay, Pat Wilson, Mark Knopfler

Victoria


victoria amps for sale

The quest to achieve authentic tweed tone in a new amp available to today’s players led Mark Baier to found Victoria Amp Company just outside Chicago in 1994. In the process, Baier tracked down original transformer designs and followed precise vintage circuits, and—by most guitarist’s reckoning—achieved extremely accurate renditions of the rich tone and superb touch sensitivity of those valuable Fender amps of the 1950s.

The Victoria stable runs the gamut of "narrow-panel" tweed amp models, from the Champ-esque 518 to the high-powered Twin-style 80212, while also doing a great rendition of the fabled late-’50s Gibson GA-40 Les Paul amp in its Electro King combo. The Regal II is a dual-single-ended combo with reverb and tremolo capable of using a wide variety of octal output tubes, both singly and in pairs, to go from around five watts to more than 30. The Golden Melody sounds like the ideal "big American" amp of yesteryear, with 50 watts from two 6L6s, true harmonic vibrato and lush tube-driven spring reverb, all in a gorgeous 2x12 combo.

  • Key Model: Double Deluxe
  • Recommended For: Players seeking the sweet simplicity of the original 5E3 Deluxe with more volume and headroom, in a 4x6V6 2x12 combo.
  • Famous Users: Jimmy Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, Keith Nelson, Buddy Guy

65 Amps


65 amps for sale

Team up one former guitarist and one current high-profile touring musician, make them both obsessive gearheads, and what do you get? 65 Amps, of course. Founded in the early 2000s by Dan Boul and Peter Stroud, this California company was born out of a quest to package vintage-grade tone with enhanced versatility and “vocabulary,” as Boul likes to put it. It has been a major player on the boutique scene ever since. Hand-wired circuit boards, Mercury Magnetics transformers, and other top-quality components signal 65’s commitment to first-class craftsmanship.

Many of the company’s early successes such as the London, the Soho, and the Lil’ Elvis leaned on Voxy EL84-derived British tones from the ’60s, but 65 Amps’ offerings aren’t limited to the right side of the pond. The Tupelo gushes with 6V6-based hot-rodded Fender-ish sounds, while the Ventura packs EF86-derived UK-meets-US tones into a fierce lunchbox-sized head.

The Producer EL and 6L amps (using EL34 and 6L6 tubes respectively) represent a revolutionary design in the large-amp cap—or, more accurately, aimed at attaining large-amp tone at useable volume levels. It uses a custom lower-voltage power transformer to achieve classic ’60s tones from modern tubes, while also extending tube life dramatically, with a Master Voltage circuit to retain full-bore overdrive at reduced volume levels.

  • Key Model: London
  • Recommended For: Stellar tones from two channels—one Voxy EF86, one Marshally 12AX7—with excellent clarity and dynamics.
  • Famous Users: Pat Buchanan, Matthew Sweet, Peter Stroud, Mark Goldenberg

Bad Cat


bad cat amps for sale

Keen to build high-quality amps in the vein nominally referred to as “Class A,” Bad Cat founder James Heidrich did his due diligence before starting up the company and, as he told me in the early 2000s, "All roads seemed to lead to Mark [Sampson, founder of Matchless]." Sampson had just left Matchless at the time and was able to come on as Bad Cat’s chief designer. Sampson soon went on to form his own company, Star, and Bad Cat branched out into several more original designs, while continuing with genuine point-to-point construction and super high-quality components for its top-shelf offerings.

The company was acquired by John Thompson and George and Judy Klimek in 2012, and the new team has won much praise for maintaining production standards while expanding the range. Originals like the Black Cat and Cub III have much evolved to include massive control flexibility, offering models in 15, 30, and 40 watts. The Hot Cat, meanwhile, has settled into place as a rocker’s favorite.

  • Key Model: Black Cat
  • Recommended For: Two superbly flexible Brit-flavored channels—one EF86, one 12AX7—with great build quality and superb cut-through-the-mix power.
  • Famous Users: Keith Urban, Derek St. Holmes (Ted Nugent), Johnny Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls), Jeremy Popoff (Lit)

Bogner


bogner amps for sale

Any amp company that puts out models with names like Ecstasy, Uberschall (also in pedal form), and Shiva is wearing its high-gain heart on its sleeve, and Bogner goes all-in and then some where heavy rocking is concerned. It was founded in LA in 1992 by German natives Reinhold Bogner and Jorg Dorschner—the former an amp-modder to the stars, the latter the originator of the popular Fish preamp.

