It’s amazing how far you can get on only a few watts.

A cranked up full stack is nothing to balk at.  It’s that classic overdriven tone that is just the essence of rock n’ roll.  You walk into any pro studio and you’ll find heads by Diezel, Orange, Dr. Z, Bogner, vintage Marshalls, the list goes on and on.  Stick a multi-thousand dollar German condenser mic in front of it, crank it to “pissing off neighbors two counties away” levels, and hit record.  Presto! You’ll have one of the Earth’s greatest tones on tape.

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The live situation, however, is an entirely different animal. There isn’t one club that’s going to let you push that amp to recording studio levels, and contrary to popular belief, the sound engineer doesn’t just throw up a couple of mics, ride up the faders and get drunk for the rest of the night.*  It’s his job to make the full band sound great. If you’ve got something that’s totally out of place (like a screaming amp onstage) there’s only so much he can do to keep the sound of that amp from bleeding into your vocal mics, your drum mics and anything else on stage. If he has to crank the rest of the band up to balance things out and he can’t get a good mix, your set is going to sound awful.

Forum sound engineer Chris Hoad

*some do.

The “set your stack on 10” days aren’t around that much anymore. You’re lucky if your engineer will let you go past 2 or 3, and frankly, that’s just not the tone you’re used to, is it?

Enter the world of the low wattage amp.

I’m not talking bringing your 50 watt head instead of your 100 watt head to the blues jam (the difference in volume is only about 3dB- Or the difference between a Boeing 777 and a Boeing 737 at full throttle). I’m talking bringing an amp that can get you the tone you want at conversational levels.  An amp you can push hard enough to overdrive the tubes in the power section, not just the preamp. That’s the sound you hear from a cranked Super Lead Plexi, but it’s a lot more practical to push 10 to 25 watts than 50 or 100 watts.  The tone is still there, but the volume level is actually usable. The kickass songs are still kicking ass, but the audience no longer wants to kick your ass.

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Rule of thumb- The lower your stage volume, the better your mix will be out front. Thick, saturated tone works much better when you can actually bear to be in front of it.  At just 12 watts, the Tone King Falcon has a very usable amount of power and it takes pedals beautifully while having an attenuator built-in for added flexibility. Change the tone stack selector from the “rhythm” mode to the “tweed” setting or the “lead” setting and there are even more tones you can coax out of something that not only weighs next to nothing, it’s loud enough to play with a band, but quiet enough that your sound guy won’t hate you by the end of the night.

Want that cranked half stack tone in a more usable package? Check out the Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier 25 or Recto-Verb 25 heads. Both are switchable from 10-25 watts and can easily take on a live band situation without having the cops called. Both have tones ranging from glassy clean to crunchy overdrive on the first channel, to vintage rock and high gain metal on channel two (The Recto-Verb adds reverb). Both also look great sitting on one or two of the Mini Rectifier 1×12 cabinets, and not only do you have a half stack sound, you have a half stack look at half the size! A quarter stack?  Sure, why not?

Already have a higher wattage amp that sounds great?

Another possibility is to consider a good quality power attenuator for your current rig. Keep the same tone, but lower the output volume dramatically. Attenuators take the power output of your amplifier and resist the signal on its way to the speaker, thereby making your amplifier think it’s hitting the speaker with full volume when the sound is actually quieter.

There have been many attenuators on the market over the years- Some of which got the job done, but often blanketed the tone and didn’t offer a true representation of what your amp actually sounded like. Another inconvenience of some attenuators is that they are often Ohm specific. If you had an 8 Ohm THD Hot Plate for example, you could only use it with 8 Ohm amps and cabs.  Have a different amp with a 2.7, 4 or 16 Ohm load?  Sorry kid, can’t use it.

Dr. Z Amps makes a few attenuators that we really like- the Airbrake and the Brake Lite. Not only are these are some of the most transparent attenuators we’ve ever heard, but they aren’t Ohm specific, so you can use them with just about any amp. The Airbrake is rated all the way to 100 watts, while the Brake Lite can be used with amplifiers rated up to 45 watts. Either of these will tame your stage volume without sacrificing tone. All of your legions of fans who obsess about your guitar tone will now be happy, but most importantly, the guy who’s really in charge of this show- the front of house engineer- will be thrilled.

When can I get loud?

Sure, there will be times when it’s appropriate crank up the volume and unleash your amp. Outdoor gigs can be great for that- No walls to contain the sound mean you can push the volume harder than if you were inside a club. You’re headlining Madison Square Garden? Well hell… go to town!  Just keep in mind, you might not even need all that volume if it’s done right.   CampbellAmps_WEB

Look here at Mike Campbell’s rig. He’s playing arenas night after night with Tom Petty and none of his amps are more than 30 watts. He’s got KILLER live tone!

That Princeton is pushing 12 watts.  The Excelsior, 12 watts.  The Tweed Deluxe?  A pair of 6V6s pushing around 15 watts.

Sure there’s always that dream, the mental image of rocking out in front of a giant wall of Marshall 4x12s. But unless you are Yngwie Malmsteen, it’s probably not gonna happen… Although you could always bring a Princeton and a bunch of these. We won’t tell anyone!

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4 thoughts on “It’s amazing how far you can get on only a few watts.

  1. Steve Dallman

    Our guitar player uses a 65 Ampeg Reverbrocket which is about as loud as my Princeton Reverb. More than enough power for any of our gigs, and only mic’d when we play very large rooms or outside. I played in one loud band in the 80’s (I play bass) where the guitar players each used a Fender Deluxe Reverb. Always loud enough.

    Reply
  2. Matt

    In their amps guides issue, Guitarist magazine did a dB test of a handful of amps. They found that, although the 100 watt Plexi re-issue full stack gave the impression of being very loud in the room, on the dB metes it was one of the quieter amps. A Vox AC30 was significantly louder and the champion of the day was a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.

    My point is not to say that a 100 watt Marshall stack is not super loud, but that wattage does not tell the whole story and some people (who’ve been married to their 100 watters) may be surprised at just how loud these little guys can be. A well put together 20-30 watt amp through efficient speakers can be SUPER loud. Like, sound man telling you to turn it the F down, loud.

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  3. Ronald Frakes

    I have been using the 5 watt mode on my Mesa Boogie LSS. Outstanding cleans and great OD even with a Stratpcaster. My ears are traumatized less.

    Reply
  4. Chordmerchant

    I gotta tell ya. I’ve owned/own allot of different amps in my 42 years of playing. Most of them were aquired between the age of 19 and 57. (my current age) although I would never sell most of my amps, most of them are unusable indoors. For instance. One of my 50 watt JCM 800’s with 6550’s in it scopes out at nearly 90 watts! This is a factory stock early 80’s Marshall head and yep, it’s an ear bleeder! On the other hand. My 100 watt, Kitty Hawk M1 is a completely usable amp in any situation. It drips tone at any volume. But then we enter the, I’m 57 and don’t have a roadie world. I’ve found that using multiple smaller amps, (size and wattage) including my 2-12 Retro King combo, my AC-30 HH2 and sometimes a Dr. Z Monza, I am always prepared for anything sonically. It’s allot easier to move 2 or 3 lighter/smaller amps. My AC-30, on the other hand is always too loud for any room if I want it to be.

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