Amp wattage ratings are a quick and easy way to understand roughly how loud an amplifier is, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding as well.

Is 50 watts half the volume of 100? Is 40 watts enough to play in a band? Is solid state as loud as tubes?

We’ll answer all these questions and more.

Tube vs Solid State Volume

Due to the nature of the electronics, a 10-watt tube amp will likely keep up with a blues or rock drummer just fine. However, a solid state amp that’s 10 watts will go completely unheard.

Tube amps are simply louder than their solid state counterparts, so when buying an amp don’t just focus on the wattage but also the construction of it.

Tube amps are also widely preferred by most guitarists due to their tone and the way they sound when turned up louder. Solid state amps don’t have that same tone when cranked, but they are known to hold up better on clean tones.

How Loud Should My Amp Be?

If you’re just a beginner I really wouldn’t recommend something more than 20 watts. You’ll mostly be playing in your bedroom or jamming with friends in a small space, this is plenty for those use cases.

If you’re playing live these small amps can actually be just fine for many smaller jazz and blues gigs, but if your playing in a larger room, or playing a louder style of music that requires you to keep up with a much louder drummer, then it’s certainly worth upping that range closer to 50 or 60 watts.

Lastly, if you’re mostly playing in venues where you will be mic’d up, then there’s less concern for your amp to be a higher wattage as the microphone will take care of most of the volume for you.

Keep in mind that wattage ratings are not linear, so a 100 watt amp is not twice the volume of a 50 watt amp. You will experience diminishing returns as you go up in wattage. In fact, the difference between 100 and 50 is only a few db, surprisingly. Wattage indicates power, but power is not directly equal to volume.

Then Why Do 120 Watt Amps Exist?

The wattage of an amplifier doesn’t exist just to indicate volume, but also to indicate what we call “headroom.”

Earlier we mentioned that cranking the volume on a tube amp gives us a really nice tone – that tone blooms and saturates as the tubes inside your amp are “pushed,” or running hotter due to the higher demand being put on them. We call this amp “breakup.”

This is generally desirable, but we also want to make sure our tone is consistent.

If you’re playing smaller venues and always want the “cranked up” sound, you would buy a lower wattage amp that won’t be too loud when you crank the volume, because it has far less headroom before it starts to hit that “pushed” state. If you’re playing larger venues and want that same sound, you could still get a lower wattage amp but you would simply need to mic it.

On the flip side, if you want a really loud amp that stays tonally consistent at extreme volumes, a 100 or 120-watt amp will make sure you can get loud without altering your tone.

While the pushed sound is highly desirable, many guitarists would rather have consistency and control over their tone and instead opt for something with increased headroom.

Volume Is Secondary

Keep in mind that while all of this information is true, there are very few cases when a guitarist would buy or turn down an amp purely based on volume. If an amp has the tone they want, then they are likely to buy it regardless of the wattage.

Many metal guitarists use the 5150 – a high wattage, high gain amplifier – because they love that sound, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer to have that same tone in a lower wattage so they can consistently hit the “pushed” sound more easily.

This is why the wattage is secondary to the overall tone of the amp, and headroom doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker as it is only one component of your overall sound. A Fender Twin Reverb cranked all the way up isn’t going to be the preferred sound over a high gain amplifier on 3 if you play modern metal.

Final Thoughts

As long as you have an amp you enjoy, typically anything above about 30 watts will be more than enough for most situations. If you’re playing extremely loud metal music, maybe bump up to 40 just to be safe. After that, it’s all gravy (and headroom)!