From the start, the company was known for stacking up searing gain stages to suit the needs of shred maniacs and heavy rockers, and the above-named amps fit the bill to a "T." Production models have used a high-quality printed circuit board (PCB) topology for consistency, making Bogner one of several exceptions to the rule that a boutique amp needs to be “hand wired” (or, to be clear, Bogners are hand wired, but using well designed and constructed PCBs).

In addition to its massive annihilation machines, Bogner offers a lineup of simpler and somewhat more vintage-inspired amps in the Barcelona—a non-master-volume 40-watter based on dual EL34s. Unveiled in 2011, the superbly flexible two-channel Goldfinger has received plaudits for its surprisingly toothsome clean channel and clever switching and power-level options, while the newer Helios trawls through 25 years of Bogner history to present Reinhold’s best modded-Marshall tones.

  • Key Model: Shiva
  • Recommended For: Rockers who seek a bold, chimey clean channel alongside footswitable snarling, saturated lead tones.
  • Famous Users: Mark Goldenberg (Jackson Browne), Steve Lukather, Reeves Gabrels, Chris Degarmo (Queensryche)

Friedman Amplification


friendman amps for sale

Like several names among the boutique crowd, Dave Friedman established his reputation by modifying and hot-rodding amps, particularly Marshalls, and had several prominent clients (Steve Stevens and Edward Van Halen among them) before establishing his own line of ground-up amp designs. As you might expect, Friedman’s offerings therefore follow a generally Marshall-inspired theme, often incorporating as standard equipment the modifications that he added to original amps for more than 25 years.

The BE-100, Friedman's cornerstone, is a 100-watt, 4xEL34 beast with Clean and Gain channels with dual modes on the latter and plenty of voicing options, mostly aimed at nailing the ’80s high-gain Marshall tones. The PT-20 aims to do similarly incendiary tricks in a 2xEL84 20-watt package with just one channel and a simplified interface. Other playful offerings include the Buxom Betty—which aims to blend British and American tones in a more old-school, single-channel head—and the Dirty Shirley, kind of a gain-tweaked JTM45. All Friedman amps are hand wired using high-quality components.

  • Key Model: BE-100
  • Recommended For: Rockers seeking easy access to three flavors of classically inspired Marshall tone, from clean to scream.
  • Famous Users: Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains), Billy Duffy (The Cult), Phil X (Bon Jovi), Joe Bonamassa

Budda Amps


budda amps for sale

The purple menace was founded in California in 1995 by Jeff Bober, Scott Sier, and Dan van Riesen. The company quickly made a name for itself for its scorching lower-wattage amps in particular but has also put out some blisteringly powerful amps, too. Aside from the ubiquitous purple styling, Budda’s trademarks are simple but relatively high-gain front-ends and straightforward but effective tone-shaping. The amps are, in a way, vintage inspired, given their avoidance of excessive controls and gain-stage channel switching, but are also entirely contemporary not following any pre-existing designs in the least.

Sonically, they are known for their cranked, raw-edged lead tones and excellent touch-sensitivity. Internal construction mixes point-to-point and hand-wired circuit board construction with some sturdy PCB work to produce high-quality amps at reasonable prices, which translate to some astoundingly good deals on the used market.

Longstanding cornerstones such as the Twinmaster and Superdrive 18 use dual-EL84 output stages, the former allowing rhythm/lead selection via low and high inputs (the second adds a 12AX7 stage), while the latter has proper channel switching and still manages to keep things simple. The Superdrive 80 does the same tricks with the massive back end of four 6L6s or four 6550s. Although Budda was taken over by Peavey several years ago, the circuits and build ethos remain the same, and players who have tested pre- and post-Peavey models side by side tend to report that there’s no discernible difference.

  • Key Model: Twinmaster
  • Recommended For: Those seeking ‘punches-above-its-weight’ lead tones and superb touch sensitivity in a simple 18-watt amp.
  • Famous Users: Alex Skolnick, Charlie Sexton, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot

Suhr


suhr amps for sale

Best-known for guitars, Suhr has also become a major name in rugged, tuneful rock amps and seems to be steadily solidifying this side of the business. Histories of company founder John Suhr often talk about his time as a repairman at Rudy’s Music in New York, and the Pensa-Suhr guitar brand (which supplied guitars to Mark Knopfler among others) that followed. Suhr also partnered with audio designer Bob Bradshaw around the same time to design the acclaimed Custom Audio Electrics 3+ preamp and his work in the early 1990s focused more on amplifiers than guitars.

