What do Eric Clapton’s creamy Layla solo sounds, Joe Walsh’s epic guitar parts on Hotel California and Jimmy Page’s rough-and-ready tones on Heartbreaker from Led Zeppelin II have in common? And no, this is not a joke (at least, we don’t think so)! Well, our many contrasting opinions of these three fabled guitar performances aside, it’s actually all in the amps…
The three aforementioned showstoppers might all be radically different in outlook and sound, and yes, they may all have arguably been placed on one too many Best Guitar Solos Ever lists over the years – but that’s not for us to decide on here. What we’re interested in is the one diminutive detail that links this trio of colossal guitar sounds, the tones after which so many players have lusted over the decades.
And that little detail is this: they were all recorded using what most guitarists would consider as ridiculously poky little amplifiers.
“If you want a big sound, use a small amp,” Joe Walsh is supposed to have replied when asked for details on Hotel California’s tonal wizardry. Clapton, meanwhile, really got the most out of his dinky practice combo’s handful of watts when he blasted out the defining portion of Layla.
So, forget that old Big is Beautiful adage. When it comes to delivering the perfect guitar solo, it seems like Small is Supreme.
This is a topic that’s back in the guitar world’s headlines these days, thanks to the success of the so-called “lunchbox” amp generation – and, of course, the readiness of the modern player to accept such a revolutionary change in design.
For too long, the 100-watt amp head was the undisputed go-to machine when it came amplifying the electric guitar for live or studio use. Decades ago, it might have made sense – back when PA systems were nothing more than primitive speakers used to amplify vocals – but these days, it’s quite astonishing to think that guitarists struggled with these oversized beasts for so long. Plenty of them still do.
Just like in many areas of life, less is generally more in the guitar amp world. The advantages of smaller power ratings are abundantly clear: unlike larger power amps, which only start to become melodious and pleasing to the ear when you crank the volume somewhat past their idling level – and the by-product of which is a huge, mostly unusable amount of sheer volume – smaller power amps deliver musician-pleasing performance at a smidgen of the volume.
The overnight success of the in-ear monitor has also contributed to the triumph of the small amp in a live context, allowing sound engineers to “clean up” their stages in an acoustic and a technical sense. These days, it’s become the norm that musicians need not fight to hear their own mix onstage – in-ear monitors deliver each band member the exact mix they desire, and in almost studio quality.
You can see the impact of this new approach to guitar amps in the snapshot below. It was taken at a recent Kiss concert, where the band was playing in front of one of its typical enormous crowds. That’s right, Size Doesn’t Matter: it’s a Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18 (i.e. with 18 Watts of juice) that’s making enough sound for a five figure audience! And Tommy Thayer’s not the only one: Josh Rand of Stone Sour and Annihilator’s Jeff Waters are often to be seen bringing huge venues to their knees with these little problem solvers.
But even for us “normal” guitarists, there’s numerous, indisputable advantages. The volumes of lunchbox amps, which normally range somewhere between 10 and 40 Watts, are just made to succeed under typical conditions like practice sessions and smaller gigs. After all, not all of us play stadium shows every day. And even if we did, perhaps we could follow in the steps of the aforementioned Jeff Waters, who is regularly proving that his GrandMeister 36 is more than loud enough to rock even six figure festival crowds! What more could you want?
Well, tone, for one. And here, small amps can deliver in spades. Crank them up a bit, and they’ll reach their saturated “sweet spot” much earlier – and more quietly – than a larger amp would. This area of tonal nirvana is when the guitar and amp are in perfect symbiosis: you’ll get the best sounds, the power amp will be moderately saturated, and the overall volume will sit well in the context of a full band. In short, you won’t drown the others out with your huge rig.
Your guitar’s tone can benefit greatly from the use of a smaller amp. A saturated power amp sounds more musical and rounded, and when a programmable Power Soak comes into play too – as you’ll find on the TubeMeister series – it all makes sense. But not every tone benefits from a power amp that’s being driven to the edge. Clean and Crunch sounds thrive on the different dynamics that come into play if the power amp’s full dynamic range is available. From whisper-quiet to full-on attack, these are the sounds that your nuances as a player will define.
Things are quite different when we look at the world of high gain sounds. A power amp that’s working overtime for you and toiling hard is sure to give you wonderfully creamy distorted sounds. Here, dynamics come less into play, but you’ll be able to enjoy the beautifully full-throttle compressed tones of a power amp working at the limit!
Looking at clean and high gain tones, which represent the opposite ends of the tonal scale, it quickly becomes obvious that a smaller amp equals less stress – because, in addition the smaller amount of power on tap, it will give you superlative tones at pleasant, not to mention manageable, volume levels. Particularly in the studio or at smaller gigs, where the sheer volume of an amp plays a less important role, anything between 20 and 40 Watts is going to be more than sufficient for your needs.
Our three guitar heroes – Clapton, Walsh and Page – saw all this decades ago, of course. Even then, they were placing tiny little amps at the top of their studio wish lists. The amps in question were usually full tube combos from Fender or Vox, or maybe the odd exotic niche manufacturer here and there. They’d usually be between 5 and 20 Watts, which meant that although they couldn’t really fight the drummer off in a live situation, they were more than worth their weight in gold in the studio.
The huge plus point for these amps was that they could be cranked to full power – and therefore tone – without being ridiculously loud, saving both the moods of the studio staff and the concentration levels of the guitarist in question.
Yet another plus point for smaller amps is that they are generally simpler to build than their oversized counterparts, with less technical gubbins, which leads to a more direct and natural signal. When you play, the subtleties and nuances of your technique and style come through as if they’re under a magnifying glass, which can give your sound a huge amount of depth and atmospheric density.
The bottom line is that small amps offer a wealth of advantages: pure tonal clarity, ease of handling, less weight, less cost (and less repair costs should something go wrong), no more transport problems…
In fact, we’d go so far as to say that the life of the guitarist has never been as easy as it is today! Whether it’s playing on stage, jamming at home, or recording deep into the night, coaxing professional quality, easy-to-use tones out of amps is simpler than ever.
And just to finish off, we’d urge you to consider the words of someone who knows what he’s talking about on the matter. Alastair Greene is a much sought-after American blues and rock guitarist, who’s been the touring six-stringer for the legendary Alan Parsons for over a year now – and he’s a huge fan of his small amps!
“Sometimes bigger isn’t necessarily better,” Alastair says. “I’ve been using the Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister series both live with Alan Parsons and in the studio with various artists. The ‘lunchbox’ size makes it very convenient for short runs or one-offs because I can fit it in my suitcase! It’s perfect for studio use as well. With the increasing number of home studios and their volume limitations, the TubeMeister series gives me a plethora of tones in a small package. It’s unbelievable how BIG it sounds! The TubeMeister stacks up against anything I’ve heard and is so easy to use that I’m convinced it’s magic and that the engineers at Hughes & Kettner are actually wizards!”
So there you have it: Small really is Supreme. Have any of you traded your full stacks in for a pint-sized combo recently? Let us know, as we’d love to hear your thoughts on the “lunchbox” debate!
First published: July 11 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.