Small Amp, Big Sound


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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.

A small amp on a huge stage - the 2014 HELLFEST festival in France. As we'll see further down, the crowd are really loving it, despite the amp's dinky dimensions!

A small amp on a huge stage – the 2014 HELLFEST festival in France. As we’ll see further down, the crowd are really loving it, despite the amp’s dinky dimensions!

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.

Tommy Thayer's TubeMeister 18, sitting pretty and ready to rock 20,000 Kiss fans! You can bet Tommy's roadie didn't do his back in carrying this amp to the stage...

Tommy Thayer’s TubeMeister 18, sitting pretty and ready to rock 20,000 Kiss fans! You can bet Tommy’s roadie didn’t do his back in carrying this amp to the stage…

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.

Canadian metallers Annihilator rocking the HELLFEST festival, France, in June 2014. Guitarist/vocalist Jeff Waters is playing through his GrandMeister 36 amp, which you can see is less than half the size of the bass rig next to it - but it's clearly still enough to keep this crowd of 50,000 fans happy!

Canadian metallers Annihilator rocking the HELLFEST festival, France, in June 2014. Guitarist/vocalist Jeff Waters is playing through his GrandMeister 36 amp, which you can see is less than half the size of the bass rig next to it – but it’s clearly still enough to keep this crowd of 50,000 fans happy!

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.

OK, Alastair Greene (guitarist for Alan Parsons) might be using three of them, but he's still opting for the live "lunchbox" approach!

OK, Alastair Greene (guitarist for Alan Parsons) might be using three of them, but he’s still opting for the live “lunchbox” approach!

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.

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Leave a comment

Mike B. on July 11, 2014 Reply

It’s not an H&K, but I recently traded off my early 90’s Ampeg VL502 stack for a 22 watt Fender Super Sonic combo. First gig was an outdoor festival with 2000 attendees, and the little beast was amazing! Being able to crank to the sweet spot made for my best tone ever, and my back thanked me too! I’m sold on small amps!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on July 14, 2014 Reply

    Glad you’re happy with your small amp, Mike! Perfect for 2 to 2,000 people, or maybe even 20,000! 😉

Shannon on July 11, 2014 Reply

I love this amp! It would honestly replace every amp I have if it took pedals better. The sound is insane, thick and monstrous.

Michael Mauck on July 11, 2014 Reply

I still have my Fender super Champ.. I overbuilt the power supply,It can peel paint.. 😉

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on July 14, 2014 Reply

    Well, DIY is certainly an extra use that a small amp couldn’t help with! 😉

Brian Kelleher on July 11, 2014 Reply

Great article, but you really have hit the nail on the head here, I can only agree with all that you have said, I have noticed myself over the years that when using smaller amps like at a friends house party recently the sounds are far more earthy or powered up when using a small amp cranked right up rather than a bigger amp as you said : on tickover:
Any way thanks for pointing that out , its something I am going to mull over and maybe get hold of one of these smart looking Hughes and Ketttner lunchbox bad boys.
Cheers Brian kelleher.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on July 14, 2014 Reply

    Hi Brian, glad you liked the article, and why not try a few smaller amps out? We’re not saying they’re the absolute best thing for every occasion, but they sure sound great cranked at house volume levels! Happy hunting…

Mark Dufoe on July 12, 2014 Reply

You can own the biggest or smallest tube amps in the universe. If you suck{which most aspiring guitar players probably fit into this category} it will not matter. Learn to play your instrument, worry about gear last. Probably not what you want to hear.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on July 14, 2014 Reply

    Mark, you’re absolutely right – the tone that’s not in the guitar and amp comes from the fingers, and that’s possibly even the most important tone there is. The only way to get better at that is through hard graft, as you say, but at least if you’ve got a great little practice amp you can get some great tube tones at home too!

Paul on July 12, 2014 Reply

I traded off my Peavey XXX for on Orange Dark Terror about a year and a half ago. Also downsized to a 2×12 cab. Have never been so happy with my sound in over 20 years of playing.

steve c. miller on August 7, 2014 Reply

I went into guitar center and tried an 18 watt lunchbox head through a 4×12 marshall , well after about an hour [or more] I was quite impressed, I don’t think you can get anything better for 599.00 USD. I then noticed they had the same head used for 399.00 . I plugged it in to the same cab ,went through the entire thing[drove the wife nuts at this point,oh well,she should know not to walk into a Guitar Center with me]. The used amp checked out fine and so, I bought it. It came with a nice padded gig bag. I’ll be running this amp through my custom made 1×12 vintage 30 cab-vavoom- GO CHECK THESE THINGS OUT!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 8, 2014 Reply

    That’s great to hear Steve! Used amps can often be a toal bargain, and they sound just as good as new, especially through a great cab – so why wouldn’t you? Keep on rocking! And please apologise to the wife on our behalf… 😉

Matt Greene on August 10, 2014 Reply

Last night I used my Triamp for the first time in months. It still sounds better than any other amp I’ve ever heard. Ever since I’ve gotten the Tubemeister 18 and 36, they’re pretty much all I use though, and they sound pretty damn close to the Triamp. I use the 36 in 18 watt mode and the 18 sits as a backup JIC. I’ve got a Switchblade head and 1×12 combo sitting around also collecting dust. My new theory is that 18 watts is all you need on stage, and if it’s not loud enough…the band needs to play quieter.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 25, 2014 Reply

