We guitarists love to get noticed. When we’re rocking out onstage, we just can’t help being the center of attention, whether we’re playing foot-on-the-monitor rock ‘n’ roll, headbanging metal or something softer. But getting noticed over all the other guitarists – well, that takes inspiration, creativity and thinking out of the box. So what can you do to get the crowd’s attention without getting arrested? Well, you could start by thinking about some basic modifications to your act – and your amp…
It’s funny how often amps get overlooked by guitarists who are desperately trying to breathe a new lease of life into their style and sound. We’re always looking for things to pimp our tone: new band, new clothes, new hair, new guitars, new pickups for our old guitars, new FX pedals – the list goes on.
And sure, new amps are often on that list as well. We might consider a new cab to go with our head, or a bigger (or smaller) combo, or a dinky and versatile practice amp just to play at home in front of the TV. But, in our experience, the vast majority of players are far more likely to tinker with every other aspect of their sound before they look at maybe doing something to their amplifier.
We find this kind of funny, because amps are one the absolute key factors in determining our guitar tone, along with us – the players – and our instruments. This could be something to do with the fact that amps can be complicated things, with way more wires and fiddly bits that can go wrong than on a guitar.
But of course we can ask our techs to look after things like this for us. In fact, unless you’re very sure of your skills – or you’ve found a great online guide somewhere and you’re feeling lucky – it’s probably best to trust any mechanical mods to a trained professional.
To get you on your way, then, today we’re sharing three simple ideas on things you can do to your amp – mods, if you will – to take it one step away from being the standard box thousands of other guitarists rely on. And the first thing you can change is…
Your amp’s looks!
OK, this might seem like a cop out. After all, changing the aesthetics of your rig is not going to make you sound any different. However, it can be a great and simple way of starting you on the road to more significant experimentation later on – and you can make sure you’ve at least got the coolest looking amp around before you make it sound that way!
There’s actually a surprisingly large amount of stuff you can do here. We’ll start small: change your amp’s jewel light, if it has one. Believe it or not, those bright little on/off switches can be one of the most noticeable features of your stage show to uninitiated audience members. Why not go for a brighter, more powerful color, or change to a shade that fits with your band’s look? New jewel lights can be had for little money, and are pretty simple to fit too.
Next up is your amp’s knobs. Again, this is an easy and cheap that can raise your coolness stakes by a factor of 50 – if you do it right, of course. There’s all sorts of choices out there, so shop around, choose your favorites and make your amp personal to you.
The most significant thing you can do on the looks front is getting a new, custom grille cloth. There’s plenty of places that’ll create and fit them for you, and some will even make a design that covers the whole amp.
This is something you see quite often with pro players. Big cabs can be a great place to stencil on a band logo, and it won’t affect your sound in the slightest. Don’t forget, you don’t necessarily need to go for a garish design here – just fitting a unique colored grille cloth to your amp can work wonders.
Now we get to the sound-based mods. We’re actually really surprised that many guitarists we know have never considered changing the stock speakers that come with their amp, because they really do have a huge influence on tone.
There are loads of factors to consider here, and even more options when it comes to buying speakers. First, take into account why you would want to swap your speaker(s) out, and what you would want to achieve with the new one(s) you’re getting put in.
The primary reason to swap speakers is that many stock options are simply average. For not a lot of money, you can have a replacement that really gives your guitar sound something extra.
Want a bigger low-end? There’s speakers out there that’ll do that. Want more distortion at lower volumes? There’s speakers out there than can help. In fact, you can find a new speaker somewhere that can give you pretty much any tonal edge you want.
There are things to look out for when you’re on the hunt for new speakers. For example, you’ll need to make sure you pick a replacement speaker that has the same impedance and a suitable power rating compare to your old one.
If you’re worried about the sheer variety of speakers out there, take your guitar to a decent store and try some different amps and cabs out. Or, if that’s not an option, there’s plenty of plugins and modelers today that let you choose the speakers in your virtual rig. They might not always be totally accurate, and of course they’re not the real thing, but they can definitely get you in the right ballpark.
One other good place to see and hear different speakers in action is YouTube. Check out this short demo of a few different speaker types and brands as an example:
Our third tip of the day is perhaps the most obvious, and it’s a subject close to all our hearts. We’re talking, of course, about…
Ah, yes. Tubes, that great talking point among guitarists. Are they still worth it now digital modeling’s got so good? Do they really sound better? Do different types of tubes really help produce different tones? Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say the answers to those three questions are Yes, Yes, and a resounding Yes.
So, where to start? Well, there’s two different places where you should consider a tube change: your preamp, and your power amp.
Your preamp tubes (generally the smaller ones, if you’re looking at your amp right now!) are actually more responsible for shaping your amp’s tone. The most common preamp tube used in amps today is the 12AX7, which generally has more gain than others you might consider replacing yours with.
Pick a lower gain preamp tube to replace your 12AX7s, and they’ll distort the early stages of the amp less – perfect if you love your clean tones. The 5751 is widely used in this context. And yes, despite the 12AX7’s dominance in amps, there are many other options out there to try – and many tube experts who can let you know which tube does what!
There’s also a bunch of power tubes available to the mod-minded guitarist, the four most popular types being EL34s, EL84s, 6L6GCs and 6V6GTs. As their name might suggest, power tubes are less about pure tone than the preamp tubes, and more about sheer power and volume – although they all go about their business slightly differently.
Different types of power tubes are suited to different types of players and sounds, with the 6L6s and 6V6s being more associated with American style amps and tones, and the EL34s and EL84s being seen as giving a more ‘Brit’ sound. If you crave the tones from across the channel then, it might just a case of swapping out those tubes!
Just like with speakers, though, there are simply hundreds of different tube types out there, and we really recommend you talk to a pro before taking the plunge and buying new ones. There are a bunch of great online resources too, and some simple Googling can really help you expand your knowledge on the subject.
Now, we’ve taken pains to keep everything simple in this post, but we really hope this trio of tips has opened your mind to making some amp-based changes in the future. If you’re stuck in a rut with your playing, or your sound’s just not quite where you want it to be, some simple amp mods – rather than rushing out and buying a whole new setup that you don’t actually need – could be the answer.
One last repeated word of warning, though: even simple mods are best done by pros! If you don’t know what you’re doing, let a tech make the changes for you. It might cost a bit more, but you’ll have no worries about what you’re doing, and your amp will be all the happier for it.
So, what mods have you done on your amp? We’d love to know how you’ve changed things up in the past, or what you’ve got planned…
First published: October 02 2014. Most recent update: September 21 2015.