After a move to California and a stint in the Fender Custom Shop from 1995-’97, Suhr launched his own brand of guitars, and the amplifiers—featuring heady tube designs—followed hot on their heels. Bigger Suhr offerings—like the PT-100 Signature Edition for first-call sideman Pete Thorn and ML-100 for Michael Landau—tend to revolve around re-thinks of the EL-34-based Marshall rock sound, although the former is notable for its plethora of added features.

Popular offerings in smaller packages include the Badger 18 and 35, using cathode-biased pairs of EL84s and EL34s respectively. The Hedgehog 50 roars from the other side of the Atlantic with 50 watts of hot-rodded American tone, while the Bella is a 6L6-based pedal platform switchable between 22 or 44 watts of fixed-bias power.

  • Key Model: PT-100
  • Recommended For: Contemporary rock tones via three channels of flexible gain and EQ sculpting.
  • Famous Users: Michael Landau, Pete Thorn, Scott Henderson

Engl Amps


engl amps for sale

German maker Engl has long specialized in robust, hard-punching amps for the heavy rock market and has won many fans beyond EU borders. It might seem a little backward to judge a tube amp’s popularity by its take-up in the digital emulation realm, but I feel it’s telling that Line 6 added a model of the Engl Fireball to its modeling menu several years ago.

Engl amps are built using PCBs rather than hand-wired circuits, with tube sockets connected directly to these PCBs, although reinforced with chassis mounts. Some players might argue that this should eliminate them from the boutique categorization. Regardless, their general ethos still seems to warrant admission here, and it’s worth noting that Soldano, Rivera, Tone King, and several others have made wide use of PCB construction too.

Model names like Savage, Screamer, Powerball, Ironball, and Invader might lead you to some swift—and accurate—conclusions about Engl’s leanings. These are amps for the fierce contemporary rocker, with plenty of gain, and a characteristically thick, punchy response with serious low-end kick. Most offer an abundance of features in addition to the channel-switching facilities, with useful connectivity and even MIDI control options on some.

  • Key Model: Fireball
  • Recommended For: Powerful, gut-thumping heavy rock tones with plenty of searing gain on tap.
  • Famous Users: Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy and Marty Friedman of Megadeth

Jackson Ampworks


jackson ampworks amps for sale

It might seem odd that an American amp maker from deep in the heart of Texas has built his name on creative twists on classic British amps, but that’s the sound that primarily put Brad Jackson on the map. A one-man shop from 2003 until '09, Jackson Ampworks’ expansion after that time is an indication of a general increase in the maker’s popularity. The sonic flavors have expanded back across the pond, too, although the range remains tightly focused on Jackson’s particular straight-forward (yet flexible) aims, with all models rendered with high-quality components on hand-wired, custom-made turret boards.

A big part of the Jackson ethos involves presenting relatively simple preamp stages that gain extra flexibility through highly reconfigurable output stages. The Britain 4.0 from Jackson’s Custom Shop is a compact take on classic Vox-meets-Marshall tones, with one EF86 channel and one 12AX7 top boost channel, which are internally linked for blending or using individually as desired.

The output stage is configurable from 15 or 30 watts in Class A via EL84s, 25 watts in Class A using EL34s, or 50 watts in Class AB using EL34s. The other current Custom Shop offering, the Atlantic 4.0, is the latest rendition of Jackson’s flagship design of 2003, which uses the same versatile output stage to back up a front end inspired by Ken Fischer’s Trainwreck designs. Jackson’s American Series includes three distinctive takes on popular Fender flavors—all re-created with a ton of originality—while the British Clean series largely pieces out aspects of the Britain 4.0 into four more affordable amps.

  • Key Model: Britain 4.0
  • Recommended For: A fresh take on the two most popular British-voiced channels, with a superbly versatile output stage.
  • Famous Users: Nigel Hendroff of Hillsong, Robbie McIntosh of the John Mayer Band, The Pretenders and Keith Sewell of Dixie Chicks and Lyle Lovett’s band

Magnatone


magnatone amps for sale

Badging the contemporary reissue of a legendary vintage amp line as "boutique" might seem a little odd, but I feel the revitalized Magnatone brand qualifies on several counts. These things are far from mass-produced. They're hand-built in the USA by St. Louis Music, using hand-wired circuit boards and the types of components you find in many other boutique amps. Also, rather than slavishly re-creating vintage circuits, Magnatone has thoughtfully re-adapted classic sounds and features for enhanced performance while introducing many clever new designs to boot.

