The Ubiquitous Mediocre Amps of the ’90s

As the year ends and I move one step closer to the reaper’s creeping scythe, it’s often that I start to get nostalgic for the gear of years past. Most of it wasn’t very good, mind you. The 90’s were kind of a dark time for high-gain amplifiers, for instance. They really shouldn’t have been, since a lot of the current staples like the 5150 and Dual Rectifier were released in that timeframe (fine.. the Recto came out in ’89, but close enough).


But for whatever reason, we played a lot of junk gear back in those days. A lot of it was budgets. If you didn’t have the money for a Mesa or some ultra expensive VHT Pitbull or Bogner Uberschall then pickings were slim. It took a while for everyone to realize that the surprisingly cheap Peavey amp with Van Halen’s name on it actually ruled for metal.

What did you see at shows back in the day? Not the national touring bands, but smaller shows, VFW halls, places your band might actually play? Or in hourly rehearsal rental rooms? A lot of solid-state heads, for the most part. Like I said, dark times.


Ampeg VH140C

To me, nothing says “90s metal and hardcore” like the Ampeg Vh140C. They were inexpensive, power chords sounded heavy through them, and they were scooped as all hell. Still, out of all the solid state amps on this list, this Ampeg is the only one that I occasionally search eBay or Craigslist for, hoping to find one on the cheap. Sometimes you just want to drop D and remember the times you almost got your ass kicked by a bunch of dudes in camouflage pants.

crate excalibur

Crate Excalibur

On the other end of the spectrum is this horror show of an amp. If you saw a band rocking one of these gems you knew you were in for some shitty down-tempo death metal. I almost included Crate’s other ’90s stinker on this list, the Blue Voodoo, but I never knew anyone who actually owned one, enticing Marty Friedman ads notwithstanding.


Digitech processor into some random head or power amp

For the bands that needed all the fuzzy am-radio awesomeness of ’90s multi-effects distortion, but also would settle for no less than the exact Metallica chorus-delay “Sanitarium” clean tone at the touch of a button. Bonus points if the power section was a bass head like in the above picture, because that was my guitar rig for a year back then, except my Digitech was an RP-10 floor board into a Sunn Colosseum bass amp (which actually ruled for bass, but for guitar… not so much).


Marshall Valvestate

The Marshall everyone owned, because it was the only one they could afford. It had a pretty tight, cool sound until you brought in the rest of the band and you realize the absolute lack of midrange. I think it jumps from 400hz straight to 1k. Somehow Meshuggah made these sound good. I saw them in 1998 at Coney Island High (the second Meshuggah show ever in the U.S., and Candiria and Dillinger Escape Plan opened), and they were rocking the slightly less common 8200 version with 20 more watts and built-in chorus. Only God-kings of Swedish metal could get any tone out of such an amp. It’s still unclear if this was the amp used on Destroy Erase Improve, though. Fredrick Thordendal also owned Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and .22 Caliber amps at the time.

marshall jcm 900

Marshall JCM 900

The Mashall JCM 800 is one of the greatest rock and roll amps ever made, or one of the greatest metal amps if you have the right boost pedal or mod. Somewhere along the line, one of Marshall’s engineers decided to make a very similar amp, and then remove all the warmth, punch, and power. And lo, the JCM 900 was created. I think every rehearsal studio in New Jersey had at least five of these, and each one was some kind of busted. You’d get excited for a second that they actually had a couple tube amps, but it would always be this sad box, or Ampeg’s old Lee Jackson amp.

sovtek mig 50

Sovtek Mig 50/60/100

You know what? I’d totally rock one of these guys now. They never sounded amazing, but they killed every other cheapo amp on this list, and at least they had volume and character. I’m surprised more bands in the doom/stoner scene don’t have a Sovtek Mig mixed into their towers of Sunn and Hiwatt heads.

Written by

Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.

Latest comments
  • Bringing back some memories of days when good tone was hard to come by. I actually owned a couple of these amps :) The lead guitarist in my sludge band has that Sovtek and I don’t think it sounds all that good compared to his Mesa but he insists on using it sometimes – he admitted the he likes to bring it along just to have a valid reason for owning it, once he said that I understood :)

    • Ostrov?

      • Omg somebody mentioned my band in passing on a gear gods thread we finally made it.

    • I actually like those Sovteks quite a bit, but they’re not good metal amps by any means. They’re pretty great for punk, noise, indie, grunge, etc. though.

  • You should have included the pile of shit Marshall JCM 2000s.

    • Pretty sure those didn’t come out in the ’90s. You’d think I could be sure of that given the product’s name, but companies are sneaky like that. For example I think Knight Rider 2000 came out in the ’90s, and Street Fighter 2010 sure as hell didn’t come out three years ago.

      • ’97 is when they first started making them, but a lot of crap bands from the early 2000s played them, so you’re close enough.

        • yeah they were real trendy with shitty moshcore bands around 2000 or so

  • I love JCM900s.

  • Mediocre? Did you even see any death metal bands live from 92-96?

    • Plenty. The quality of the band does not equal the quality of the amp. So many bands had the worst tone back in those days.

      • Worst tone but yet recorded legendary albums? wow. Are you comparing old gear to today’s standards how is that even fair? I’m not even going to argue.