    Matt, we can only agree! With advances in technology and so on, there’s just no need to deafen our bandmates (or ourselves, or the crowd!) any more…

LJ on September 1, 2014 Reply

I use a tube edition twenty. Handles any situation fine with twenty watts. Don’t want to play alongside anyone with anything over 40 watts.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 1, 2014 Reply

    That’s cool to hear, LJ. And yes, we reckon much louder than 20 watts is not worth it on many stages! The vast majority, actually. Any louder and the band’s hearing is going to be at risk – plus if you’re micced up anyway, nothing more is required…

C Hunter on November 16, 2014 Reply

Small/low watt is great for all the reasons stated above, plus they are just great fun. I have Carr Raleigh and at just under 4 watts it still holds its own at all my gigs. Just mic it and it can play any size venu.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on November 17, 2014 Reply

    Yep, with PAs and miccing solutions getting better and simpler year on year, small amps are becoming more and more relevant! Who genuinely needs a full stack these days? Not too many people, really, especially if we’re purely talking about the sounds they make. Looking cool is different 😉 Plus, with a small amp, you get great tones at home too – what’s not to like?

chris on February 3, 2015 Reply

I used a 15 watt amp at my last gig…through a PA…Sounded great!!!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 3, 2015 Reply

    Awesome – yep, with a PA you can get away with pretty much the smallest amp you can find… if the tone’s good, of course!

Bev Graves on February 9, 2015 Reply

Do you have them used?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 11, 2015 Reply

    Hmm, what exactly do you mean, Bev?

Joe on May 7, 2015 Reply

The first all tube amp I ever owned (and still own is an EL34 Triamp MKi). I love this amp and rightfully dubbed it ‘the voice of God’, but that is just where my problems lie. It is way too loud to play at home which is the only place I get to use it now days. Last week I picked up a Tubemiester 18 and I cannot be happier! Let me just say this amp has blown away my expectations. It has gobs of tone and at a volume that my children don’t threaten to smash daddy’s gear up!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 11, 2015 Reply

    Joe, that’s great to hear on all fronts! Thank you for the lovely feedback. We know TriAmp’s perhaps not the perfect homr practice tool, but that’s the job the Meister amps do perfectly, so you’ve got the best of all worlds there. Glad your family is happier now too 😉

Ewing on August 20, 2015 Reply

It’s a good combination the Tubemeister 18 Head NOS and the Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 110 1×10 “30-Watt Extension Cabinet. 30-watt for home environments (practice and study)?.

Or is the best choice the Tubemeister 112 Hughes & Kettner 1×12 “60-Watt Extension Cabinet. 60-watt?
I play classic rock, blues and a bit of pop music.
Thanks in advance for your answer 🙂

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 20, 2015 Reply

    Hmm, good question Ewing – we recommend you try them both and choose the one that sounds best for your ears! Here’s why:

    The 1×12 will have a bit more bass and bottom end ‘oomph’ than the 1×10, because it’s bigger. It’ll go louder too, although for home playing, even 30 watts is way more than you actually need. A tube amp can be too loud at 1 watt in your bedroom sometimes! If you ever wanted to play shows, this is also no problem, as you could just use the TubeMeister’s built-in Red Box to go straight to the PA.

    So, for that reason, you need to pick the one with the tone you prefer… They will both do all the jobs you need – it’s just a case of you picking the tone that sounds nicer to you. (Our advice is to take your own guitar when you go to check them out, because then you’ll hear the same sounds you’ll hear at home later!) Hope this helps, but just let us know if you have any more questions…

Ewing on August 20, 2015 Reply

Really thanks for your answer 🙂

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 21, 2015 Reply

    Not a problem, and please – let us know which one you decide to go for in the end! We’d be interested to know 🙂

Ewing on August 21, 2015 Reply

Well, I am the guy who send you a question about the Red Box in Facebook, do you remember?.

The situation is: I bought the Tubemeister 18 Head NOS in Germany, I am waiting the arrive of my new amp.
But, weeks ago I bought the Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 110 1×10 “30-Watt Extension Cabinet. 30-watt,
And my worries now are if this cabin could give me a good sound.

My option will be test my new Tubemeister 18 Head NOS with this 1X10.
If I find that 1X10’s sound, not is my sound. I’ll try to sell the 1×10 cabin and to buy the 1X12.
Thanks for your answers !!

Ewing on August 24, 2015 Reply

Hughes & Kettner,
I don’t have words really ! Your Tubemeister 18 Head NOS is simply amazing
I tested with the cab 1X10 and the Clean and Lead canals are perfect.
I don’t want to think how it will be with cab 1X12, maybe my neighbors kick me off from the neighborhood 🙂
It’s my best investment made.
By the way I registered my new Tubemeister 18 Head NOS in your site for the warranty for a period of THREE YEARS by Hughes & Kettner.
Keep rockin’

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on August 28, 2015 Reply

    Hi Ewing, we’re glad you have found a solution that sounds amazing for you! That’s always our top goal. And don’t worry, you can always use the Power Soak to keep your neighbors happy 😉

    We wish you many happy years of playing with your Meister, and we hope you don’t need to use the warranty because you have no problems 🙂 Rock on!