Guitarists tend to love loud amps, and who can blame them? Something just feels right about cranking up a tube amp and letting the sound wash over you. But what you want isn’t always what you really need. How many watts for a tube amp is too many, and how many isn’t enough? What size should you buy?
That’s a question that persists to this day, and it can be hard to find a straight answer. Wattage isn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all kind of thing. On top of that, it takes some understanding of amps and watts to figure out what you really need.
So in today’s article, we’ll be going over everything you need to know to pick the right tube amp for you. Warm up your tubes and get ready to learn more about watts and what that means when picking an amp.
What Are Watts?
Let’s start at the beginning—watts. So what are watts exactly? In simple terms, watts refers to how much power an amp can generate. Basically, it’s how much power the amplifier can send to the speaker.
It plays a big role in the loudness of an amp, though watts are not a measurement or volume or the only factor in loudness. Generally speaking, more watts equals more volume. Other things impact loudness as well, such as speaker efficiency.
To add, watts don’t scale with volume the way you may assume. Logically, you’d probably assume that a 200w (watt) tube amp would be about twice as loud as a 100w tube amp. However, that is not the case. As a rule of thumb, you usually gain about 3db (decibels) every time wattage doubles.
While we’re here, it’s important to make a note on tube amps vs solid state amps. It’s pretty common to hear that tube amps are louder than solid state amps, but that’s not actually true. In reality, a 100w tube amp and a 100w solid state amp are about the same loudness. The compression and harmonics of tube amps though make them seem louder, which is where that idea comes from.
One last point that should be made is about breakup. You might be thinking, “well, why does wattage matter? I’ll just buy an amp bigger than I need and turn it down.” Things aren’t that simple though.
The main draw of tube amps is their overdriven sound when pushed. A 5w amp is going to breakup a lot sooner than a 100w amp. If you get a 1w amp for band practice, you’ll end up cranking it into overdrive constantly. And if you get a 100w amp for bedroom practice, you’ll end up keeping the volume low and the tone clean.
Because of all that, choosing the right wattage for your situation is essential. You need an amp that fits your application and limitations. Otherwise, you can end up in a situation where you can’t get the tones you want out of your amp due to it having to be cranked or almost on zero all the time.
Amp Wattage Guide
Now that you know what watts are and why they matter, let’s move onto figuring out how many watts is enough for you. As with most things guitar related, you’ll have to decide what makes the most sense for you based on your situation.
For example, if you’re a jazz guitarist who only plays in your bedroom, you’ll need a lot less watts than a rock guitarist playing medium-sized clubs. You’ll need to take into account your tonal preferences, volume limitations, and use(s). With that said, let’s get started.
A 1w amp is pretty much as small as you can go, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad amps. 1w amps are a perfect choice for many players given their size, volume, and cost.
1w tube amps are surprisingly loud, though they won’t be able to keep up with a live drummer. You’ll need more watts for that. These amps are perfect for getting overdriven tones at low volumes though. Since the wattage is so low, they breakup at much lower volumes than bigger amps.
As for cleans, these amps can provide good cleans too. However, you are a lot more limited with volume since they breakup so quickly. So if you want jazz cleans at loud volumes, these are not the amps for you.
The other big advantage of 1w amps is size. These amps are significantly smaller and lighter than the larger counterparts. You can easily throw one in the car for a trip, move it around your house, take it outside, etc. Though you might not want to gig with one due to their low volume, they are a great choice for a practice amp that gets moved around or for folks with limited space.
5 to 15 Watts
5 to 15w amps are the next step-up, and they’re about everything you’d expect. They’re bigger, heavier, louder, and have more headroom than 1w amps.
These amps are loud enough for rehearsals and practices, and they can keep up with drummers who aren’t too wild. However, they will struggle to stay clean at stage and rehearsal level volumes.
That said, they can offer great cleans at bedroom levels of volume. They have enough headroom that you can still get great cleans out of them, and at noticeably louder volumes than 1w amps.
When it comes to overdrive, you can still get great overdriven tones without causing hearing damage and making your neighbors hate you. They’ll be louder than 1w amps, but not loud to the point of becoming an issue for casual use.
Also, these amps end up getting used in the studio a lot, particularly in home studios. They’re loud enough to get great, powerful overdrive tones, but they’re also easy to work with and manageable. They tend to record well too, making them a good amp to have around in the studio.
20 to 50 Watts
20 to 50w amps are a good middle ground when it comes to wattage. They have enough power and headroom to keep up with a drummer while clean, provide great overdrive when loud, and they’re still relatively portable compared to more powerful amps.
If you play in bars, small venues, and small clubs, this is likely the perfect range for you. You’ll have no problem making sure you’re heard above the drummer, but you won’t deafen your audience if you push the amp either.
Something to consider though is that we’re moving out of bedroom range volume wise, especially for overdrive. If you crank a 50w tube amp in your apartment, you’re probably going to get an earful from someone. This problem can be dealt with via an attenuator, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
This is also the last group of amps that feel reasonably portable. Of course you can lug around a full stack everywhere, but it’s cumbersome. Amps in the 20w-50w range are still light enough to move somewhat easily, which emphasizes them being a good choice for gigging guitarists playing small venues.
50 to 100 Watts
Alright, now we’re getting loud. 50 to 100w amps can get very loud, especially if you’re pushing them. These amps can easily get you hearing damage and noise complaints, which may or may not be what you’re looking for.
A main draw of amps this big is headroom. These amps can get crystal clear cleans at very high volumes. If you play jazz, funk, or another genre that requires lots of clean headroom, you’ll probably want something around this wattage.
Also, these amps are a great choice for people who use pedal based overdrive and distortion. You’ll have plenty of headroom to craft your tone via pedals exactly how you want without running into tube overdrive.
And if you’re playing large venues and need more sound, these amps will also work. They are plenty loud for most medium sized and larger venues, especially if they are miking your amp and running it through the PA.
The main downsides of amps this size are volume and weight. If this is your only amp, you’ll likely be playing it with the volume on one or two the entire time to avoid disturbing those around you. And these amps can get quite cumbersome, making them a pain to move around (remember to lift with your legs).
Last up are the 100+ watt amps. To be completely honest, most people do not need an amp this large. In the modern day with improved PA systems, these amps really aren’t necessary for most. Many pros use small combos for arena shows. In the metal world, many have even ditched amps altogether in favor of modelers and amp sims. Still, these amps do have an audience.
They have tons and tons of headroom. So if you need cleans at ear splitting volumes, these amps are for you. And if you want to make your audience feel your guitar strings vibrating inside their skulls ala Sunn 0))), you’ll want something that’s 100w or more.
For most though, these amps are overkill and more of an inconvenience than anything. If you want tube overdrive, you’ll need earplugs or a lack of care for your hearing to do so. Moving these behemoths is not an easy task either, especially if the venue forgets to mention a set of stairs. And your wallet will take a hefty hit to an amp this large as well.
All that said, nothing quite feels like playing a guitar through a cranked up 100w+ tube amp. If you want to live out your rockstar dreams with a wall of amplifiers, nothing is quite going to cut it other than a 100w+ full stack.
The Best Tube Amp Wattage For You?
Tube amps come in all different shapes and sizes. From 1w amps that fit in a backpack to 100w+ full stacks that barely fit in a Honda Civic, you have a lot to choose from. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to amp wattage, and the best wattage for you ultimately depends on your situation.
When picking a tube amp, keep in mind what you’ll be using it for. That will help you figure out how many watts isn’t enough and how many watts is too many. If you keep this article in mind, you’ll be able to find the perfect amp for you. So put on some Stringjoys and see how your new amp sounds!