The Stereo Twilighter best represents the historic Magnatone sound. This 2x12-inch combo houses two full output stages of 22 watts each, each of which uses a pair of 6V6s for true stereo reproduction of the legendary pitch-shifting vibrato. (Fun fact: the two broad "V" emblems on the amp’s front grille stand for "vibrato vastness," as per the vintage Magnatone catalogs.)

Players seeking more portable packages can get a taste of vintage Magnatone in the 1x12-inch Twilighter and 2x10-inch Panoramic Stereo, while the Single V blends a little tweed-era Fender Pro with the luscious Magnatone effects. The Studio range offers even more compact 10- and 12-watt Lyric and Varsity combos that still capture some Magnatone style, while the Master Collection contains two renditions of Super Fifty-Nine heads that aim for Brit-meets-yank rock tones.

  • Key Model: Stereo Twilighter
  • Recommended For: A reliable contemporary take on the hypnotic Magnatone stereo vibrato, couched in excellent vintage-leaning tube tone.
  • Famous Users: Billy Gibbons, Tom Petty, Rich Robinson

TopHat


tophat amps for sale

Where did TopHat’s Brian Gerhard begin in his tube-tone quest? The same place as countless DIY builders over the years: "I built a tweed Deluxe, and when you hear one for the first time when you’ve done it yourself, you go, ‘Oh, that’s pretty nice!’ You know, compared to a high-gain Marshall type of thing of the era [circa 1980s] you hear this big, glorious richness of a simple design with few parts, and it turns you on pretty quick." Upon founding TopHat Amplification in California in 1994, Gerhard continued to pursue the sonic joys of simplicity, building a stable of hand-wired amps that have received major kudos from players in the intervening years.

Gerhard is not afraid to update his designs as his ideas evolve, and TopHat’s bestselling Club Royale combo, for example, has gone through several iterations over the years to become the straightforward yet surprisingly versatile tone machine that it is today. The mighty Emplexador offers 50- and 100-watt renditions of plexi crunch to JCM800 gain tones, the Ambassador delivers high-class American voices, and the Custom Shop’s Supreme 16 and Vanderbilt 33 deliver 16 and 33 watts via EL84s and 6L6s respectively, joining one Vox-like EF86 channel and a more Marshally 12AX7 channel with cathode-follower treble/middle/bass tone stack.

  • Key Model: Club Royale
  • Recommended For: A tuneful and straightforward club-gig combo capable of running from Vox to Fender to Marshall tones.
  • Famous Users: Greg Leisz, Mark Goldenberg, Rusty Anderson, Dan Huff

Matchless


matchless amps for sale

Although it wasn’t the first of the breed (see intro), Matchless virtually defines "boutique" for a great many players today. Founded in California in 1989 by Mark Sampson and Rick Perrotta, Matchless represents the quest to "build a roadworthy AC30," and has become synonymous with top-tier Class-A tone for more than 25 years. Players will often use the misnomer "point-to-point" to describe hand-wired tube amps in general, but a look inside a Matchless chassis provides an easy definition of what the term actually means: inputs, tube sockets, pots, and more tube sockets connected directly one to the other by only the components (resistors and capacitors) soldered between them.

In addition to the notable build style, Matchless is known for a signature tone, which exhibits lots of clarity and harmonic sparkle for lush, jangly clean tones, with rich, sweet, yet punchy lead tones when driven hard. Some players find the punchy high-end in some Matchless models overbearing, yet that’s often an assessment made at home or in small rooms: get one up to gigging volume on a decent sized stage, and it cuts through the mix beautifully.

The flagship DC30 marries together Voxy EF86 and 12AX7 channels (yep, this is where that whole thing got started) into a bold 4xEL84 output stage, while the Clubman and Chieftain do their trick with EL34s. Matchless’ current head honcho, Phil Jamison, has also introduced many of his own original designs into the lineup, including the three-channel Independence, a first for the maker. You will hear talk of Sampson-era and post-Sampson Matchless amps (Mark Sampson departed the company in 1999), implying that the former are superior, but I’ll tell you: I’ve owned and played several of both, and had my hands inside the chassis of both, too, and they are constructed to the same style, using components of the same quality, and the results yield equally great sounding amps.