        • I’d say it’s fair. They had a lot of the same limitations as thrash bands from the 80’s had, but the tone on those albums generally holds up way better. And Swedish bands of the time managed some incredibly impressive tones with teal stripe Peaveys and Boss pedals. There were some great American death metal albums to come out during the 90’s, but a lot of them were in spite of their tone, not because of it.

  • Expected Peavey Bandit in there:

    • Dude, the silver stripe Peavey solid states were awesome. I’m currently trying to track down either a Special 212 or a Supreme head, but they don’t come up very often around here, and people want way too much for the Supreme.

  • I made fun of The Casualties using a Blue Voodoo in the comments section of some MetalSucks article and got called out for it. This article completely vindicates me.

    • You were correct. I have a soft spot for Blue Voodoos, but they are decidedly un-punk.

    • Yeah, but using the BV amps is not such a terrible offence in comparison to continuing to play with, support, and cover up for a serial sex predator.

  • I traded in a 70’s non-master volume single channel Marshall ALL TUBE head for one of those ghastly Valvestates. I am yet to forgive myself for it. In fairness, I was a 15 year old dork at the time.

  • Blue Voodoos were pretty cool. With a bit of toying with them you could get a killer tone. Jcm 2000s were total turds, WAY worse than the 900s lol

  • oh god this post is so so so good– i LOVE these amps!!! Nothing goes “jun jun” like a solid-state amp, and nothing sounds better to my ears than “jun jun.”

    • Abnegation/Creation is Crucifixion (same guitarist) used that Sovtek head and it sounded amazing/awful. Getting misty eyed now with nostalgia ;_;

    • I still regret selling my old Randall RH100 SO BAD. It did indeed deliver the “jun jun” in spades.

  • Oh my god I haven’t though about Candiria in foreverrrrrrrrrrrr

  • The JCM900 SL-X was actually a pretty good amp. The preamp was almost exactly a JCM800 with an extra gain stage. The 5881 version of the power amp kind of riffed on the Soldano SLO power amp, even though it’s also been said that Marshall switched to 5881s because of the lack of good EL34s in the USA at the time.

    Also, let’s not forget the Randall RG-80/RG-100 and Peavey MKIII heads with some average distortion pedal. Inescapable.

    • I wish I could like this post 15 times. The SL-X is indeed sick as hell.
      Standard 900’s are also just absolutely fine amps; people need to stop the frothing hating and actually try one. They’re perfectly fine amplifiers.

      • Agreed. I had a JCM 900 with EL34’s that sounded amazing. A friend got one with 6L6s that sounded terrible no matter what he did. Not sure if there were inconsistencies with these amps, but I loved mine for around 15 years.

    • Fuck yeah, the SLX was rad. So I bought substantially lesser 2 channel reverb version in ’95 instead because it was way cheaper for a used one at my local guitar shop. Totally a bonehead move, but then again I was about 13 at the time. Eventually I got an after-school job and saved like crazy and bought a Mesa 2-Channel Dual Rectifier in ’99, which I later traded straight for a 2-Channel Triple Rectifier 2003, which has been my go-to ever since.

  • The Sovtek Mig 50’s really weren’t great. But the Mig100 (and Mig100h) were killer amps, for a dirt cheap price while they could be found. Once they stopped production- they became hard to track down, and the price shot up. But they were also notoriously inconsistent – no two sounded the same.

  • My first amp head was a RedBear…a Russian tube amp. Thing was beast, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

  • I still have the Ampeg VH-140C combo and love it. Sold a Marshall to get it back in the 80’s. Anyone know where to get replacement parts for one?

  • While I like the sound of the Valvestates, the tone on DEI and Chaosphere is Dual Rectifier (and the ridiculous chain of gear surrounding it). That’s what I’ve read in an old Guitar World and also in a forum post from Thordendal.
    However, from what I gather, Thordendal DID use the Valvestate on his Sol Niger Within solo album. It rocks.

  • the Ampeg VH140C was the first amp tom used in blink-182. it was his primary head from 1993 to mid–1996. he had a custom light panel made with their logo from that time, when they were simply called blink. see attached. the in-store show pic is from early 1996.

  • lets see… many jcm 800’s 2210,2204,2203…. apa mp1 through a mosvalve(sad mistake)…..mig 50 with various gain pedals… that was my 90’s roster. the 2204,2203,mig 50 were the best…

  • Awesome

  • I don’t really know why the Ampeg VH-140C ended up with a reputation as a metal amp. It’s closest competition in the industry at the time was the Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120. Both are stereo solid-state 2×12 combo amps with detune chorus and reverb, but the Ampeg actually has a usable overdrive sound, if you are very careful with the dial, or if you use the Clean channel with the gain cranked up, which will give you the best overdrive sound I’ve ever heard out of a solid-state amp that easily rivals good tube amps in its touch sensitivity and seamless crossover from clean to overdrive with playing dynamics and your volume knob. Just because the dirty channel goes to “ridiculous distortion” doesn’t mean you *have* to use it. Well, that is, if you aren’t a mediocre metal or punk guitarist. If you play primarily clean, the VH-140C is among the best amps ever made for that.

  • Love My Sunn..built like a Tank..Blows the Walls Down!

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