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Jazz Guitar Amps


A lot my readers and students ask me what guitar amp they should buy to get a jazz guitar tone. Making your guitar sound jazzy obviously requires more than the right amplifier and guitar. That being said, certain guitar amps do help you achieve a sound that has a jazzy flavor to it. In this article I give you short reviews of the most popular guitar amplifiers used in jazz.

Before we go on to the amp overview, here's a list of questions you got to ask yourself before buying a guitar amp:

  • To tube or not to tube: do you go for an all tube amp, hybrid tube/solid state or a solid-state amp?

       Pros of tube amps:
    • The sound obviously, some guitar players swear by it. Note that recent technology innovations make it possible to emulate the sound of a tube amplifier in a satisfying way (Roland Cube 60 and its Cosm amp emulation for example).
    • The overdriven sounds are more musical compared to solid-state amps.
    • High dynamic range.

       Cons of tube amps:
    • Heavy!
    • They are a pain to maintain. Valves need to be replaced about once in a year.
    • They are noisier than solid-state amps.
    • Tube amps are more expensive.

  • Combo or head and cabinet? Are you going for a separate amp head and speaker cabinet or for a combo? Separate amp and speaker look and sound great, but combos are easier to transport.
  • Are you a control freak? If you like to tweak and shape your sound, a control panel with a lot of knobs is what you want. If you don't like fiddling knobs, look for a simple control panel.
  • Digital modeling: digital modeling amps, like those from Line 6, can switch from a Marshall to a Fender type amp with the twist of a knob. An amp like the Line 6 Vetta II has over 70 classic and modern guitar amps on board, over 80 effects, 28 speaker cabinets and 3 microphones. The amp models don't sound 100% like the originals, but they come close in my opinion. Some people are crazy about digital modeling, others prefer the original.
  • Reverb: do you prefer spring reverb or digital reverb? Spring reverb sounds more natural, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
  • Tone: what kind of tone are you looking for? Some guitar amps are more suitable to produce a darker tone, in the line of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. Other amplifiers are more suitable to produce brighter tones in the likes of Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. Some amps can do both.
  • Portability: if you do a lot of gigs, then weight and size become an issue.
  • Power: your amp needs sufficient volume to be heard during concerts.
  • Headphone connection: do you need a headphone connection to practice without annoying the hell out of your house-mates and/or neighbors?
  • XLR connection: if you play bigger gigs, you might need an XLR connection on your guitar amp to run through the PA.
  • Low volume: does your amp sound good at low volumes? This is important if you intend to use your amplifier for intimate gigs or as a practice amp.

We'll start with the 3 brands that are the most popular: Fender amps, Roland amps and Polytone amps.

Fender Amps

There are 4 Fender amps that are popular in jazz circles: the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, Fender Jazz King, Fender Jazzmaster and Fender Blues Jr.

 

Fender Hot Rod Deluxe

The Fender Hot Rod Deluxe was first produced in 1996.


Fender Hot Rod Deluxe Guitar Amp
 Price Range $650 - $1000
 Weight 45 lbs. (20 kg)
 Wattage 40W
 Type Tube Amp
 Speaker 1 x 12" Eminence
 Cons
  • Some guitar players report the bass strings sound muddy. This obviously depends on what guitar you connect to the amplifier.
  • Little headroom: the clean channel is pretty crunchy (from 4 upwards). Single coil pickups keep clean longer, humbuckers overdrive early. Good for Scofield-type sound.
  • The reverb is a bit over the top. You'll never go beyond 2.
 Pros
  • The Fender Hot Rod Deluxe is extremely loud for its size and wattage.
  • Reasonably priced.
  • Reverb sounds good.
  • Quiet amp.
  • Signature Fender mid-range warmth.
  • Very sturdy and portable, ideal for gigs.
  • Versatile amp. Besides the clean channel, there are 2 distortion channels.

