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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.