Home practice guitar amp for 80's hair metal fan?
November 23, 2013 4:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm brainstorming ideas for a Christmas gift. The recipient is a fan of 80's hair metal (Van Halen especially) and has a guitar but no amp for playing at home. Sound quality is the thing I'm after, it doesn't need to be too loud.

I only play acoustic guitar so I know very little about amps/pedals/effects/etc. I did a bit of googling and found that Marshall is the quintessential amp for 80's hair metal, but a JCM800 or 900 is waaaaaay too much. I'd like to keep the price around $200 if possible.

Would either this or this work? Any other recs?

And am I missing a big piece of the equation? Would pedals and other gear also be necessary to complete the hair metal sound?
posted by keep it under cover to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Those Marshalls are awesome little amps. You pay a lot for the name and quality, but they are sweet sounding indeed. You're a nice person.

Now the guitarists you're imagining -- like Eddie Van Halen -- played through massive "stacks" which had many times the power of any "combo" amp. The distorted tone was obtained through vacuum tubes that naturally distorted sound in distinctive ways at any volume level (whereas no combo practice amp in your price range is going to be anything but solid state, not tubes), and enhanced by feedback effects only possible with large speaker arrays. By the mid-80s, much of that tone was beginning to be enhanced by digital effects too. So there really is no way to give someone a practice combo amp that will "really" have that tone. However, any good sounding combo amp is capable of emulating something like that tone (tonally rich overdrive), natively in most cases, certainly with a digital effects unit (or an amp with built in digital emulation of different amplifier configurations, called a "modeling" amp, of which there are many in the same $200 range as you are looking).

If this is for a young guitar player, and the goal really is *playing at home,* for the time being, you might be able to go cheaper on the amp and spend the difference on a digital effects unit, offering them much more tonal diversity for the same investment. I say *really* for playing at home, because any small combo amp in the 40 watt or under range is going to bottom out pretty quick at higher volumes you would need for jamming with others if what you want to play is a heavy metal style distortion/crunch tone most of the time. If this person wants to jam in this style, you're better off going with cheaper amp with more power, frankly.

I just speced and listened to 100 dollar practice amps for the first time in 20+ years, as a former serious guitar player buying a rig for a kid. For tone quality and value in a practice amp, the Fender Champion 20 is the sweet spot to my ears, and it has great crunchy overdrive too.

Then for about another $80 you could get a Zoom G1XN guitar multieffects pedal (a digital effects processor with a pedal interface). If I were a budding rock guitarist still mostly playing in my room, I might want that rig a little more than the sweeter tone of the Marshall combos, which still aren't going to be enough amp to jam with. In other words, buy a practice amp rig with a lot of options and good basic tone, and later on spend real money on an amp with the tone s/he wants. I submit that at the early stages of learning, even a devoted guitarist doesn't yet know the tone s/he wants -- or more precisely, the range of tones. A DSP and a good clean amp are a way of discovering a world of different tones.
posted by spitbull at 5:31 PM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

If the parameters are 1) Good for metal, 2) Doesn't need to be super loud, and 3) Under $200, I'd suggest a 15-30 watt solid state "modeling" amp. I currently practice with a 15 watt amp in a 20'x20' room, and although I like to play loud, I've never turned mine up beyond 6/10 on the volume (this one doesn't go to 11). The advantage of a modeling amp is that it uses computer modeling to replicate a wide range of sounds. This means you can get many effects built-in (distortion, flanger, delay, reverb, etc.) that a traditional tube amp would be unable to produce without a substantial range of effects pedals. As spitbull describes above, the sound from a solid-state modeling amp will never equal that of a tube amp, but they've come leaps and bounds over the last decade and are now quite good.

