What is headroom

What means headroom in a guitar amp. We will try to answer that question in this blog.
When you talk about guitar amps, you will always hear people mention their amps have tons of headroom.
But what is the meaning of headroom in terms of guitar amps?

Not as excited as you think

In fact, headroom is the amount of volume before the amp starts to distort.

You will need an amp with a lot of headroom, when you play clean tones on higher volumes.
If you are looking for a quick distorting amp, don’t look for an amp with much headroom.

Higher wattage amps that distort quickly when turning the gain knobs, have more headroom. Simply because they have more volume to give.

Well known amps that have tons of headroom may be the following:

  • Fender Twin Reverb; – (used by Peter Green and Mark Knopfler)
  • Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120; – (used by Albert King and Andy Summers)
  • VOX AC30; – (used by many like: The Beatles, Brian May, the Shadows and Status Quo)
  • Dr.Z Stang Ray for instance – (Brad Paisley used these a lot)
  • Marshall Plexi JTM45 & 100 – (Jimi Hendrix played these)
  • Hiwatt DR103 – (David Gilmore’s favorite amp)

What means headroom in a guitar amp

The amp will stay clean, no matter how much you crank the volume knob. It may eventually create a clean tone with a nice crispy edge. The image on the left shows a Marshall JTM45, which is very famous for the incredible amount of headroom. Cranking the volume of this one to the max, it will deliver a lot more than just a crispy edge to your tone. This amp is famous for the use by Jimi Hendrix for instance.


Sometimes, regarding your preferred clean sound, you come across a tone that may be too direct on higher volumes.
Hitting the strings will result in such a powerful attack like hitting with a sledge hammer. In fact, electric guitars provide a relatively short amount of sustain.
Guitars have such a wide variance of dynamics—transients pop out, while softer parts are left in the wind in live mixes and recording. What is headroom in a guitar amp

When a (tube) guitar amp starts to break up, compression appears to level peaks and valley of the signal. This gives you more sustain as well. Tube amps add natural compression as you increase the volume.

With clean sounds a guitar amp will create a lot of dynamics. And in many cases way too much.

A compressor will help you to reduce the distance between the peaks and valleys for a more consistent sound.
But before you start using a compressor pedal, be aware not to use too much compression. Because it may have a lot of impact on your overall tone.

Amps with less headroom

Amps that start to break up early on dialing the gain knob

  • Vox AC15
  • Dr.Z Z-Wreck
  • Fender Bassman

What means headroom in a guitar amp Shown on the left is a 1964 Fender Bassman amp, famous for its distorted tone. And the first Bassman amps made Mr. Jim Marshall think of creating his own amp with his signature of sound. In this case he invented the Marshall JTM45 in 1962.

In this blog we are only talking about amps and their amount of headroom or break-up sound.

You might also like to use a high wattage amp with lots of headroom when using stomp boxes. Especially with distortion pedals.
There are many options to choose in your search for the right sound in terms of headroom and distortion.

In most cases you won’t need a compressor with these (less headroom) amps. The way the amp works, it has compression of its own when it breaks up.
Amps that distort quickly or that are ran by a lot of overdrive, will have a more high- and midrange frequency output. As a result, things like pick noise may occur faster.

We hope that you now know more about the question what means headroom in a guitar amp, we started this blog with.

Related links:

Manage your sound

There are many ways to improve your sound, like the type or brand of guitar and amp we use. Besides that, the pedals you’re using may have a lot of impact on your sound as well.
But also think about what guitar pick you are used to play with. Different guitar picks deliver different sounds to your playing.
Thinner guitar picks create a thinner sound, where heavier guitar picks deliver a fuller sound with more mids- and bottom-end tone.

Guitar essentials

In guitar essentials we write about interesting things every guitarist should know a bit of. Especially when you’re new to (electric) guitar.
We definitely don’t dig deep into theories or technical aspects.
You will find many scientific documents about anything somewhere on the internet.