We seem to say this every year but there has been a crazy amount of gear releases in 2023. There's so much competition for your cash, with the effects market bigger and better than ever, amp pedals continuing to grow in popularity and a guitar sector that weighs in with innovation, retrospection and even affordability to cater for diverse needs.
Of course, we've got our favorites that we've reviewed and played; we're not afraid to show it here. Our choices are just like our reviews; we're looking at value and features as a given, but always; does this make you want to play? Is it inspiring? Because that's ultimately what we're all here for, surely!
Our favourite new amp pedals of 2023
For a long time there was this idea of valve Vs digital when it came to guitar amps. But the concept that one can be better is a misnomer – what is better? Better sound? Better for recording? Better at home? This year felt it was more about choices than the idea of a winner.
Modelling and multi-effects pedals have come a long, long way, and 2023 was a clear indication of that, but valve amps aren't going anywhere either. We're happy to see both thrive for different requirements. The 'best' choices are about the right gear for our needs, that will see us playing, and enjoying playing more. As most of us are home players, that weighed heavy on our requirements. And the market was more than happy to oblige.
Fender Tone Master Pro
It began with combos, but it emerged that Fender's Tone Master ambitions had been planning for a floor unit for some time. With a vivid touch screen and the same modelling process that saw its previous Tone Master amps so highly rated, the Pro lives up to its name in features and price.
And this is an ongoing story; as we've seen with other brands, firmware support will enhance the product and widen its user base over time. As can the expansion of model options towards more accessible price points. But as it stands, this is an impressive start from the company at this end of the market.
UAFX Lion '68 Super Lead Amp pedal
UA's take on the amp modelling pedal is quite different than most; it seeks to go all-in on one model at a time, with an unrivalled ear for details. The results have been highly impressive before, but the Lion manages to bring three different models of Plexi Marshall to the 'board.
It's the best example of modelled tones from late '60s Marshalls we've heard, with a great range of speaker IRs and the bonus of EVH's Brown sound amp spec cued up and ready to go when you are.
TC Electronics Ampworx Vintage Series
Another shoutout for accessibility. Following UA's lead, the Danes honed in on three classic amps with three pedals and at prices that provide the ideal entry point for newcomers. The sounds impressed us, furthering the case for focus over option paralysis with pedal platforms that are also… pedals.
Our favourite new amps of 2023
Marshall Studio JTM ST20H
The tube amp isn't going anywhere. This year, Marshall expanded the beloved Studio Series with one of the best units the amp titian has produced in years. This compact head is brimming with vintage mojo and character, from its drop-dead-gorgeous styling to its authentically retro tones.
For us, the Studio JTM ST20H delivered a surprising amount of headroom with a clear, warm and full-bodied tone that we instantly fell in love with. Throw in the ability to "jump" the channels, an FX loop and DI output, and you get the ultimate studio companion for those looking for the Marshall tones of yesteryear with some modern upgrades.
When Positive Grid followed up its hugely popular Spark 40 practice amp with the Spark Mini, we didn't think it could scale down anymore while still providing such a great wealth of tones and app features. Well, we were wrong – the pocket-sized go sets the new standard for mini amps.
The rugged little champ can pump out some surprisingly girthsome sounds from its 5-watt speaker, and a USB-C rechargeable battery means its happy to travel with you. And it's that sense of freedom that really makes the Speak Go such a great buy; we ended up playing guitar more because we could take it where it was easiest for us.
Boss Katana 50 MKII EX
It's no secret that we are massive fans of the Katana range here at MusicRadar - and we are hardly alone; these clever digital amps are among the most popular on the planet.
Now, it's fair to say the new Boss Katana 50 MKII EX is not a complete reimagining of the original model. Instead, it offers players limited but well-thought-out changes that improve functionality and make the amp more versatile in a live situation.
Our favourite new electric guitars of 2023
We use the word 'investment' a lot in our reviews, and we don't do it lightly. It's your money and time; often hard-earned. You need to know if higher-priced guitars justify their premium, but more and more we're seeing just how much you can get for your money.
That's a big overarching theme in our choices; more guitar for less money. Who doesn't want that? Well that's our excuse when we add another one to the rack anyway…
Shergold really impressed us here – a classic look that seems to draw from Tele and Firebird influence, with a little Gretsch tonality thrown into the mix. The Telstar not only looks great and sounds it, but it's affordable too.
This combination is a testament to a UK company that's trying to bring a fresh perspective to the market for as many players as possible. The Telstar is a cool standalone design that isn't a compromised version of a higher-end guitar, and that makes it all the more special to us.
Our contributor Leigh Fuge even put it to the test on the road and in the studio.
"Since getting my hands on one earlier this year, I’ve hardly put down the Telstar," says Leigh. "It’s such a fantastically versatile guitar that I think not only looks great, but sounds great too. It’s a fun guitar to play.
