Conventional Wisdom and the 100-Watt Amplifier

Up-close shot of the 120-watt Splawn Pro ModSometimes you feel like the whole world has gone crazy.

At least, that’s how I feel whenever I come across a person on an internet forum repeating the increasingly-prevalent diatribe about the supposed impracticality of the 100-watt tube amp. If you’ve spent much time at all discussing guitar amplification with others online, you’ve probably read these words yourself a time or ten (names made up for my amusement):

There is absolutely no need for anyone to be using 100-watt tube amps unless they’re playing at outdoor stadium venues!

– Blowhard Magoo

Poppycock!

When pressed, these know-it-alls will often attempt to back up their grievous generalizations with gems like this one:

By the time you have a 100-watt tube amp turned up enough to start sounding good, it will be too loud for any situation!

– LivingRoomRockstar

Balderdash!

I submit that there are a number of scenarios where a 100-watt amp is not only practical and appropriate, but the best tool for the job as well! And, as with most things I write about here for Seymour Duncan, I am coming from a position of some experience.

I don’t know where these 100-watt naysayers are gigging, but from listening to them, you’d think every live music venue in the world features a full 32-channel house PA and a trained sound engineer to run it. As a guitarist out there in an original band gigging primarily in the Midwest, I can assure you that has not been my experience.

Over the years, Devils of Belgrade (the band I co-founded and play guitar for) have played a lot of shows. During our meteoric rise from total obscurity to underground micro-niche internet fame, we’ve graced the stage of many a dive bar, rec center, and basement show.  To be fair, some of those “stages” have been more like “that spot over there on the floor,” but whatever. It’s rock’n’roll! Don’t judge me.

A significant number of those places do not have large house PA systems. Or small house PA systems. Or functioning bathroom facilities. What they have are the peoples; they who brave the elements and beasts of the wilderness to come and bear witness to the rock and roll, and they want their faces melted.

Nay! The DESERVE to have their faces melted! Enter the 100-watt tube amp!

Full/Half power switch
SET PHASERS TO VAPORIZE!

Now, to be factual, an audio technician will tell you that the difference in perceived volume between wattage ratings in amplifiers is actually a lot smaller than you might expect. A 50-watt amp is only 3 db (decibels, the unit volume is measured by) quieter than a 100-watt amp. Going further, a 30-watt amp is only 5 db quieter. And, somewhat astoundingly, a little 10-watt amp is actually half as loud (or -10 db) as the 100-watt amp!

That’s right: you can achieve 1/2 the volume of a 100-watt amp with 1/10th the power.

So now you might be thinking, “Adam, I hear you going bonkers over 100-watt amps, but you just told us that the science behind sound amplification says you can lower the wattage without losing a ton of volume. Given that, why would you need 100-watts when a 30-watt amp is only 5 db quieter?”

The reason is because my ideal tone – the tone I try to maintain as consistently as possible – is a thick, distorted sound with plenty of mid-range and a bit of tight, controlled low-end “thump.” Replicating that tone at a volume that can be discerned by an audience when mixed in with a bass player, second guitarist, and a loud drummer on a stage with minimal sound reinforcement is very difficult for lower-wattage amps to do, even though the difference in raw volume is very small.

When I’m set up facing the side wall of a tiny dive joint full of people, and the “PA” is really just a big vocal monitor pointed around toward the crowd, a little 30-watt combo amp might be able to get loud enough to be heard, but I would be pushing it so hard that the power section is going to distort. A lot. For some players, that’s the sound they’re going for, but for me it means that my mid-range is going to go from “smooth” to “crackly” and my low-end “thump” is going to sound more like low-end “xghrrrghshgfffbpl.”

The 30-watter might be very capable of getting as loud as the volume level I’d dial into a 100-watter, but it’s going to lose most of its tightness and definition by getting there. This is because, as the power section of a tube amplifier is pushed beyond peak efficiency and into distortion, the low-end frequencies tend to be the first to suffer.

Marshall, VHT, Splawn, Bogner guitar amplifiers
Overkill? I prefer the term “insurance against under-kill.”

The magic of a high-wattage tube head is not so much about volume as it is about HEADROOM. Simply put, you can turn a 100-watt amp up as loud as you need to and it’s going to deliver the goods anyway. You hit that volume “sweet spot” where the tubes wake up and start cooking and achieve the volume you need to sound good with your band in the room well before you encounter the amount of power amp distortion that would cause your tone to suffer.

