Guitars & Amps‎ > ‎

Tone Tip: Match the Amp to the Gig

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

This Tone Tip, like most in the series, is a simple one, but one that nevertheless is still ignored by too many players today. I’m here this installment, in short, to urge you to match your amp to the size room you’re playing. Or, put another way, don’t drag along an amp that’s too powerful to reach its “sweet spot” without blowing your listeners through the back wall of the club and into the pool room. Let’s work toward some specifics via a little history.

Back in the early 1950s, when many of the classic electric guitar and amplifiers designs first hit the scene, around the time Gibson issued its first solidbody electric in the form of the Les Paul Goldtop, few amps pushed more than 20 or 25 watts or so maximum, and many put out a lot less (Gibson’s own flagship amp of the time, the GA40 Les Paul Amplifier, put out only 14 to 18 watts from a pair of 6V6GT output tubes). For one thing, the technology usually applied to tube guitar amplifiers wasn’t the most efficient available, but that’s in large part because not a lot more volume was required. The notion of amplifying a guitar at all was still in its infancy, and the kinds of music that featured electric guitars didn’t often need to be performed in very large venues—a dance hall or small auditorium being about the norm for a professional performance. But all that was changing fast…

Along came rock and roll, and the popular music revolution and guitar boom that stormed in along with it, and suddenly players were finding themselves in need of more and more volume. PA systems got bigger so singers could be heard in larger and larger concert halls, and guitar amps grew in size right along with them, up to 30 or 40 Epiphone Blues Customwatts, then even 80 and 100 watts by the end of the decade. The thinking behind both, however, was still fairly rudimentary: singers and the occasional horn soloist through a mic into the PA, and guitars and basses through their own amplifiers, and ne’er the twain shall meet. When rock and roll became rock, and guitarists found themselves playing full-size concert halls, hockey arenas and even football stadiums, amps just got bigger and more  numerous. In came the 100-watt full stack, used in multiples of twos and threes even by guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and plenty of others to wail with authority on ever-larger stages.

Then a miraculous technological leap occurred: sound reinforcement systems finally started to catch up with demands, engineers started miking guitar amps to pump a full, clear mix through both the house speakers and the stage monitors, and suddenly 200 watts and four 4x12 speaker cabs really weren’t required any more.…But we guitarists, being traditionally slow to give up what we have grown accustomed to, still wanted them there. Call it a security thing, I guess, but one way or another by the Epiphone Stack1980s and certainly the early ’90s, many players found themselves dragging around a lot more wattage—and a far heavier load—than they really needed to get the job done.

What’s more, hauling a monster stacks, and even half stacks, onto anything other than an arena-sized stage is more likely to frustrate your tonal endeavors  than to enhance them. Over the past 20 years or so I’ve known countless players who owned very sweet amps indeed, but never got the best out of them because they never played a room large enough to let them crank the things up. They saved their pennies for years to buy the amps of their dreams—maybe a 50-watt vintage model, or a 100-watt high-gain channel switching amp—brought it along to the gig, and were heartbroken when the singer, or the bass player, or the sound engineer kept hassling them to turn it down. This is the way things went gig after gig, with only the odd gig out of every 10 or even 20 landing them in a room large enough to really let their rig roar. If instead of the 50-watter they’d bought a toneful little 15-watter for small to medium clubs (amps such as the Gibson GA20RVT and its ilk come to mind, or the Epiphone Blues Custom, switchable between 15 and 30 watts), they could have been cruising in the tone zone each an every gig.

As most experienced players know, producing exactly the same volume levels from (A) a 100-watt amp turned up to 8 o’clock, and (B) a 15-watt amp turned up to 1 o’clock produces extremely different tonal results. Amp “A” might give you the required volume level, but will usually sound thin, choked, and lacking in dynamics. Amp “B” will yield the harmonically rich sound and touch-sensitive playability that helps to make for a great performance. The fact is, to get any decent tube amp sounding its best you usually need to get the preamp and output tubes and speaker(s) all working for their supper, and that means Gibson GA-5 ampfeeding them some juice. Most players identify this tone zone as being just on the edge of breakup, where strumming the guitar softly still yields a clean sound, but hitting it hard segues into crunch (or, you can crank the amp into all-out overdrive if that’s a sound you seek, and use your guitar’s volume control to clean it up, as in the previous Tone Tip). Sure, you can turn amp “A” down to the same volume level, but chances are it will sound rather “hi-fi” and somewhat lifeless, rather than singing and interacting with your playing the way a great guitar amp should. (The exception to this might be high-gain channel-switching amps with master volumes, which can often produce a lot of sizzle even when reined in.)

Even on big stages a lot of professional players are using smaller amps than they would have 20 or 30 years ago, because they can produce exactly the tone they’re seeking right at the amp without blowing the rest of the band of the stage, while their monitor engineer can easily re-produce that sound in both the main speakers and the monitor mix onstage so everyone gets to hear it at usable volume levels.

Play around with your amp at a range of volume settings, and discover where it really starts to sound its best. If that setting is way too loud for the majority of gigs you play, check out some smaller amps and see if they give more satisfying results. And remember, matching amp size to gig size is a win-win situation: you achieve better tonal results, preserve your hearing and that of your band and audience members, and avoid pissing off your sound manager and bandmates all at the same time. You can’t lose.