With that said, I have two specific recommendations:
Fender Mustang II
Line 6 Spider IV

The Fender Champion 20 that spitbull mentions above looks like a great option also, though I have no personal experience with that one.
posted by EKStickland at 5:45 PM on November 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Those Marshalls you linked to are great. A 15-watt amp is PLENTY for home playing (I use a five watt amp at home). That said, a pedal or two would also help a lot, even though these amps have built-in effects. This is a pretty popular/cheap one; this, too!
posted by destructive cactus at 6:03 PM on November 23, 2013

If they like DIY stuff, The Brown Sound In A Box 2 is supposed to be the pedal kit for getting the 80s Van Halen sound.
posted by drezdn at 6:54 PM on November 23, 2013

The little Marshalls are great (I have an older 10A Valvestate across the pond) but I'd agree with previous comments: modelling amps and software have evolved to the point where I can get sounds out of a Line 6 dongle and an iPod touch that would have required spending silly money when I first started playing.

Modelling makes it really easy to dial in a decent imitation of a genre's signature sound without either having to crank up everything to 11 or spend money on pedals. That's good for a young guitarist, and for that guitarist's parents. As spitbull says, the next amp can be the one where the "effects off" tone really matters.

The Fender Mustang is the only modelling amp I have experience with. It's pretty nice. Marshall's a newer arrival in the "with added effects" category, so while I'd trust the basic tone of those amps, I'm not sure how well they handle the effects side.
posted by holgate at 12:01 AM on November 24, 2013

You might also think about a Korg Pandora. It's a personal multi-effects guitar amp you use with headphones. Your guitarist can play day or night at home and never disturb anybody, and it has tons of presets to instantly sound like nearly any guitarist's sound (Eddie, Jimi, Eric, Stevie...from crunchy metal to very clean sound). Includes rhythm tracks and bass tracks, too, to play along with. I've connected mine to my iphone and learn songs as I play along. Tons of fun. It's a tiny thing and will fit along in any of my guitar cases. And if he decides at some point to get an amp in order to play to people, it can connect straight thru an amp.
posted by artdrectr at 12:03 AM on November 24, 2013

Just returning to say I've checked out the Mustang 2 and it is a very good sounding amp too.

I tend to say go for a simpler amp and an effects unit, because the effects unit can give you predictable tone when you play through *other* peoples' amps, has a built in headphone/practice out (I would totally NOT get a headphone only amp or iPhone line in unit as my only amp, practicing that way sucks after about 20 minutes).

But I came up before modeling amps and digital effects, so I'm biased. I want the best clean (or unmodified dirty) tone possible from my amp. I don't want layers of digital signal processing between the pickup and the speaker as the default state. Old school, I know. The same DSP models pretty much can be found either built into a modeling amp or outboard on a DSP unit. I like the modularity.

Some modern DSPs (I think the Zoom I mentioned, which is super popular, is one) can also isolate and remove the existing guitar parts from a recording, which can be quite helpful for a learning guitarist. A decent effects unit will just do more things than a modeling amp can do, and move with you to a bigger amp when the time comes.

A lot depends on this person's instrument too, OP. Can you tell us what kind of guitar s/he plays and how long s/he has been playing?
posted by spitbull at 4:42 AM on November 24, 2013

Everyone I've spoken to really rates the Mustang 2 for home practise.

For my playing I use a Zoom G3 which looks to be around $170 in the US. It's got loads of great sounding amp models, and great effects. It can act as a USB soundcard, and can be used with a guitar amp, speakers or headphones.

I normally play via my speakers, which are M-Audio monitors, but it's also good through my amp or headphones.

Some people would find this setup a bit too complicated for home practise, but it's really versatile which means I can use it for much more than just at home.
posted by chrispy108 at 6:04 AM on November 24, 2013

And am I missing a big piece of the equation?

Not really, no, but I think we (including myself) are all figuring you're talking about a gift for someone fairly young and/or inexperienced. So for someone who doesn't really have the experience to get nit-picky about their sound, the "hair metal sound" is basically just distortion - "more" distortion than, say, Stevie Ray Vaughn or even AC/DC - plus maybe some reverb, and maybe delay for solos. (Note: distortion is sometimes called "overdrive", and there's all sorts of discussion & debates out there about where, when and if there's a difference, but for your purposes I wouldn't worry about it.)