Besides, playing through a Big Damn Amp just feels good. It’s like driving a sports car… Having all that power at your fingertips is exhilarating, even if you aren’t always using all of it. And like a sports car, most of the fun isn’t from driving at top speed, but in its acceleration and handling. A 100-watt amplifier is no different. The feel and response, even at reasonable volumes, is not something that can be imitated by lower-power rigs.

I don’t know about you, but when it feels good, I play better. And when I play better, I feel more free to perform better too.

Can you feel it?! Feels GOOD!

When trying to decide if you should take the leap and get yourself a 100-watt amp,
don’t be discouraged by the people who will tell you that there is no practical use for one. Their perspective is limited to their experience, not mine, and not yours. If you’re playing live with a band and constantly feel like you’re hitting the limits of what your current rig can do, it might be time to move up to the Big Damn Amp.

Join the Conversation

46 Comments

  1. As much as i support your side, I myself use a 30 watt class A amp going through an open back 2×12 combo and the other guitarist uses a 100 watt JCM2000 through a bigass 4×12, i can keep up consistently until our amps are burying the drums in an un-mic’d situation, and my clean channel is as clean as can be, the only change is the louder i push my 30 watts the fatter and fuller my tone becomes without over eq’ing, which in turn allows me to run my eq straight up. But the tone of my other guitarists tone is full and beefy, and sounds really good…
    I used to be a 100 watt die hard player, but when i switched to Class A with a cascaded gain section in 30 watts… It alleviated all the problems with chasing transient waves caused by that excessive headroom
    I have personally played in over 20 bands and played venues up and down the west coast, and i just wish i would have gone to the smaller wattage 14 years ago!!

    1. I dis-agree with you on 30 watts compared to 100 watts and I don’t care how many times you have played or how great thou aren’t ! , the touch feel of big wattage just cannot be accomplished it the tiny weenie 30 watt amps ! , 75 watts is the smallest amp that I like ! . For years I tried to play clean guitar with small amps only to be dis-apponted over and over again – the small amps never sounded full in tone and were flat and uncolored ! , Then I got a Mig Lead 100 with El 34 tubes and a smaller 1950’s 75 watt Bell Labs P/A Guitar amp mod. , both were like breathing fresh air in a stinky amplifier environment , I will never go back to little small block amps again unless they are stereo audio amps for home use – you may have some high dollar class A set up that You think is the cats meow but it will never be able to hang with My Mig 100 live ! , I think the 30 watt amps really suck for the guitar live and are basically studio mono amps ! .
      I remember last summer trying to use a 40 watt Dr. Z live in a big room with a Hammond and a Roland Keyboard and they said we can’t hear you turn it up ! ,
      I was so dam embarrassed by that 40 watt piece of crap live that I felt like hiding myself ! . I turned every knob up to 10 and kicked on the gain pedal and they said; We still can’t hear You – turn it up louder ! .
      I use a 30 watt Bogen stereo Audio amp in my studio for recording but I will never ever show up live with less then 100 watts to play live ever again ! .

      1. That’s nice that you have tried so many amps, what cabinets are you using, what is the efficiency of the speaker, let alone the knowing the speaker loses a touch of perceived volume as it heats up and starts to naturally compress… You see when I play love the venues generally have, well, always have… A PA, where they mic the amp…. So turning up should never be an issue, in fact for great stage sound you do not want your amp cranked up… Unless your playing places without a PA… And I haven’t played any of those crackerboxes in years!
        So it goes back to, getting that nice sweet el34 power tube distortion that can only be achived by cranking the master volume (minus those using attenuators) would deafen people in a half stack 100 watt situation, I have recently gone down to 7 watts with el84’s and two closed back 1×12 ampeg cabs loaded with vintage 30’s…. Amazing tone,
        I digress, there is nothing wrong with a 100w amp…
        But for those who actually actively tour, know that nearly all clubs require you to use their back line gear or bring no more than a 2×12 combo cause they don’t want you competing with the house PA

  2. Great article as usual Adam. I’m on your side in this “debate” for the same reasons….my 80 watt Bogner Shiva 20th Anniv. delivers the goods at any volume, but the sweet spot is when it’s cranked to a degree a 30 watt cannot.