"I’ve toured it a lot this year and despite the fact it’s a sub-£500 guitar, it’s easily held its own against other guitars I tour with that are four times its value.
"I also love the visuals of this guitar. It blends an offset outline of a Telecaster with the raised middle block of a Firebird. Paired with the Gretsch-style Fitlertron pickups, this guitar is something special."
Charvel Prashant Aswani Signature Pro-Mod So-Cal PA28
When Prashant Aswani and Charvel teamed up for this signature model the design brief was open-ended. This had to be a guitar you could play anything on. And they made good on it. The signature PA28 humbuckers are super-versatile, hot enough but dynamic, with five-way switching yielding all the in-between tones you could need for blues, funk, jazz-fusion, whatever takes your fancy.
The ride is typically Charvel, with a speedy neck that stays out your way, while the stable and fuss-free Wilkinson vibrato makes this feel like a more user-friendly – and grown-up? – take on the Superstrat, with an Inca Silver finish and licensed Strat headstock giving it heavy custom hot-rod vibes.
Squier Paranormal Jazzmaster XII
We aren't exaggerating when we say Squier knocked it out of the park with their latest release. For us, this budget 12-string delivers a tremendous sound, effortless playability and spot-on finishing - proving you don't need to spend a fortune to get your hands on an outstanding instrument these days.
So, if you've always wanted to add some 12-string magic to your home recordings, we highly recommend picking up the Paranormal Jazzmaster XII. In fact, we loved this one so much that we kept it and added it to our personal collection.
Our favourite new pedals of 2023
We could have listed a lot of worthy candidates here, because there are more new releases in pedals than any other part of the gear market. Bring 'em on, we say!
Not every pedal needs to being something unique to the table to be great. Sometimes just being a go-to that delivers everytime is more than enough. But there are also pedals that inspire creativity and ideas that just wouldn't have come from us otherwise. And those are often the hardest purchases to resist.
We always enjoy seeing the ripples of excitement that follow an innovative pedal announced and the demos surface online. The Cloudburst caused a stir; and for good reasons. It was Strymon's first compact pedal, and its excellent ambient reverb mode was one thing, but the new orchestral Ensemble modes blew us away. There were times we felt more like conductors than guitarists.
When a pedal makes you spend hours just getting lost in its sounds, you know it's done its job. The Cloudburst proved Strymon is out on its own when it comes to setting new standards for digital processing in effects.
Warm Audio Centavo Professional Overdrive
Okay, so we fully believe there are already way too many Klon-style overdrive pedals on the market, but when they sound and look this good, we can make room for one more. With plenty of headroom and the harmonically rich break-up you've come to expect from a Klon, the Warm Audio Centavo Professional Overdrive is a solid recreation of the mythical pedal that so many players long for.
Boss DM-101 Delay Machine
Something we didn't have on our bingo card for 2023? Buying a high-end analogue delay pedal from Boss. But when we reviewed it the decision was surprisingly simple. The Delay Machine is a tour-de-force of Bucket Brigade Device goodness (there's eight chips in this) but it pushed the analogue tech beyond what we thought could be possible thanks to its digital control.
So there's a tape echo with ten different modes, there's long true analogue delays, glorious slapback and borderline reverb, and there the classic DD-2 mode alongside stunning stereo modes and much more. It's intuitive and inspiring, it looks great and the four onboard presets are the icing on an irresistible cake. We had to sell some gear to pay for it, but we don't regret it for a millisecond.
There was plenty of great gear this year that doesn't fit into the neater categorisations above, and we want to give an exceptional trio their spotlight.
Fender Tone Master FR-10 and FR-12
Why is the FRFR cab market such an afterthought for many amp companies? Modelling isn't going away, so why not engage with it and give those players some of the old school physicality and 'pushing air' experience back. Fender heard the call and it delivered big time.
The fact its FR cabs look like combo amps helps a lot – there's never been a memo stating they need to look like PA speakers but other brands seem to run with it. But the tilt back stand, 1,000-watt Class D power amp, 3--band active EQ and relatively light weight make sure it delivers the goods.
IK Multimedia ToneX Pedal
Though technically fitting into amp and effects category, the ToneX's focus and biggest strength is its provision of the former as captures in a compact unit. A world of amp possibilities is opened by being able to upload, store and use IK's Machine Modeling Tone Models. Thousands of them; amps, cabs and yes, even pedals.
We love the access it delivers for players to gear they may never get to see, let alone play, with results that can stand up to the competition.
Blackstar St James plugin
Blackstar has long proved itself to be an amp company willing to engage with players in varied spaces, so its decision to create a plugin version of its best tube amps wasn't so surprising on reflection. It's still great to see a willingness to embrace different user needs, and deliver for them so successfully.