Fender, Marshall, and Vox are usually the first three brands that come to mind when guitarists think about classic guitar amplifiers. With due deference to Mesa/Boogie, Orange, Supro, and all the rest, it was those first three brands that came of age during the height of rock music and remain indelibly etched into the genre's popular iconography.
Over the years, all three of these companies have produced a massive range of different amplifiers, and the variations between different models within each brand can be as pronounced as the differences between one brand and the others. That said, there remain a few classic qualities that are typically associated with each of these amp makers, and it's those qualities that often inform which of the three a burgeoning player might opt for when considering their first serious amp purchase (or any player's next amp purchase).
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Watch the video above for an overview of what goes into each of these amp company's tonal reputation, and to hear Andy demo a classic example of each. If you're thinking of picking up one of these amps, click on the links below to see the vast array of different Fender, Marshall, and Vox amps currently available on Reverb.
For as much credit as Leo Fender gets in the realm of guitar and bass design, his impact on the development of amplifiers was just as significant. In fact, Fender was primarily a radio and amp company in the early years before getting into the stringed instrument game. Fender amps are generally known for bright, clean sounds with a general mid-range scoop that emphasizes bass and treble tones.
In the '50s, combos like the Bassman pushed the envelope for power and size, and helped create the very sound of rock and country music. In the '60s, some Fender amps started coming with tremolo circuits and onboard reverb units as found on models like the ever-popular Twin Reverb. These effects helped expand the tonal palette of rock music in this era, as heard in '60s surf rock and beyond. Obs rekordbox.
The mid-'60s black-on-black style amps (known as Blackface amps) are probably the most popular amps ever made, and most of the amps Fender has made since then are based on that template. Due to their glistening clean tones and ample headroom, Fender amps also play very nicely with pedals, so lots of modern players deploy them for that purpose.
They've been a mainstay of everything from punk basement shows to country star arena concerts and everything in between. Plus, the fact that Fender amps have been in steady production since the 1950s means that there's a huge used market to tap into, with deals abounding for anyone interested in picking one up.
Vox amps share a lot with Fender but have a reputation for even more shiny clean tones with very treble-intensive sounds. The most famous Vox amp is the AC-30, which for a while in the '60s came with a 'top boost' channel that pushed the high-end content of the tone even further. The Beatles famously used Vox AC-series amps early in their careers. Another great example is Brian May of Queen, who toured with a literal wall of AC-30s. Listen to the solo in 'Killer Queen' for a flavor of that.
Often when discussing Vox tones, guitarists will toss out terms like 'jangly' or 'chimy,' hearkening back to some of The Beatles' guitar work and, more recently, the Rickenbacker-fed tones of Peter Buck and R.E.M. Internally, most Vox amps do not include a negative feedback circuit, which is an amp design technique found in most Fender amps. The result of this is a bit more girth to the mid-range and generally enhanced sensitivity to your playing.
Vox went through some ownership changes that left the brand much less relevant in the '70s and '80s, but modern Vox amps seek to replicate the glory period of the mid-'60s. In fact, the AC-15—which Vox produces in a few variations—remains one of the most popular amps on the market, offering players an attainable entry into the entire Vox amp legacy.
Unlike Fender and Vox, Marshall amps are associated more with power and dirt over bright, clean tones. The first Marshall amp was actually based on a modified Fender Bassman, and subsequent models in the '60s continued to raise the bar for size and impact. As rock got more popular and venues larger, bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who needed more and more power, and Marshalls like the Model 1959 'Plexi' were the first to pack 100 watts of power.
Who Is Behind Vox
In the '80s, Marshall released the JCM 800 series, which was a popular choice for hair metal and other large-venue-playing bands like Guns N' Roses. Today, even as smaller amps have become more popular with gigging players, Marshalls can still be found on hard rock stages all over the world.
Overall, lots of players use bovine words like 'beefy' and 'creamy' to describe Marshall tones. The amps are also known for their distortion channels, the focused nature of their bass output, and the nature of the clipping and compression that comes from the gainstaging of their circuits. Yet for this robust hard rock pedigree, Marshall does make plenty of smaller, subtle amps that stand in contrast to the classic high-wattage stack.
At NAMM in 2019, for instance, Marshall announced the Studio Series, which packs much of this classic tonal flavor into a smaller, more modern format. The Studio Classic SC20 is a 20-watt version of the JCM 800, while the Studio Vintage SV20 is a 20-watt version of the 1959 Plexi.