  • Key Model: DC30
  • Recommended For: Professional guitarists looking for rich, dynamic, harmonically complex Brit-influenced tones that cut through on the big stage.
  • Famous Users: Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Cray, James Valentine, T-Bone Burnett

Louis Electric


louis electric amps for sale

Louis Rosano of Howell, New Jersey, has been building amplifiers professionally for more than 20 years, but has only gained significant attention for his Louis Electric brand in the past several years. The classic Louis Electric amp marries tweed-era Fender/Gibson/Valco looks with original twists on proven circuit topologies, all hand-wired using top-flight parts.

Until recently, Louis has concentrated mostly on grab’n’go 1x12-inch combos, though often with robust powerhouses wedged inside. Newer offerings have also introduced some head-and-cab options to the lineup. Much of Louis Electric’s creations strive for the classic tweed and early Marshall tones we hear in our heads, with twists to make them usable and portable for the gigging guitarist that doesn’t have his own roadie.

Louis’s first model was the LE 58 (formerly Twinmaster), based on the late-’50s low-powered tweed Twin, which actually had the honor of replacing Danny Gatton’s original vintage Twin on the road before the Tele virtuoso’s death. The Buster and Tornado extend the 5E3 Deluxe platform to the power of 6L6s and EL34s, respectively, and the Baby Bluesbuster translates the formula to the JTM45 recipe. Louis has also designed amps to capture the tones of artists such as Keith Richards (KR12) and Hubert Sumlin (HS12), and has recently ventured into black panel territory with the Columbia Reverb, Deltone Reverb, and Evertone Reverb, homages to Fender’s Princeton Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, and Vibrolux Reverb, respectively.

  • Key Model: KR12
  • Recommended For: Keef-approved crunchy rhythm and old-school lead tones in a relatively portable EL34-based 40-watter.
  • Famous Users: Keith Richards, Hubert Sumlin, Danny Gatton, Ana Popovic

Morgan Amplification


morgan amps for sale

Based in Huntington Park, California, Joe Morgan has become well known in boutique circles over the past several years, partly thanks to the enthusiastic response of several satisfied owners who populate prominent guitar chat rooms, but he has been building, repairing, and modifying amplifiers since 1996, and has earned several pro endorsements for his simple, toneful designs.

Vox-inspired creations for the core of his lineup, with the 2xEL84 AC20 Deluxe and 4xEL84 AC40 Deluxe stemming from inspirations that will surprise few of us. Each looks toward the early days of the legendary JMI creations, but rather than offering two channels for the 12AX7 and EF86 pentode preamps, there’s a single input and just one volume control (along with a cut control to tame highs, and a power level knob for voltage-regulated output level control), with a switch on the back panel to select between the two preamp tubes.

The Abbey adds another two controls to do Top Boost tricks in a 20-watt package, while the 30/800 delivers rocky JCM800 tones from a 4xEL84 output stage. Others like the PR12, RCA35, SW22 and others do more American-styled tones with octal output tubes. Hand-wired circuits, custom Mercury Magnetics transformers, and other select components are all part of the Morgan ethos.

  • Key Model: AC40 Deluxe
  • Recommended For: Succulent AC15-inspired tones in a superbly simple package that still delivers decent versatility.
  • Famous Users: Michael Landau, Jon Conley & Adam Greenberg (Kenny Chesney), Andy Davis (The Band Perry)

Divided by 13


divided by 13 amps for sale

Taking creative simplicity to new heights, Divided by 13 has attracted a host of major players to its roster in its decade or so in business. Main man Fred Taccone spent time during his college years working at Fender and Music Man before touring the USA and Europe as a guitarist in a hardcore band, and eventually returning to amp repair as a means of settling down in his native Los Angeles.

Much of Taccone’s success with the Divided by 13 line appears to stem from his simple yet practical approach to new designs. Low on bells and whistles but high on usable feature and dynamic expressive tones, they tend to cut right through to what is really necessary to get inspiring, original tone from a set of tubes. The company’s popular JRT 9/15 turns the tables on most dual-channel amps to present a single preamp stage based on a 5879 pentode (as used in Gibson’s iconic GA-40 Les Paul Amp of the 1950s) into switchable output stages, one a pair of EL84s in Class AB for 15 watts, the other a pair of 6V6s in Class A for 9 watts.

