Amps: Does Size Matter?

My personal mini-stack. The head fits in my backpack, but the tone is huge and monstrous!

My personal mini-stack. The head fits in my backpack, but the tone is huge and monstrous!

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!

About Orpheo

Orpheo is a long-time member of the Seymour Duncan forum with an interest in the technical side of luthery and pickups and plays jazz, blues, rock and metal on predominantly carved top single cutaway guitars.
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  • Simon Crosbie

    I can honestly say the sweetest tight headroom and warm harmonic layers I have dialed-in have been with a Budda Superdrive 30w (2×12) and most recently with an Egnater Rebel 30w (1×12) with a fantastic EL84/6VS blend feature…having grown up in the UK on a diet of Vox/Marshall/HiWatt/Orange valve walls of sound, these two Californian boutique custom shops have given me exactly what I was wanting…personally, the Egnater shades it for me…but that is just the time and place where my tone search is at this moment in time…paired with a Jeff Beck Artist Strat’, I can create a myriad of inspiring tone. The Egnater is weighty, but portable, it has a Celestion 80 Elite installed and that magnet weighs some! But it bloody well delivers top to bottom! Outstanding job Bruce!

    • Robby Palmer

      You need a sd45. Now those things got headroom and perfect smooth OD

  • Andrew

    What about Bass Amps? I run through an 8 ohm, 200w head head and it does me well, but I never have owned a head with a higher wattage.

    • Jon Moody

      Andrew, your bass amp head is probably just fine but it comes down what what cabinet you’re putting under it. I gigged for years in a hard rock band with an amp that put out 150w at 8ohm and a 4×10 cabinet. It was loud and fit the bill. For smaller gigs, I’d run that same amp through a 1×12.

    • Saul

      The guidelines for bass amps is different than guitar amps. With guitar amps you want breakup – you usually don’t for bass amps. Instead you want a solid low end, and that takes a lot of wattage compared to the midrange tones of a guitar.

  • Rus Archer

    db = logarhithmic
    if you start at 10db
    and go up 10db
    that’s not twice as loud
    that’s 10x as loud

    • wooblawoovla

      errm. 100db is twice the 10db

    • Peter Davis

      A 10 dB change is perceived as twice as loud, whereas a 3 dB increase is a doubling of acoustic energy.

    • Saul

      There is a difference between voltage, power, and loudness in terms of decibels. You’re right when it comes to power, but not when it comes to loudness. 10 db = 10x the power, approx 3x the voltage, and 2x the loudness.

      http://www.sengpielaudio.com/calculator-levelchange.htm

  • Ashes Defacto

    Besides weight, size and expense, big amps tend to overpower PA systems which tend to get paid short shrift by too many musicians. When you have amplifiers that could play a coliseum with a PA made for clubs you get that sound that everyone knows and hates from amateur bands.

    Also that wall of Marshal stacks that has been a concert staple since the late sixties has a dirty little secret. Most of them are fake, just the cabinet face and a head that’s a plywood box with the knobs glued on. Why? Because they look cool.

    • atomicjim

      Ha Ha. My daughter loaded in for Def Leppard once. They had a dozen or so Marshals, but only two were actual amps. The rest, as you said, were fake. Still heavy though.

      • Guest

        Here you go.

      • Ashes Defacto

        It turns out there’s a company that makes these.

  • Garry Barrett

    been around the world, figuratively speaking, with many different amps from 5 to 200 watts, tube & solid state (there are a few good ones), combo & head/cab variations in my 45 years of playing. I’ve finally settled on a 2 old Fender standbys, a ’65 Super Reverb – 40W for my clean sound and a ’66 Bassman – 50W for the most buttery OD I’ve ever had. The Super runs thru a 2×12 cab and the Bassman thru 2×10′s and for most gigs I run them in stereo. Then I keep a little 15W Fender Super Champ XD around for recording and relatively small venues although that little sucker can more than hold it’s own after I replaced the stock speaker with a Ragin Cajun. You might say I’m a Fender fan forever.