 

Fender Jazz King


Fender Jazz King Guitar Amp
 Price Range $700 - $1000
 Weight 50 lbs. (22 kg)
 Wattage 140W
 Type Solid State Amp
 Speaker 1 x 15" Eminence
 Cons
  • One trick pony, don't buy it for distortion.
  • The weight.
  • The reverb has a long decay and can only be used at very low settings.
 Pros
  • Designed for a clean tone.
  • Very versatile tone shaping, doesn't sound sterile in any way. Punchy, warm and clear tone.
  • Loud!
  • Ample headroom.
  • Very quiet amp.
  • Reasonably priced.

 

Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight Speaker Cabinet + Amp Head


Fender Jazzmaster

 Price Range $700 - $1000 (amp) + $300 - $400 (speaker)= $1000 - $1400
 Weight 7 lbs. (amp) + 17 lbs. (speaker) = 24 lbs. (11 kg)
 Wattage 250W
 Type Solid State Amp (w tube emulation)
 Speaker 1 x 12" Jensen Speaker
 Cons
  • The drive channel gets noisy when you push the gain past halfway.
 Pros
  • Ultra light!
  • Warm tone.
  • Looks cool (ahum).

 

Fender Blues Jr.


Fender Blues Jr Guitar Amp

 Price Range $500 - $750
 Weight 31 lbs. (14 kg)
 Wattage 15W
 Type All tube amp
 Speaker 1 x 12" Fender Special Design Jensen Speaker
 Cons
  • A bit noisy.
  • No headphone connection
  • Doesn't sound good in overdrive.
  • The tubes are a bit loose.
 Pros
  • Compact
  • Warm tone.
  • Way louder than you'd expect for a 15W amp.

Roland Amps

2 Type of Roland amps are popular amongst jazz guitarist: the Roland Cube 60 and the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus.

 

Roland Cube 60

The Roland Cube 60 is clearly a winner, very popular jazz guitar amp with amp emulation that works. Besides being very good, it's also one of the cheapest amps in this roundup. The Cube 15, 20 and 30 exist as well, but while they are good practice amps, they don't compare to the Cube 60 (update: a reader reports using 2 Cube 30s work even better than 1 Cube 60).


Roland Cube 60 Guitar Amplifier
 Price Range $350 - $450
 Weight 32 lbs. (14 kg)
 Wattage 60W
 Type Solid-State Amp (with amp emulation)
 Speaker Custom designed 12" speaker
 Cons
  • Jack input is a bit fragile.
 Pros
  • Very portable because of its size.
  • Includes quality digital guitar effects: delay, reverb, chorus, phase, flanger and tremolo.
  • Amp emulation: 9 COSM amp models (including the JC-120)..
  • Cheap.
  • Loud!
  • Virtually no noise.
  • Strong like a tank.

Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus

The Roland Jazz Chorus was first made in 1975, it was one of the first guitar amps with built in effects. This amp is a real classic, it is played by many of the greats, Pat Martino, George Benson, Larry Coryell, ... It is also the amp I play on most of the time.


Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus
 Price Range $900 - $1250
 Weight 62 lbs. (28 kg)
 Wattage 2 x 60W=120W
 Type Solid-State Amp
 Speaker 2 x 12" speaker
 Cons
  • Very heavy, but it has wheels.
  • Distortion is useless.
  • Noisy
 Pros
  • True stereo chorus.
  • Amazing sound, clean and warm.
  • Very loud.
  • Rich and layered tone.
  • Has a vibrate effect built in (besides chorus and reverb).
  • Very solid, built to last.
  • Wheels
  • Available in a lot of venues (clubs, schools, ...)
  • Can also be used as a bass, keyboard or vocal amp.

Polytone Amps

Polytone amps have always been very popular amongst jazz guitarists. They have that old school, classic sound. A lot of the greats have played or play a Polytone (Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, ...)

