The last thing many of us think about at a gig is where we’re going to put our amp on the stage. Other stuff just seems more important: getting guitars in tune, putting new batteries in FX pedals, sorting out haircuts, finding beer… the list goes on. But, as one of Blog Of Tone’s long-suffering writers found out the hard way, the location of your amp onstage – and the direction it’s facing in – can actually make the difference between a bad, good and an awesome show for you, the band, and the audience…
Once upon a time, back in the 80s, I was in attendance at a gig by what was then an extremely trendy band in our region. (For the amateur detectives among you, it sounded something like this.)
As well as an excellent singer, brilliant musical arrangements and a promising overall band sound, they (X-RAY was the name) also featured a guitarist who not only soloed like a madman: he also knew how to play parts that benefitted the song and the moment.
A rare beast, indeed.
X-RAY was a true experience. Their gigs were the focal point of our scene, and I – and many of my locally-based music playing friends – still feel their influence today, 30 years on.
But there was one thing, one tiny little feature of the band’s live show that wasn’t so good, and this has also influenced my behavior as a guitarist onstage to this day.
What was it?
It was simple, really: amp monitoring onstage. Basically, through not doing it properly themselves, X-RAY showed little old me where – and how – my amp should be placed to get the best live sound possible.
So, what was X-RAY’s problem?
Well, the guitarist placed his amp, as was customary at the time, near to the bass drum, and pointed it directly at the audience.
Champion guitar player
And, since his amp was a Fender Super Champ, a small, all-tube combo with a 10” speaker and just 18 watts of power, he probably had to start with the volume all the way up just to keep pace with the bassist and drummer.
Unfortunately, I was sitting in the front row at the time – and yes, in those days gigs like this were seated affairs – along with the rest of the local musical fraternity. Being sat actually enabled us more soberly and analytically observe the band on stage.
Personally, I was there to learn, to absorb everything I could while watching the guitarist’s fingers and technique as much as possible. Any partying could wait. That’s what aftershows are for, right?
Once the band started, though, I began to realize that my perfectly chosen seat, exactly in line with the guitarist’s 10” speaker, was less than ideal.
In fact, it was worse than that: I was in musical hell.
Every riff the guitarist played buzzed like an angle grinder through my poor eardrums, down my cortex all the way into the depths of my brain, the cacophony of sound destroying all of my senses.
After just a couple of minutes, the concert I’d been looking forward to so much was causing me serious physical pain.
In the 80s, of course, concert sound was always a gamble: PA systems were still prohibitively expensive, not very advanced and always difficult to control. That meant that most guitarists stuck to rigs consisting of several 4×12 cabs, pointed directly at the crowd.
Those who found themselves front and center soon got to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘being in harm’s way’.
All the colors of the Rainbow
I remember all too well being present at a Rainbow concert in the same venue, with Ritchie Blackmore on guitar.
He blew us all away, almost literally.
Some (soon to be deaf) guitar geeks in the crowd were loving it, but the rest of us had ringing in our ears for weeks on end afterwards. Ritchie’s gigantic rig, by the way, amounted to more than a few hundred watts of power being shot directly the audience from only a few meters away.
By contrast, X-RAY’s dinky Super Champ, which still deafened with only 18 watts of output, was the catalyst that got me thinking seriously about the positioning of guitar amps onstage.
Up until then, I’d heard that familiar soundman’s lament (“Please turn the amps down a bit!”) at every sound check.
Because the fact is that even small power ratings, set up to the most palatable mid frequencies, can cause the human ear an awful lot of stress.
Not for nothing are crying babies and ringing telephones to be found at similar frequencies (they’re both in the 3500-4000 Hz band, if you must know). They’re designed – by nature and clever engineers, respectively – to be as audible as possible to the human ear.
And it’s exactly because electric guitars also fall into that general frequency range that the positioning of amps onstage needs to be seriously considered.
There are, of course, local and personal preferences too. Personally, I like to be able to really physically feel it onstage when I palm-mute the low E string – but caution is needed here too, because you run the risk of muddying your sound in with the bass player.
Time to get earplugs, singers
The onstage amp angle problem can be solved relatively easily, though.
Try this: put the amp facing towards the singer onstage, sideways on to the audience. This can work wonders, because the crowd is spared the main rage of the amp (although of course the vocalist will have to deal with it!).
More modern guitar amps that feature frequency-corrected DI outputs – like the Hughes & Kettner Red Box, in fact – actually make miking up an amp totally superfluous, as you can take your signal straight to the mixing desk.
This also makes the soundman’s job easier, because with no mic in front of your amp, you won’t be picking up the leaked sound of other instruments (primarily the drums) and your signal will be clear.
So now the FOH guys are happy, the crowd is happy… the final thing is making us, the guitarists, happy!
Here’s a quick tip for the gigging guitar player: always take a few rolls of gaffa tape with you to gigs.
Among many other uses (some of which we outlined here), it’s perfect here for marking a big ‘X’ on the stage when you find that sweet spot that you should be standing in, that place where your amp sounds finest to you and the band.
This is something that gets easier with practice, by the way, and it can make setting up for gigs – and actually enjoying the shows themselves – so much simpler.
Up in the air
Another thing you can try, if it’s just not working, is having your amp slightly higher, say on a guitar case or beer crate. This gets the amp closer to being level with your ears, and it also acoustically decouples it from the stage floor, which has its own benefits – improving the low-end sound, for one.
If you’re rocking a 4×12 cab, it’s best if you keep the wheels on them, for the reasons outlined above (not to mention being easier to transport!). If your cab has no wheels, use the keyboard player’s case, beer coasters, mic boxes… anything to get that thing a little bit away from the floor!
The quicker you get all this done, the more time you’ll have to sort out a nice monitor mix for yourself, and the better your gig will be. Simple, right?
Or maybe not. We’d love to know how and where you decide to put your amp onstage, so let us know in the comments below…
First published: April 30 2015. Most recent update: October 16 2015.