  • David C. Harris

    I have a Picovalve that I play through for recording and various other situations when my Carvin XV212 is just too much. I can swap out various power tubes and run it full out in 2 1/2 watt mode without pissing off the neighbors and still get that nice power tube breakup. I usually have it pushing a 12″ Cannibis Rex in a closed cab and if nobody were to tell you, you would think that it was a stack being used when you hear the recording played back. Just added a Twin Tube Mayhem to the front end today…
    Big amps have their place. Nothing like feeling your pant legs shaking, but one needn’t have it all the time to be effective.

  • Byrl Johnson

    At gigs I play my tele through a Fender twin with a 15″..lots of punch and sparkle.
    At home I have a 1960 Magnatone 280-A, not much sparkle but beautiful leathery tones.

  • Yannick

    Which head is he using in his mini stack?

    • Nico

      It’s a CMW Amps amp. These amps are extremely high quality amps built by Chris Winsemius in The Netherlands.

      I don’t own one, but I’ve heard a couple of them and know Chris a bit. :-)

  • MikeR85

    I agree with not needing high wattage amps for recording, anyone have any suggestions on playing live though? I tend to play mid-sized venues to anywhere between 50 and 500 people and I tend to find a 50W amp suits most of my needs in this environment. I used to use 100w amps when I was younger but in reality you can never turn them up past halfway in smaller venues without drowning everyone else out, and then you start to compromise on tone. Am looking around for a new amp at the moment, will a 15 or 20w be able to fill the room? Or should I stick to 50s?

  • Acoustic Eagle

    I have two amps, a 40 watt Peavey Transtube 1 x 12 (solid state) that I tend to use for home use and a Vox AC30 2 x 12 combo that I use for live use. On the Vox I use the top boost channel at 4 and the master at 4 and it is quite loud. The Peavey I use similar settings.

  • Benjamin

    I dunno. Every time I see a post or article praising smaller, lower-powered amps I think to myself “I wouldn’t have been able to play in half the places I’ve played with an amp like those.” I mean yes, they can sound fantastic and you can throw a mic on them but…

    Perhaps I’m outing myself here, but I play punk rock and roll music. I play with loud drummers – you try being choosy about finding drummers for music that fewer and fewer people care about. I’ve played music in large concert halls, but I’ve also played in garages, basements, backyards, skate parks, living rooms, sculpture galleries, pizza joints, youth centers, dive bars, stairways, breweries, holes in the ground, and shacks in the middle of the woods. My big ol’ Marshall has allowed my to play in all of them, where an AC15 might have covered a few if I could get the drummer to cool off. If I need a big, aggressive guitar tone, and I need it to hold together – the 4x12s help there. Can I always crank it to the sweet spot? Well, maybe not, but people have a real myth in their mind that there’s a spot on the volume dial of a big amp where it’s going to sound amazing – and it’s always going to be beyond where you can set it. I call BS. My amp has a master volume and every time I play people ask me about it.

    Now, I spent years working in professional audio at some serious venues, and I’ve seen guitarists ruin their band’s mix in 1,000 seat rooms because they couldn’t turn down their Blues Jr. so I KNOW I’m talking about specific situations, but I also know what I’m talking about in those situations.

    Also, I build my own amps. I’ve been playing out of the same 50 watter for years. I’m in the process of building a much smaller one, because I agree – small amps can sound great when you crank ‘em up – but for different purposes. I’ll never give up my big amp when someone calls me up to play a shack in the middle of the woods.

    • Chris

      Agree. Playing with loud drummer you need a 4×12. Usually a 100watt head is the best choice for tightness and saturation with a 4×12.

      A 1×12 open back is not loud or focued enough to play/rehearse with many rock drummers. A 2×12 combo is godawful heavy and hard to use as a monitor without a stand. A 4×12 has casters and rolls, is easier to move than a 2×12 combo and is easy to use as a monitor. The half stack is battle tested.

  • http://www.jango.com Mick Lazer

    In a recording situation, these statements would be true, except when a larger amp is being recorded from a distance. When that happens; there is a perceived distinction between amps of different sizes, unless each amp of a different size is on a close proximity microphone. Page’s Supro Thunderbolt or Coronado, as it was sometimes referred to, had a wide dispersion 15 inch alnico Jensen, miked from a distance and also in close proximity. You did not see Jimmy using small amps in a live situation, which is totally different than recording.

  • Tele guy

    The trick is to find an amp with great tone in and around the 25-30 watt mark

    • Ken Shalek

      ’nuff said!