Most electric guitarists agree that having to carry an amplifier around to gigs and rehearsals sucks royally. This sentiment tends to grow stronger as the years go by, when lower back problems due to protracted “amp shlepping” start materializing.
Luckily for us and future musicians, the ongoing trend of circuit shrinking has been making it possible to fit powerful amplifiers inside increasingly smaller enclosures – as small as stompboxes.
In this article, we take a look at the best power amp pedals you can buy to make your life easier by replacing your bulky and heavy amp head with a much more portable and lightweight solution.
Pedal Amp Vs. “Preamp”
If you need a refresher on the way power amps work…
...click here to expand a brief chapter about it.
For the uninitiated, it can be confusing to understand how the guitar signal gets amplified inside a guitar amp. A classic misunderstanding is due to mixing up preamp and power amp stages.
These days, there are a lot of pedals on the market carrying the “preamp” descriptor. These are also called “amp-in-a-box” overdrives, but that’s slightly misleading because amps, to be such, need something else. These are really just overdrives that simulate the sonic character of an amp, i.e its preamp stage. What they can’t do, is feed a cabinet – that’s what power amps do.
This article is about pedals that can be plugged directly into your cab, because they have a power amp inside.
While the function of a preamp circuit is to amplify your small guitar signal to line level, it still isn’t loud enough to drive a speaker cabinet. That is why amplifiers have a power stage, which amplifies the signal coming out of the preamp section to a suitable level to drive a speaker.
The video below by Paul Davids clearly explains these separate stages.
Power amps can be based on a tube or solid-state circuit. These sound different and work in completely different ways – more about it here.
Power tubes like 6V6, 6L6, EL84, etc, are much bigger than preamp tubes and have more headroom. They are usually going to stay clean unless you really push them. Using either hybrid tube/solid-state design or solely solid-state (transistors), the pedals on this list feature both the preamp and power amp stages and are all capable of driving a speaker, effectively replacing your amp head!
The Advantages of a Pedal Amp
Not convinced yet about replacing your amp head with a pedal-size amp?
...click here to expand a brief chapter about it.
Besides their portability, amp pedals are extremely useful for quick and easy recording or intimate rehearsals. In the studio, they can give you access to a new range of tones for exponentially less money (and space) than a new amp. This being said, some are powerful enough to replace your 200w head without regrets even in the loudest live context.
Some come with preamp sections or let you insert gain/preamp pedals before them (through FX Loops) to create your own tonal combinations, while others include extra effects like reverb and tremolo, just like the old Fender amps.
All things considered, though, it seemed logical to organize this article by wattage, and by type of circuit – with an added final section about stereo pedal power amp.
Where should a power amp pedal go?
It should go at the end of your chain, just before the cabinet. If your device has an FX loop you can place other pedals between its preamp and the amp section as you see fit.
How Much Power? Ohms vs Watts
As you probably know already, wattage is an important spec related to power amps. This is because watts = electrical power, and the more watts you can send to a speaker/cabinet the more volume it can generate. But that’s not the whole story…
Cabinets and speakers have another important spec: impedance, calculated in “Ohms.” In most cases, a lower ohm value implies a better quality speaker, but 4-ohm cabinets require twice as much power as 8-ohm ones to deliver the same volume, so keep your cabinet’s Ohms in mind when choosing your power amp, because if you have a 4-ohm cab you will need more power, while if you have a 16-ohm one you may not want to push 200w into it!
Therefore, it’s always good to be careful when matching a powerful amp with a high-ohm cab, because the latter can blow up if it’s fed too much power.
Also, if you are a real nerd, you may want to look into the differences between Cass A, B, AB and D power amps.
• Best Power Amp Pedals with Tubes
Many electric guitarists are in love with tubes, and for good reason. Tube-based amps tend to confer to the signal a character that’s pleasing to the ear, often described as “warmer,” “rounder,” “smoother” and “more full-bodied” than the one imparted by transistor (aka solid-state) ones.
Tubes also respond in a more natural-sounding way when saturated: they clip more gradually than a solid-state device, which makes them more touch-sensitive and responsive. On the other hand, tubes wear out more quickly and are more fragile than transistor-based designs – on average, they start sounding bad after around 8-10k hours of playing.
While you might have to spend a little more, having a tube preamp as the front end of your amp can help you retain some of the organic saturation, compression, and warmth of an all-tube amplifier. Tim Marcus of Milkman Sound says “There is no substitute for the marriage between a magnetic guitar pickup and the first stage of a tube amplifier, and this is something that is missing with modern pedalboard setups.”
Here’s a list of the best pedalboard tube power amps.
A true boutique gem, the 100-watt version of The Amp features a front-end FET boost that can push or overdrive the tube preamp stage, consisting of a single 12AX7; just like in some sought-after vintage circuits, its slight EQ color can work as an always-on tone sweetener, while knobs for Treble and Bass can further fine-tune your tone.
It sports separate footswitches for boost and reverb – but doesn’t have an embedded tremolo circuit (a feature found in its little brother the Amp 50). The reverb is a digital circuit with controls for decay and blend and can deliver very musical reflections ranging from room to the classic drippy spring reverb.
Just like The Amp 50, the 100 has optional cab simulation and can be run at pedal level, into a speaker cab, or into headphones for at-home playing.
