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Why a guitar rack system with a built-in tube amp and effects could be the ultimate gigging rig


If you thought the guitar rack system was dead, we’ve got news for you: it’s back. More and more players are turning towards 19” solutions for their on stage work these days. Blog Of Tone wondered why, and then we got a visit from a friend who’s installed a GrandMeister 36 into his rack setup and all was revealed! Here’s some thoughts on how racks are still relevant for 21st century guitarists, and how you can make the most of such a setup as a gigging guitar player…

Back in the 90s, dark dolmens ruled the world of the guitar player.

Practically every stage was dominated by the brooding presence of a mysterious monolith worshipped by professionals and amateurs alike. The bigger, the better; the more stuff inside, the merrier.

And despite their megalithic dimensions, these behemoths were sooooo convenient.

All one’s favorite toys were neatly tucked away in one huge treasure chest, pre-wired and ready to go in a flash.

The rise and fall of the rack

We’re talking, of course, about the rack-mounted rig.

In its heyday, it looked as if the rack was here to stay. As we all know now, history decided otherwise. All those oh-so-practical racks were put out to pasture, and that trusty combination of pedal board, amp head and speaker cabinet made a rousing comeback.

Racks the size of a sumo wrestler’s refrigerator are rarely seen these days, apart from on stages graced by very big-name acts.

A big old rack of yore, featuring many H&K rack bits and pieces of yore. It might look cool, but really, how practical were these beasts?

A big old rack of yore, featuring many H&K rack bits and pieces of yore. It might look cool, but really, how practical were these beasts?

And the surviving few usually house effects and accessories that slave away in obscurity well behind the backline, serving that indomitable master up front that still rules when it comes to tone, the amp head.

A guitar rig to laugh about

Separate guitar preamps and power amps were boss back in the rack era, but nowadays they’ve been relegated to exotica.

If you dare to show up with this unhip gear on stage, you’re likely to be branded an eccentric or a has-been. Your guitarist buddies will rib you for being so hopelessly stuck in the sucking 90s, while lecturing you that their retro-modern triple-threat rig is where it’s at.

And those nothing-comes-between-me-and-my-amp hipsters and preachy purists will tut, tsk and make other sounds of disapproval before they start evangelizing about how combo-ism is the one true faith.

Let them laugh while they can, for history has a way of coming back to bite zealots of stripe in the butt.

The lunchbox amp revolution

But I digress. Let’s get back to the story by doing the time warp: some ten years ago, soon after the lunchbox amp arrived with such startling success, thinking guitarists began to ask themselves some rather intriguing questions that had a good deal to do with the great advantages that all those rack systems buried in the ash heap of history once had.

No other sound reinforcement solution to date was a match for their remarkable logistical efficiency.

With sensitive devices cradled snuggly in sturdy crates, they were boxed to travel well and safely.

The original TubeMeister 5 head took lunchbox amps to a whole new level, with incredible tube tones you could enjoy even from your kitchen!

The original TubeMeister 5 head took lunchbox amps to a whole new level, with incredible tube tones you could enjoy even from your kitchen!

And as their many acolytes would never tire of telling you, the time savings and simple handling of such sophisticated systems was more satisfying than thumping a piñata shaped like that egomaniac lead singer’s oversized noggin.

In a properly built rack, everything important was wired up cleanly in a compact package and ready to rock in a heartbeat.

Lunchbox amp + rack = win?

So why not dig through the detritus to find those 19″ signal processors you’re sure you stowed away somewhere in some relative’s attic, cellar or garage in 1999, pair them up with a couple of new sound-shaping gadgets, and pack ’em all in a rack?

What could be more convenient? This format practically begs for something as sweet and simple as that.

With more and more players answering these questions in the affirmative, it looks like the good-ole days of the rack are back.

But this rig is smarter, more efficient, leaner and meaner than its 90s ancestors. It’s convenience on steroids!

How to put the two together

So much for the theory. But what about the hands-on stuff, like how exactly do you fasten a lunchbox amp down in a rack system? And do you keep a mini tube amp cool inside a crate?

These are questions that intrigued us, and may well interest you too.

GrandMeister in a rack

As luck would have it, Armin Rauls, guitarist electronic folk-rock troubadours Fiolka, stopped by H&K’s headquarters the other day to proudly show off a professional heavy-duty rack loaded with the GrandMeister 36, a 19″ FX unit and a wireless system.

