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Amps

Hello Troubadourians! I received an email the other day from a reader asking my opinion on which amplifier he should buy. He had explained his intended use to me (in some detail, I might add), and he had narrowed his selection to three small amplifiers. I responded with my impressions and opinions on each amplifier and expressed my preference of the three, but I said that he would probably be happy with any of the three as they were all good amps. What I gleaned from the exchange—and didn’t tell him—was that he wasn’t a mature player and probably couldn’t discern the differences between the amps. As we mature as players we tend to gain a preference for some sounds and tonalities over others. Until then we tend to choose our gear by the way it looks or because someone whose opinion we believe told us it was what we should have. Believe me, I went through that stage early in my development and as I look back on some of my gear purchases I can only shake my head and ask myself “what was I thinking?” While I’m berating myself on the crap that I bought, I should also berate myself for the “one that got away.” When I started playing electric guitar, I would borrow my uncle Bob’s rig. (I described his rig in my July column). When my parents decided to get me my own rig, we happened to end up with a ’64 sunburst Fender Stratocaster and a ’64 Fender Vibroverb, the model with a 15-inch speaker. We purchased this from Steve Wetherbee, who was my sixth-grade TA at the time. Steve is still active in the San Diego scene, at one time owning and operating Golden Track Studios and now with his own professional photography studio, Steven Wetherbee Photography. Today, that rig would be worth about $20k ($15k for the guitar and $5k for the amp), not to mention the coolness of the whole thing. Ah, well, live and learn…

But back to my advising my reader on his purchase… It occurred to me that without the reference points that we gain over time by listening to different music made with different equipment, it is nearly impossible to explain to a potential gear buyer the differences between brands and models of amplifiers. Further complicating things is whether a player expects to get the majority of their tones from the amp or from their effects pedals. When I was working at Valley Music back in the day, I often had customers come in seeking an amplifier that would make them sound like their favorite player. By then I was an accomplished gearhead and I could discern what it was about the sound of their favorite player that most moved them and could show them how to get the sound they were after using the gear we had for sale and make it fit within the context of how they expected to use it. That often isn’t easy as people tend to have a visual idea in their mind of what they want that doesn’t fit reality or their budgets. For instance; many rock bands in the ’70s used Marshall stacks—many still do—and although they look really cool and sound awesome in a concert arena, a seven-foot tall, 100-watt amplifier isn’t going to work well in your bedroom. To get that sound you need to turn the amp up quite loud and you really need the natural reverb and echo of an arena or stadium to achieve the ambiance that makes that rig sound like you hear it when you go to a concert. At normal volume levels, ’70s Marshalls usually sound dull and dry as they don’t have onboard reverb and their non-distorted tone lacks the richness provided by the harmonic distortion of the preamp and power amp tubes when they’re turned up loud. Adding to the fact that a 4×12-inch speaker cabinet is bulky and heavy as is the head itself and you really have a rig that only functions in one specialized environment, which is in fact the environment for which they were designed. If you want that tone but don’t want the problems that accompany a stack, there are other ways to get there.

Back then, there weren’t as many options as there are today but you could still get that big amp tone at a reasonable volume if you had the right pedal and amp and knew how to use them. Nowadays, we have more options than we know what to do with, which makes a simple question like “what amp should I get?” all the more complicated. The best way to answer that question is to start by asking some questions. Where will you use the amp most often? How loud—or not loud—do you need to be? Do you use or plan to use a lot of effects? How are you going to transport your amp? The answers to these and other more detailed questions that will arise from the answers to the initial questions will hopefully lead to a solution; an amplifier that sounds good, isn’t too loud or too heavy, and fits in the trunk of your car. And let’s not forget that it has to fit your budget, too. Small doesn’t necessarily mean inexpensive. Mesa Boogie combos are small and will easily fit in your car. But they are often not light (some are quite heavy) and can get very loud if necessary. They are also not inexpensive, usually exceeding $2k for most models. Other boutique amplifiers of similar platforms can be double that price. Then there is the question of tube amps or non-tube amps? All of the amps I’ve describe so far in this article have been tube-based amplifiers. Non-tube amps include solid-state amps and modelling amps. I could write a series of columns on any one of those amp types but the basic difference is whether an amp has tubes as its essential signal path or if it has non-tube solid state or digital circuitry as its essential signal path. Opinions are usually strong for one type of amp or the other but the truth is that you can get good tone out of any of them. Sometimes it comes down to whether you just need a good blade or the utility of a Swiss Army Knife. I have both, but I tend to use my “good blade” Fender Princeton most often. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this subject so I’ll try to add more to this discussion in future columns.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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