    1. Thanks Jake!
      As in all subjective tone-ish things, there is no right or wrong… but for my tones, in my band, on the stages we play and along-side the other bands we play with, a 100-watt tube amp is like standard issue equipment.

    1. I’d apply the same general concept to the 120 and 150 watt amps as well. The point is that you’re not likely to hit the headroom wall with any of them, and in live band situations where there is no PA, you don’t have to worry about disappearing from the mix.

  3. I can easily
    agree with both sides in this debate as having used both high and low wattage
    rigs. I would rather have my Soldano SLO100 half stack with m. I can always use
    a load box (THD hotplate) with it to lower the volume as opposed to my Suhr
    Badger 30 head and 2 x 12 cab. In my experience I have never said to myself, or
    heard any other guitarist for that matter comment, “I have too much power”,
    but yet I can’t begin to count the times that I’ve heard guys saying “[email protected]#%!!!! I
    wish I had a bigger (higher wattage) amp!!!! Bottom line is you can
    always back off on a 100 watt amp, but when you hit the wall on a say 30
    watter… there’s no place left to go. And to add some real perspective, if you
    could truly achieve that big sound out of a low wattage amp, why would so many
    players who can afford anything and tour arenas and stadiums with state of the
    art house PA still use high wattage amps into iso cab? Bottom line, they want
    the tone and headroom only a high wattage amp cam deliever.

  4. Joe Bonamassa said something similar in an interview for a magazine that I was reading yesterday.
    I agree with the article based on lots of experience in the studio and playing live. But its quite frustrating when the band keeps trying to keep us away from our sweet spot on the volume knob. That`s why I take my attenuator with me.
    How about the big cabinets? What you think about the use of 412s on small gigs?

  5. The highest permissible noise exposure for the UNPROTECTED ear is 115 dB for 15 MINUTES/day. Any noise above 140 dB IS NOT PERMITTED.
    Habitual exposure to noise above 85 dB will cause a gradual hearing loss in a significant number of individuals, and louder noises will accelerate this damage. For unprotected ears, the allowed exposure time decreases by ONE HALF FOR EACH 5 dB INCREASE in the average noise level. For instance, exposure is limited to 8 hr at 90 dB, 4 hr at 95 dB, and 2 hr at 100 dB.
    the typical rock band is at 115dB. High frequencies cut through earplugs. so if you are trying to crank that 100 WATTER HALF STACK constantly to get the “sweet spot”, even with earplugs slowly say goodbye to your most important sound gear, your ears! 😉
    I prefer 50 watts or less so I can get the cranked tone AND preserve my ears; fortunately my amp is a thunderverb 50 that has a built in attenuator. I think 50 watts is more than enough, and when I get a good gig and want good non-solid-state tone, the sound guy that always tells me to “turn down” anyway is not complaining that the guitar is leaking into the vocal mic, drum mic, bass, mic…

      1. Hear! Hear! (No pun intended.) You can do what you damned well want (pretty much) and you just have to live with the consequences. Me, I use a 36 watt amp ~7 kg) with a 2×12 mostly. Why? My back, plus they are loud enough for where and how I play. Do I want/like the 200 watt amps? Oh yes, but then I would need a roadie. 🙂

  6. I understand what you are saying. I have a 75 watt MusicMan with a single 15 cabinet and it will get up and walk if you need it. But it will do soft also. I wish that I could expand the bottom end though.

  7. Great article Adam. Can you write something about song structure / organizing riffs for a song? Got all these great ideas in my head that I’m too excited to put into any sensible order. Loved your article about writing with your brain. Keep it up!

      1. Thanks Adam. Lot’s of great bands have put out great, energetic material under pressure. I feel like I lose momentum and energy by trying to piece together the perfect track. Should I solo over everything? Should I save some great licks for future endeavors? Should these two epic, somewhat similar riffs meet in a fantastic twosome, or should I split into two songs? I try to feel it out as I go along, but sometimes creativity (or lack thereof) can be confusing. Thanks!