 

Polytone Mini Brute I-V (specs are for the Mini Brute II)


Polytone Mini Brute II Guitar Amp
 Price Range $400 - $700
 Weight 26 lbs. (12 kg)
 Wattage 110W
 Type Solid-State Amp
 Speaker 12" speaker
 Cons
  • Hard to find
  • Rumors are that Polytone amps are prone to breakdown and that factory service is not so great (I can not confirm this though).
 Pros
  • Classic sound.
  • Simplified control panel.
  • Lightweight
  • Powerful
 

Peavey Amps

Peavey Classic 30

Peavey doesn't have a very good name, but the Classic 30 is quite popular for jazz and is a reliable and good sounding amplifier.


Peavey Classic 30 Guitar Amp
 Price Range $600 - $750
 Weight 40 lbs. (18 kg)
 Wattage 30W
 Type Tube Amp
 Speaker 1 x 12" Blue Marvel Speaker
 Cons
  • Can be a little noisy.
  • Some people report tube rattle.
 Pros
  • Loud
  • Good reverb
  • Cool tweed cover :-)
  • Good clean sound, good distortion sound.
  • Very reliable

 

 

There are many more amps that qualify as a jazz guitar amp, to name a few more:

  • Fender Twin Reverb: classic tube amp, known for its clean tone. Delivers 85W through 2 12¨ speakers. There's a reproduction of the vintage '65 Twin Reverb available at about $1300. Loved by many people, though I'm not such a big fan myself.
  • Yamaha Amps: played by Mike Stern, Allan Holdsworth. I can't tell you a lot about these, never heard them live to be honest.
  • Mesa Boogie Amps: Mesa Boogie amps are known as rock and roll amps, but they perform very good for jazz as well. John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth, Larry Carlton and Frank Zappa all play or played Mesa Boogie amps.
  • AER Amps: AER is a German company that produces acoustic guitar amplifiers. They are popular amongst gypsy jazz guitarists.
  • Acoustic Image Clarus Little Head: great amp head for jazz, has an extremely clean tone. It is often combined with a Raezor's Edge speaker cabinet. This amp is not very expensive considering its audio quality (around $500).
  • Tech 21 Trademark TM60: 60W solid state guitar amp with analog tube emulation. Good clean sound, the distortion ****s though, but hey, we play jazz, we don't care about the distortion.
  • Carvin Nomad: 50W all tube amp at a reasonable price (around $500). Very warm sound and tons of headroom.
  • Evans Amps: Very well-built and high quality amps, they cost more than the average amp though. The choice of the pros. Played by John Abercrombie, Ron Eschete, Buzz Evans amongst many others.
  • Jazzkat Amps: Sweet small guitar amp with a big tone, very portable (weighs only 23 pounds). 110W, smooth highs and rich bass. Played by Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Jack Wilkins, Joe Beck, Vinnie Carrao, Jeff Linksy, Joshua Breakstone, Randy Johnston, Sheryl Bailey, Ulf Wakenius, Andreas Öberg and Tony DeCaprio.
  • Vox AC30: good sounding amp, John Scofield used to play them, but they are very prone to breakdown (I'm talking about the Vox AC30 cc2).
  • Henriksen Jazzamp: solid state amps, come in combos or seperate head/cabinet. The Jazzamp 10 is 80W, the Jazzamp 12 is 160W (designed for acoustic bass, also works for guitar though). These amps have a lot of clean headroom and a warm sound. There's also the Jazzamp 10-R, with reverb (the other 2 don't have reverb). Played by Larry Coryell, Jimmy Bruno, Joe Diorio, Jim Hall, Howard Alden, Ronny Jordan, amongst many others.

One more tip: don't judge the sound of a guitar amp in the music store, ask if you can test drive it for a couple of days. Guitar amps sound completely different in the shop than they do at your place or in a rehearsal. The best option is to buy them online, most shops offer a 30 or 45-day return policy.

 

Guitar Amps Join our discussion about the ultimate jazz guitar amp in the forum.

 

You can find a lof of good second-hand amps on Ebay, here are the most recent listings:

 

 

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