The SJT 10/20 and EDT 13/29 present a similar simplicity but derive their dual output levels from cathode-biased/fixed-bias switching, using 6V6s and KT66s respectively. The RSA 31 is the Vox-inspired amp that every boutique makers seems required to offer, although it shakes up the formula by also using a 5879 pentode preamp tube in one channel—a move the purportedly combats the latter’s infamous microphony—rather than the more commonly found EF86. Peruse the rest of the Divided by 13 lineup to find other equally creative designs and some sweet styling throughout.

  • Key Model: JRT 9/15
  • Recommended For: Players jonesing for juicy, tactile tones from a simple package that nevertheless offers surprising versatility.
  • Famous Users: Lyle Workman, Rusty Anderson, Jackson Browne, Ronnie Wood

Rivera


rivera amps for sale

Some frequent swimmers in the boutique end of the amp pool might question whether Rivera deserves that categorization, but I’d say the company’s quality and originality has earned it in spades. Paul Rivera was chief amp repairman for Valley Arts in LA, where countless stars went to have their amps serviced and modified, before moving on to design successful ranges for Yamaha and then Fender.

The Rivera-designed Fender Super Champ of 1982-’85 still is considered by many to be an early-modern classic. In 1985 Rivera left Fender to design and manufacture his own range of amps in his home state of California and has never looked back. Although Rivera construction uses printed circuit boards, these are not the PCBs of your budget off-shore amplifier. They are rugged, roadworthy builds that package impressive versatility and a lot of bang for the buck.

Many of Rivera’s amp are based around a dual-voice ethos, packaging together one American-voiced and one British-voiced channel, along with a plethora of tone-shaping options. Popular mainstays such as the R Series, the Fandango and the Chubster have used EL34s—long a Rivera mainstay—while the Quiana and Venus 5 have adopted 6L6s, and the Clubster 25 and Venus 3 and 6 got their juice from 6V6s.

Common Rivera features include totally independent EQ for the amps’ individual channels, foot-switchable Boost, extremely usable master volumes, usually also available individually per channel, and back-panel functions such as effects loops and DI outs. More specialized Rivera offerings include the thundering 120-watt KR7 Mick Thomson Signature, devoted to the demands of 7-string metal mayhem; and the simple, non-master-volume Venus Deux combo, designed for players who achieve all their overdrive from pedals.

  • Key Model: Quiana
  • Recommended For: Players in need of superbly versatile, powerful, yet portable all-tube tones at a relatively reasonable price.
  • Famous Users: Doyle Dykes, Steve Miller, Will Ray, Mick Thomson of Slipknot

Fuchs


fuchs amps for sale

One of the foremost names in what we might call the "Dumble-inspired wave," Fuchs is known for solid build quality and big tone that stands out on the professional stage, but there’s plenty of variety in the lineup too. Headed by designer Andy Fuchs and based in Clifton, NJ, this maker has expanded its lineup over its 10-plus years of existence from exclusively manufacturing large, powerful, big-stage rigs to offering a little of something for just about every gig, in a range that numbers some 15 models. Fuchs uses PCBs in large part, combined with plenty of hand wiring, but as with many others who qualify for this series they are rugged, well-designed PCBs used for the strengths of that topology, rather than just for any supposed cost savings.

Fuchs’s reputation was founded largely on the back of the Overdrive Supreme, a clear homage to the Dumble Overdrive Special, which lets you switch between rich, shimmering clean tones and thick, creamy, super-sustaining overdrive. The amp comes in five power levels to suit your needs, from 20 watts to 150 watts. The Casino Series offers a "back to basics" lineup of five amps of different sizes, each sharing the same versatile two-channel preamp section. The series includes the Aces (five watts push-pull), Lucky-7 (seven watts Class A), Blackjack-21 (21 watts), Full House-50 (50 watts), and Wild Card 100 (100 watts). The Mantis courts metal players, the Clean Machine addresses the frequent demand for a "pedal platform" amp with high headroom and a usable effects loop, and the Tripledrive Supreme adds a third channel to the popular Overdrive Supreme’s template.

  • Key Model: Overdrive Supreme
  • Recommended For: Time-tested D-style clean and overdrive tones, with plenty of depth, harmonic richness, and touch-sensitive dynamics in all modes.
  • Famous Users: Joe Bonamassa, Devon Allman of Royal Southern Brotherhood and Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick

About the author: Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the United States and UK. His books include The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul, and several others. Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.

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