In that context, I'd have to say those Marshalls look pretty sweet (although I haven't tried 'em myself), or really any of the suggestions you've gotten so far. I do think it's more fun to have an actual amp rather than just a software or headphone-only setup, but having the ability to go headphone-only could be something to consider if the player's parents/neighbors/significant other are likely to get squinty-eyed at the horrible rock'n'roll noises emanating from someone's bedroom.

On the other hand, if you're talking about a gift for someone who's a more experienced guitarist, but is just a little out of practice, it might be worth ruining the surprise aspect of the gift and go shopping with them instead and let them try different amps and pedals and pick what they like. "Good" guitar sound can be pretty subjective, and there's really a fairly wide variety of possible options that could work for a practice rig.

Any other recs?

I dunno what kind of distribution (or pricing) they have up in Canada, but Peavey is a brand that's a "starter" amp for an awful lot of Americans, and generally considered good bang for the buck. I've been pleasantly surprised by the sound of their TransTube series of amps, so maybe a Backstage, Rage, or Solo, with some money left over for a pedal or two. And Peavey amps've got a reputation (well-deserved, IMHO) for being well-nigh indestructible, like "chuck 'em off the roof and they still work when they hit the ground" indestructible.

And the Peavey 5150 was Eddie's amp for years. Of course that amp is in JCM 900 territory for size, power, and price, but if the EVH name matters to your budding guitarist, there's a connection even though the amp's not a Marshall.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:38 AM on November 24, 2013

Speaking for myself, I am not a huge fan of modeling amplifiers, but I agree that they have come a loooooong way in recent years and may be the best choice in this price range, specifically for the type of music your friend wants to play.

That said, I want to post another, non-modeling amp choice in the under-$200 price range: the Orange MicroTerror MT20, a small, lunchbox style amp with a real tube preamp section (featuring a quality 12AX7 JJ-brand tube), and a solid state power amp section. I own one, and it's a lot of fun to play. This is a simple amp with big, impressive tone -- it sounds like a much bigger, better amp - and it has a TON of gain on tap, which is what he wants for 80's hair band stuff. These list for $149, but street price is typically $120-$140; when I bought mine last year, I paid $118/shipped from these guys. You'd need to pick up a cab to go with it. Something like this Randall would work, and you'd still be under $200. Or, Orange makes a matching 1x8" closed back cab, (I linked to the same vendor I bought my MT20 from last year, as this place was typically $10 cheaper than other Orange vendors; no personal affiliation other than as a satisfied customer).

As a bonus, the MT20 responds very, very well to tube changes, so if he wants a more vintage 60's or 70's vibe he can get it just by changing tubes; there's a lot of info online about tube swaps for this amp, so if he were to get it he could go online and see what other like. Or memail me and I'll tell you what I liked. Finally, with a 20 watt power section it has enough power to be used for jamming or even playing out, but you can run it at bedroom levels for practice purposes.
posted by mosk at 10:13 AM on November 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Can you tell us what kind of guitar s/he plays and how long s/he has been playing?

He's been playing a loooong time, and I think has a Kramer. He definitely won't be playing in front of a band, but has expressed that playing through headphones has lost its fun. Whatever we end up getting him, we'll be sure to include gift receipts in case it's not right.

Last year we got him a car wash gift certificate, so this year we're hoping to find something more personal hence an actual object gift that we had to put some effort into.

This is a lot of info, thanks a ton! I'll go into the local stores to check what is available locally and may me-mail some of you if I get lost or stuck. Any other suggestions or tips are definitely welcome too.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:51 PM on November 24, 2013

Experienced player? I thought about it and think you should get him the Mustang 2 modeling amp. It will have enough raunchy tone for metal and enough juice for modest jamming with others, but be simple to use right out of the box (not true for an outboard DSP).
posted by spitbull at 6:06 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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