Here are some other quality alternatives with a tube-based circuit:
• Super-High-Power Solid State Pedal Power Amps (170-200w)
Solid-state amplifiers may not sound as good as tube ones (although always remember that, in music, everything is subjective), but they can sure beat them on sheer power, which subjective is not!
In this list, you’ll find some small beasts that have the potential to make your room’s wall shake. But attention! High power amps work well with lower ohm, quality cabs, which can be expensive if you don’t have one already. If you have a cheap 16-ohm cabinet, a 100w+ amp is wasted on it, and you run the risk to blow up the speaker.
Not technically a pedal (no footswitch), this is a mini amp head with a clean preamp section made to fit on your board. It has a big Master volume knob that can be adjusted with your foot (careful, though, things can get real loud real quick!), and a 3 band EQ for tone sculpting. It can drive any 4-8ohm speaker cab with up to 170 watts.
About one-tenth the size of most amp heads this powerful, this is a great option for players with quality cabs who appreciate volume and headroom, but may not sound great at lower output levels. Not your thing if your cab is above 8-ohm.
• Best High-Power Solid State Pedal Power Amps (50-75w)
A power range of 50-75w might be the right compromise between power and low-level fidelity.
This is because very powerful amps tend to sound poor at the lower volumes used during intimate rehearsals, while low-power ones will distort more easily and not deliver enough volume for a loud live show situation. The pedals in this list offer a sweet-spot wattage that should work well in both environments.
Their power range works well with cabinets of any impedance.
This is a very well-thought, fully analog, full-fledged 50-watt amp in pedal format – with footswitches! – by a very reputable builder.
It features an extremely useful FX loop that can be bypassed through the right footswitch, while a small volume knob on the back panel sets the amount of dBs pushed by the Solo footswitch (up to 6dBs).
Volume, Gain, Tone and Presence knobs are integrated by two controls for Resonance and Sagging. The latter adjusts the power amp’s compression at any volume, the former affects the crucial mid frequencies.
The power amp has a variable output and will push 50 watts into a 4 ohms speaker, 25 watts into 8 ohms, and 12.5 watts into 16 ohms.
These are some other board amps in the same power bracket.
• Best Medium-Power Solid State Power Amp Pedals (11-49w)
These power amps are not too dissimilar from the ones featured in the previous bracket, simply a little less powerful, i.e. quieter, and probably not ideal for 4-ohms cabs.
Less power also means a more affordable price (when features are comparable) and a better sound at lower volumes.
Although it doesn’t have a footswitch, this outstanding solid-state mini amp is built to sit on a pedalboard, and it comes in two flavors: US (pictured) and the Superblock UK.
It sends 25 Watts of power to your speaker (or just 1 Watt, when powered with a conventional 9v power supply) and provides 3 Amp Simulations (’57 Tweed, ’61 Blonde, and ’65 Black panel voicings for the US versions and JMP, AC Normal, and AC Top Boost for the UK one), 2 Cab Simulations, Limiter, Reverb and a 3-band EQ section.
As if that wasn’t enough, it also offers generous routing capabilities, with FX loop, XLR out, and headphones out.
Here are some other power amp stompboxes in the same power range:
• Best Low-Power Solid State Power Amp Pedals (2.5-15w)
That’s right, 2.5 watts are actually enough to drive a small 16-ohm speaker, but don’t expect that amp to sound very loud. This being said, it’s a well-known fact that many huge-sounding guitar parts in some iconic rock records were recorded on very small amps.
The amps in this list may not be loud enough for a live performance, but they can be a secret studio weapon and, at once, perfect for low to medium-volume rehearsals.
The Acorn Amps Solid State is a boutique, hand-made pedal that recreates the sound of a Peavey Decade, a tiny and affordable 10-Watt combo amp used by many broke guitarists of the ’90s but also – among others – Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who used it for most of his recordings.
It incorporates the TDA series class-AB power amp device from the original amp design and can produce a range of tones from bright cleans to ultra-gain breakup. It can be used as either a preamp in your pedal chain or as a standalone 10-watt amplifier plugged directly into a speaker cab.
A toggle switch lets you select between sending the signal out before or after the power amp circuit.
Here are some other non-boutique alternatives with a similar power:
• Best Stereo Power Amp Pedals
Since the last time I checked humans have two years and – more importantly – stereo pedals are all the rage right now, it may make sense to go for a stereo or dual-channel power amp.
These are our recommendations in this niche.
A feature-packed, class D, cleverly designed portable guitar amp by a boutique builder with two outputs, each delivering 40w of power. And it looks good too!
The Zero features highly flexible routing including a stereo fx loop, bypassable preamp stage, XLR outs with cab modeling for direct recording and 1/4” outs to drive speakers. Also comes with onboard stereo reverb, bright channel, standby switch and 3-band tone stack.
The three footswitches activate the reverb, the FX loop and the internal preamp.
Here is the only other options, at this stage.
Videos about Pedal-Sized Power Amps
Do We Still Need Amps? (Paul Davids)
EHX Magnum 44 vs Seymour Duncan PS170 vs Vox MV50AC (That Pedal Show)
Mooer Baby Bomb vs EHX Magnum 44 vs Seymour Duncan PS170 (Gear, Stuff & Things)