In Defense of Small, Low-Wattage Amps
After reading Adam Gotch’s excellent case for using 100 watt amps at gigs big and small, I am compelled to come up with a counter-argument.
There is simply no sonic reason outside of tight, riff-based metal to use a stack these days. Even then, I’d argue that there are probably plenty of instances a well-defined metal tone can be had that is quieter, in a smaller size, and more sound-person friendly. There, I said it.
First, let me explain. I am not a vintage snob. The music I write can be described as ambient. I am a fusion guitarist playing in a blues band using very unconventional guitars, amps and pedals who gets weird looks whenever I play at a blues festival. I am not one of those people who think only tube amps have the best tone. I will use anything that sounds good, but sounding good is only one of the requirements of this pro guitarist.
Wait? It isn’t all about the sound? Then, its gotta be the looks, right? It is certainly the looks. Nothing looks cooler than a row of stacks, right?
Well, it sort of looked cool when Van Halen was doing it in ’83. And Judas Priest. And Yngwie. And every metal band that followed. Lets face it- there is a certain iconography and fetishizing that goes with giant amps ALL IN A ROW! Then as well as now, many of those Marshalls were/are fake!
Well, stack-lovers argue that there is no other way to get that sound. And anyone who has played an A power chord in front of a whole stack (or 2 ) knows what I am taking about. Yes, I understand headroom. I understand that stack-lovers love that tightness and focus that comes from standing in front of speakers 6 feet high. I understand many tiny clubs only put the vocals through the PA, and you wanna rock, dude. And you wanna be heard. Oh yeah, it looks cool too. It is a symbol of masculinity: Look at my killer stack, doood! It sounds sooo awesome!
You know who hates stacks? Sound men & women. Many times they can’t mix the PA properly because the 100 watts are competing with the vocals. It makes their PA work harder, and they eventually give up trying to make your band sound good. All those hours posing in front of the mirror with your stack are wasted when you have terrible sound. The soundperson is the gatekeeper between your bitchin’ tunes and your audience, right? Don’t ever make them mad. Be easy to work with. I compare it to yelling at your waiter before he/she delivers your food. You don’t want to regret it later, right?
Back when Hendrix and Page and Blackmore were tearing it up, PA systems were terrible. Now, at any good venue or festival, there are wonderful top-notch PA systems. There are soundpeople who really know what they are doing. They like guitarists that are easy to work with, and don’t make their job any harder than it needs to be. Respect them, or regret it later.
You see, years ago, there was no such thing as a master volume on amps. Amps had to be LOUD to get those big power tubes to distort. But when they did, oh baby, you had a wonderfully glorious sound. These days, it is all about the buzzy tightness of preamp tubes distorting , which can be done at many different volume levels. Smaller amps allow you the flexibility of getting the sound you might want in a smaller package. Yes, a smaller package means less stage volume, but that is a good thing. Ask your singer.
Another point is that standing in front of a giant stack is terrible for your hearing. You know that ringing after an awesome show? That is permanent damage to those little hairs in your ears. Ask Pete Townshend (someone who definitely played louder than anyone reading this) how cool standing in front of loud amps is, and what it does to your hearing.
Finally, my biggest gripe with big amps is that they are, well, big. If you have friends or band mates willing to help you get a few cabs out of mom’s Oldsmobuick, awesome. Or if you are at Yngwie’s level, and can pay people lots of money to maintain, carry and set up these amps every night. But most pros are slinging gear themselves. Less to carry saves your back and takes up less room in the van, which the other musicians will appreciate. Not just the musicians in your band either. If you are in a multi-band show, and you insist on competing with the PA with a giant amp, the soundperson will not be in a good mood for the next band either. That is a good way to get a whole lot of people mad at you at once.
So yes, my gear choices are based on more than sound. Personally, if I can get my entire rig onstage with one trip from the car, I am happy. So is the soundperson, as well as the other musicians. The audience hears the sound mixed well from the PA, the stage volume is low, and my back doesn’t hurt. Yes, a big amp might sound better to the guitarist, and he/she might feel like they can play better. But this isn’t all about the guitarist. It is about many things coming together to make a great show for the audience.
How about other guitarists out there? I can’t be the only one that thinks low-wattage, smaller amps are the right tool for the job most of the time. Or maybe you are one of those ‘give me 100 watts or give me death’ types that think nothing but a stack will do. Lets hear you state your case.