When I started to play guitar, and I bet we all had this feeling at some point, I wanted nothing more but a wall of Marshall stacks. It looked cool and all my heroes used it so it had to be something good, right? Little did I know! Those amps are extremely unpractical in almost every situation. They’re too loud, they’re extremely clumsy to transport and they’re often so expensive! As my playing progressed and I got more into the history of the electric guitar I discovered that there are so many guys out there who use small amps (passionately or maybe sarcastically called lunchbox amps!). In this article I want to check out smaller amps and their sonic properties.
When it comes to small amps, the Vox AC15 is a famous but maybe not great example of a small amp that sounds huge, but then again… you don’t need 100 watts to achieve ear-bleeding levels of volume if you’ve got a Vox in your lineup. Keep in mind that a 100 watt amp isn’t ten times louder than a 10 watt amp. As a matter of fact, a 100 watt will only be twice as loud, churning out just 10dB more than a 10 watt amp!
Just a little side note on internal power scaling features on amps. Don’t expect your 100 watt Mesa Rectifier to suddenly drop in volume just because you scaled it down to 10 watts with the internal power soak. It will be (almost) as loud. Instead, the power stage of your amp will work much harder, giving you a much warmer and more fluid tone. Some might say that the sound becomes mushy; others think it’s warmer. No matter how you cut it, the power tubes will work a lot harder giving you the ‘feel’ of a 100 watt amp going on 10 but without having to crank it open at full (because even though the power and volume of a 10 watt amp is much less, the minute difference of ‘going to 11′ can make a huge difference!).
So what is it that makes a huge amp work versus a small amp, or vice versa? If it’s not volume per se, or the amount of distortion, what is it? I would think that the headroom (how loud you can go before you get an overdriven tone) is the key. Perhaps not just headroom per se, but also the tightness of the low end comes in as well. If you want to play blues the slight sag of the low end might be something you want or need, but if you play super tight heavy metal you may want to look at another kind of amplifier than a low wattage amp. Surely an overdrive or distortion pedal can help in tightening your tone, but not all players like to use pedals.
On the other hand, a huge 100 watt tube amp isn’t necessarily tight. To some players’ ears the Rectifier can be perceived as having a saggy low end. Some styles and some players really need the tonal characteristics of the Rectifier, others simply can’t gel with it. On the other hand, take a closer look at the Evil Robot. The Magnatone Tone Master was recently used as the inspiration and basis of the Evil Robot and it’s Phil X’s amp of choice. You can hardly claim that this amp sounds saggy, weak or thin!
Small amps can have a huge sound as well. It’s hard to imagine some classic albums without small amps! Those little boxes were considered just practice amps, but c’mon… We all know and love the sound of Jimmy Page’s tele through that little Supro amp on Led Zeppelin I, right?! Of course, what he really used is still a mystery. Was it really a Supro? Or just an amp built by the Valco company (who manufactured many amps for other retailers)? In any case, you could hardly claim that Page’s sound was thin or weak, despite not using the huge Marshall stacks he used on stage.
Small amps. Huge amps… One might conclude that I don’t think it’s that important what you use but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a huge deal for me what I use. The only thing I don’t care about is the wattage. Joe Bonamassa says he can hear if it’s a 100 watt amp and challenges people to the Pepsi-Cola test, but I, frankly, can’t hear it. Perhaps feel it. As long as it sounds great, feels amazing and allows me to play what I want to play without me having to fight the amp continuously, it’s fine by me how much wattage the amp has. Just listen to this Trainwreck amp. It sounds amazing like nothing else!