  8. Arr Be Darr, melt their faces off I say !!!!! I want a totally clean sound not a pushed clean sound so I use a 120 watt Egnater Armageddon with a 4×12 in a lounge with a six piece band. I have been out front with a wireless and have recorded on video tape cause I want to hear the singing balance and not blow the audience ears off. I also used my Egnater Tourmaster where you can set each of it’s four channels to 10 watts, 20 watts, 25 watts, 50 watts and 100 watts so I have tried all those combinations. I also own an Egnater Renegade 1-12 combo where I can set one channel for 18 watts and the other for 65 watts. I also bought a Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 36 with built in power soak for 1 watt, 5 watt, 18 watt and 36 watt output and tried all the settings. It’s fine to have a small amp 1watt, 5 watt, 10 watt, 18 watt if you play only various amounts of dirt but if you want one of your sounds totally clean sometimes then you are out of luck. Small amps with small power transformers and small capacitors do fart out on the bottom end if the bottom end is turned up too much to get fullness or the designed low end roll off is not designed properly.

  9. My career has taken me from 300K venues to my family room. I have been using a rack system with a GT Trio with various power amps from 20 to 75 watts depanding on where I am. I get the same sound and tube saturation, but at different volume levels

  10. -10dB is not half the volume, it’s one tenth of the volume. Half (or double) the volume would be a little over 3dB, but I believe you can’t really detect a volume change much smaller that ~3dB anyhow.

  11. Have you driven a sportscar ever in your life Adam? Dodge Viper isn’t a sportscar. Playing loud to me destroys my concentration and holds me from being able to hear the background music, leading to disparity in tempo, etc.,etc. If you think having all the power of a Ferrari or a Marshall stack gives you a good feeling even though you’re not using all of it, then you are retard cause you sink all your money into stuff you don’t need.

    1. Key phrase ‘u are a retard’ maybe u should stick to acoustic! We don’t have em in my part of the world but dodge viper is defiitely a sportscar! Peace…

  12. I read a great article in ‘Guitarist’ magazine, they tested a series of amps from one speaker Fender’s to a Marshall Super Lead 100 and it was interesting to find that the wattage didn’t really affect the decibel it was the number of speakers! Of course the Super Lead was the loudest but the Fender and Vox wasn’t far behind in terms of decibels. I have a Blackstar HT 40 as I only gig small venues and don’t have a huge amount of money (i am a musician after all) and I have played gigs with bands who have Peavey 5150 full stacks etc and the argument about high watt amps being too loud is ridiculous! Enjoyed reading your article!

  13. I got 2 100 watt Marshall stacks the real ones a ’73 and a ’79 they rattle the windows and vibrate the floors ( that’s the house next door ) grow you a set and crank it up

  14. Psh Im runnin a 70s vintage Earth 240watt PA head thru 2 Marshall cabs … its freakin awesome, and WAY better than the lil 50watt Peavey twin I had before! Or for that matter the Earth bass head/Marshall cab and Peavey 130watt twin I used before that.

  15. I like 100 watts and I need at least 75 watts liner ! , No crappy small block amps for me ! .

  16. Awesome cut to the chase. Can’t get a quart out of a pint bottle. Big engine= torque=fat sound at any volume

  17. Apparently, both physics and biology died…
    While, there are legitimate ways and occassions to utilize the power of a 100W amp, in most, and I really say most cases, 50W or less will
    a) sound better
    b) do a better job
    c) make it easier to mic
    Queen’s Brian May, who’s no stranger to playing venues 99.99999% of guitarists including Adam Gotch will never play at, uses Vox AC30 amps – sure, he has a battery of several of those but they are never used at once, max 3 at any one time.
    Those are 30W amps.
    But hey, Brian May is a scientists (physicist), he built his own guitar, so he’s probably not up to task to judge the amps….

  18. When you cranck up the volume knobs of the power section of your amp you got the tubes clipping (not only the preamp tubes, but all tubes) which is desirable when you want that full of power classic natural distorted sound. But if you want a clean tone, is it true that, no matter how many watts you have in your tube amp, they will overdrive if you cranck the volume knobs all the way up?

    1. That depends largely on the particular circuit of the amp and the efficiency of the power tubes. Often, clipping starts well before you get to 10 on the dial. For example, a silverface Fender Bassman 50-watt amp might start distorting at with the volume at 12 o’clock. Another amp, like a Hiwatt, may have much more headroom and not start distorting until the volume is almost all the way up. But generally, yes – Just about any tube amp is going to experience tube clipping when you turn the volume knobs all the way up.

  19. lets add Speaker efficiency into the conversation as well.The volume argument only holds for all things being equal.