The Armin Rauls rack setup - on top a Line 6 wireless unit, then the GrandMeister, with an Axe-FX unit underneath. Pretty neat!

The Armin Rauls rack setup – on top a Line 6 wireless unit, then the GrandMeister, with an Axe-FX unit underneath. Pretty neat!

Armin’s pride wasn’t misplaced: we were as delighted as chimpanzees in a banana store when he took off the front cover to reveal that he had augmented the GrandMeister 36’s trademark blue glow with a chain of psychedelic azure fairy lights that bathed the whole rig in an aquamarine sea.

This rig’s owner had clearly taken the title of our book Into The Blue to heart!

Once we settled down and stopped swinging from the chandeliers, we took a closer look at his homemade marvel. As you can gather from the pics, the outcome of his inspired effort is impressive indeed.

How to do it

As it turns out, installing the GrandMeister in a rack was a piece of cake.

Armin’s answer was to take a 19″ rack shelf (1.75″ or 44.45mm in height) and cut out a hole the same size as the GrandMeister 36’s ventilation ducts to allow air to circulate.

He removed the rubber feet from the bottom of the GM36, drilled matching holes in the shelf, and then attached the amp to the shelf by inserting screws in the threaded holes for the feet. A mind-boggling variety of shelves are available to install all kinds of devices in racks, and your local music store should stock plenty of very affordable options.

Keeping things cool

Now, the GrandMeister’s top panel is closed. It radiates heat out the back through vents in the rear panel, so it was easy to squeeze in a lean 19″ wireless system above the amp.

The Axe-Fx unit used in this rack is a luxury rather than a necessity. It was placed below the GrandMeister to keep it cool.

This is one way of keeping an amp cool...

This is one way of keeping an amp cool…

A surprisingly simple rack system

This rack-mounted rig has been used daily for a few months now with no thermal or functional issues whatsoever.

Au contraire, its components are afforded armor-like protection in a safely portable package, and the short signal and MIDI pathways are well-routed, thereby adding an extra touch of class to the deluxe guitar tone.

When we produced the video interview to accompany this blog (make sure to watch it below when you finish reading!), we were amazed to discover that this system can be set up within a few seconds of the time it takes to unfold a tripod and mount a camera on top.

Three minutes, and a world full of exquisite guitar sounds is yours to explore.

This was one of those rare situations where the comment ‘nice rack’ was both appropriate and appreciated!

Send us your rack stories

We’ll keep track of Armin’s fine rack and keep you posted on the latest developments.

If you’re already contributing to the rack-mounted rig’s renaissance, then feel free to share your experience with us.

Speak up if you have any tips on rockin’ the rack for fellow guitar players, and we’re looking forward to your story!

And here’s our full interview with Armin, where he explains all about his band, his rack, and his pursuit of the most practical rig possible for a busy gigging guitarist – enjoy:


Disclaimer: Don’t forget that any mods like those described in the article will result in your amp’s warranty being voided. As soon as you open up the amp, remove the feet, or place it into a rack setting like this, it will no longer be covered should something go wrong. So, again, think hard before you undertake any work of this nature, and always get a professional tech to do anything like this for you if you’re not 100% sure of what you’re doing!


First published: June 03 2016. Most recent update: June 03 2016.


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Leave a comment

Bull Earwig on May 20, 2017 Reply

I see that the guitarist does not use an FSM-432 or whatever the GM36 pedal board is called.

As a veteran engineer and product developer, I appreciate how you kept the cost down by not having things like a display for the preset’s name. You don’t see it in the GM36 or its floorboard, but you do in the iPad control app.

It was a good choice for those that only want the GM36, and it helped me afford it initially.

But now I find my self regretting ever buying an FSM-432. I’m looking at MIDI floor controllers like our guitarist here uses.

So, here’s my pitch: I am offering to make an update to your iPad software for free. I would add the ability for the app to send commands to effects units for each preset.

This would make the FSM-432 usable in rigs that need better effects than the GM36 provides.