  20. I think 100 watt amps are cool. They look cool, and they are baked into the lore of rock. But…I don’t need one. I never have. The P.A. has always done the job for me, and because of the high value I place on my hearing, I am highly focused on getting great sounds at low volumes. If it can thumb my chest, it can thump my ears. If I’m wearing plugs, I don’t hear what I’d hear with them – and yes, I’ve tried the uber-plugs.
    But…if you like 100 watt amps, then buy ’em. I love that they still exist and love seeing them in music stores. They’re like many other choices by other people that I would never make. Not for me, but interesting and fun to observe and appreciate from afar.

  21. I’ve come to agree with this line of thinking. I don’t need mountains of distortion and sustain (I’m a blues player), but what I do need is headroom, tight bass response, and a tone that cuts through the mix at whatever volume we’re playing at. You just can’t get all that from a small amp…
    I got sick of lugging my heavy Fender valve combo around, so I bought a small 15 watt Blues Junior… A big mistake. Whether I use it cranked, or with an overdrive pedal, at best it sounds like a wet fart. I tried out a Vox AC15 and found the same problem… They just don’t have the headroom.

  22. 5 years old article… You never touch on the SHIFT where a low watt amp finds it sweet spot/tubes begin to cook – and achieved well within the headroom of the smaller amp. That’s kinda what I was going for with a 15 watt that I just bought for home recording (bluesbreaker 15 combo). My 100 watt H&K too noisy for recording. I do not like using noise gate/suppresion because it messes with attack and its just another device thrown into the chain. I realize your article is geared to stage scenario. Peace

  23. Beautifully said. The true words of wisdom, (aka,… the revelation). I wear a cup, a mouth piece, latex under leather,{ not for bladder issues}, and I am a half-wit-ness to observing cosmopolitan men, turn tribal, gut-wrenching tone stir early ovulation, turn some women barren, but in most cases,… everyone poops blood the next day. This is why I am researching a power attenuator, or two. Sadly, the day has come where I have to create my own gigs so I can play as I wish under my rules. I play through two Marshall stacks, {no exception}. And, yes I drive my bullet fast BMW 745Li like a cruiser because by 45 mph, I’m already in 5th gear.

  24. I’d rather drop the absurd 4×12 Fullstacks in favor of a single 2×12 than branding the high wattage as the main culprit…
    I got a british brand 100w switchable to 50w amp and said 2×12 with 1 V-30 and 1 T-75. I can play at household volumes -at the point that my faithful practice amp was reborn as my onstage monitor (or drummer’s monitor).
    I can also get the rig mic’d to the venue’s system, at proper volume to archive my tone without blowing the gold innards of a high end mic… or just plain cranking the shit outta my amp on those places that not even the waitresses are in working order.
    The only question is: What do you need your rig for? Looks?Versatility? (in my case, smaller, good quality items suitable for as many situations as possible) do you guys have personnel to help carrying, testing, mounting, repairing? I don’t.
    I advise against doing what others say, no other reason than what worked for others may not, and chances are it won’t, work for you… I’m very, very, very glad I never bought that badass, brand fullstack, I wouldn’t be able to use even a halfstack more than once a month. On the other hand, I’m glad I got my 100w amp.
    That is my bias, and believe me, nobody has ever laughed at me for having a puny 2×12, fact is, it makes an impression that I play better than I actually do. Music “know it alls” can’t make an opinion that my pussy watering sound comes from a high end cabinet wall. In fact I get respect… you know, being the underdog creates expectatives easier/possible to break.
    I HOPE TO SAVE YOU A LOT OF COIN WITH MY 5 CENTS HERE.

  25. Its interesting how, in this conversation watts is used as or perceived to be much like Spl level. This is a broad subject with so many factors to be considered. Truth in specifications, actual wall AC current,volts, amps , quality . Amplifier architecture , type, quality of parts, class, types of power tubes. single, duo, quads ect, single ended, push pull, class A,B, AB, C,D, ect, speaker specifications , efficiency , rated power, impedance , cone type, open back , closed back, 1-12, 1-15, 2 -12 4×12 8×10 ect. guitar type, pickup type, string size, pick type or fingers, music style, now it’s the combination of factors that gives the end results and it’s the musicians goal to maximize the factors to support his/hers playing needs.

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