What do you think?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 22, 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the feedback Bull. You’re right, adding a display to the amp or the FSM would’ve added more features and possibly functionality to the GrandMeister, but we felt it wasn’t necessary. We also chose not to bundle the FSM with the amp either, and for similar reason: players who want to make use of the amp’s more extended MIDI capabilities often have their own favorite choice of foot controller already. We didn’t want to add a hefty sum on for a footswitch they might not even use! And for those who are new to MIDI, the FSM (and the combination with the iPad app, if applicable) is a perfect entry point. Plus it doubles as a more standard channel/FX selector when in Stompbox Mode.

    Feel free to tell us more about your idea, and we’d be happy to hook you up with our R&D guys to discuss it further. We’d rather not give out a private email address here though, so please message us on our Facebook page or via the contact form on our website and we can supply you the details from there. Hope this works for you 🙂

    All the best,

    Team H&K in Germany

Phillip on September 2, 2016 Reply

Wow, “opening up” the amp voids the warranty? What about changing those junk tubes that come with it? I change my tubes and void my warranty… Wow, never heard that before.

The GM36 is a fantastic amp, probably the best I’ve used and I think the way the rack is set up it has to be the ultimate gigging tool. I’m very inspired by this video and I think I’m going to give this a shot. Imagine the amp, wireless, effects unit, storage drawer for cables, etc all tucked into a rack.. Man, how awesome! Just wish there was a speaker solution that was so easy.

BTW, check out this guy’s band! Fiolka is amazing.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 2, 2016 Reply

    What, you’ve never heard of a warranty that’s voided as soon as you unscrew the product and take bits off it Phillip? 😉 Standard practice, unfortunately, as crap as that may sound. But all the more reason to let a tech do things like tube changes – if they look after jobs like this, your warranty will remain valid. And we’ll refrain from commenting on the junk tubes bit – it’s not worth it 😉

    But yes, we were also amazed at how practical and easy Armin’s rig was, and it inspired us to try a few things out. In terms of a speaker solution, it wouldn’t get much simpler than taking the Red Box out straight to the PA, although some players don’t like to go DI. If we could just build some kind of 19″ speaker… 😉

Eddie Rustin on June 16, 2016 Reply

I got the GM36 about 18 months ago and also use it in rackmount setting for live shows with the MKIII foot controller. I have a 2U rackmount cooling fan system that I put directly above it to remove the excess heat, no modification to the vents necessary!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on June 17, 2016 Reply

    Awesome looking rig, thanks for sharing Eddie! And good tip re: that cooling system. Feel free to share that pic on our Facebook page too – it’d be cool for our other fans to see 🙂

Huey T. on June 6, 2016 Reply

Racks! It’s a man-thing! Just like in real life, the real important tools and fun things like musical instruments have to be kept pretty safe when they’re not in use, or you’ll be in trouble when you get them up onstage! Watching the video, I’m on the way to look for a case that fits for my GM36! Thx guys!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on June 6, 2016 Reply

    Ha ha, thanks for the kind words Huey! We’re happy the video has inspired you to check out the options of a rack system – just make sure you keep it safe if you do buy one 😉

dave on June 3, 2016 Reply

Oh I’ve been racking my H&K amps for a few years now! Same as Armin, I use a rack shelf and drill it out, attach the amp. First it was a TM18 with a TC G-System, having them racked was so convenient because I could leave all the patch cables connected, allowing me to setup and tear-down very quickly.

These days I have a GM36 with no other fx units but I still have it racked along with a power conditioner and rack tuner. It’s been about two years and I’ve had ZERO issues with overheating.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on June 6, 2016 Reply

    So you’re a trendsetter too Dave! But you’re right, we were surprised at how convenient Armin’s system was in the flesh. Sure, racks are big cumbersome things – even smaller ones like this one – but it doesn’t get much more practical if you’re playing shows and need to set up and tear down quickly 🙂

    We’re also trying to work out how we can post your pics directly here, but it’s not working yet 😉 EDIT: but they’re now clickable as links in your comment 🙂

Allan on June 3, 2016 Reply

I used to have a rack way back when. Too much hassle! But this one looks good, it’s pretty simple and would be easy to set up and maintain. Impressive!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on June 3, 2016 Reply

    Hi Allan. Yep, we were amazed when we met Armin and he was able to set the rack up so quickly! It’s actually pretty damn simple to use and keep gig-ready, you’re right. This was one of Armin’s goals when he was designing the rig the way he did. We’re actually considering one for ourselves now 😉