Why guitar amp placement on stage is so important


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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.

A guitarist rocking out on stage, yesterday. Notice how he's got his amps tilted sideways on, facing him directly instead of pointing them at the crowd. Read on to find out why he's doing this...

A guitarist rocking out on stage, yesterday. Notice how he’s got his amps tilted sideways on, facing him directly instead of pointing them at the crowd. Read on to find out why he’s doing this…

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.

Ready to rock the stage at HELLFEST in France. This amp's facing the crowd head on, but they're so far away chances are they won't hear it anyway.

Ready to rock the stage at HELLFEST in France. This amp’s facing the crowd head on, but they’re so far away chances are they won’t hear it anyway.

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.

Outdoor gigs are different to indoor ones, of course, but the principles of where you place your amp can be similar.

Outdoor gigs are different to indoor ones, of course, but the principles of where you place your amp can be similar.

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!

This guitarist is clearly not happy. We suspect it's something to do with the guitar through his head, but it could just be that he's never learned how to place his amp correctly on stage... until now!

This guitarist is clearly not happy. We suspect it’s something to do with the guitar through his head, but it could just be that he’s never learned how to place his amp correctly on stage… until now!

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.

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Leave a comment

Paul on May 18, 2017 Reply

I also adapted an old monitor wedge when i am using the Marshall head. Off stage, it looks like another floor monitor. it points at me, so i end up running a lower volume and let the soundman do all the work. Having a kickback combo – like some of the newer bass amps i’ve seen – would do the trick, too.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 18, 2017 Reply

    That’s another good tip, cheers Paul 🙂 And of course having it like a traditional wedge monitor means it doesn’t deafen the crowd either. Everyone wins!

Paul on May 17, 2017 Reply

Definately. I got this little floor kickback stands that don’t cost much but work great – especially for smaller 1×12 combos. It really makes a huge difference.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 17, 2017 Reply

    It does – we’re tempted to start making H&K-branded stands 😉 Seriously, more guitar players should look into this. It’s much more standard for acoustic players, but why not electric players too?

Art Wanders on April 30, 2017 Reply

Hi, i found all the info I needed regarding combos / stacks etc. Man, I’ve played through a lot of different amps over the yrs and never really found one I was totally happy with. I played a friends Fender De-ville and there it was – total joy. I bought my own now and agree with legs on a combo unit to get it in the position it needs to be. Placing on the floor facing straight out- not good. placing it on a chair worked but feedback became a problem. — not good. I’m going to make legs right away as it’s the perfect solution and so simple to do.
Thank you for turning on the light and love my Fender De-ville, 2+12 combo tube amp.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 16, 2017 Reply

    Cheers for the feedback Art, and we’re happy to have given you some tips you might be able to use in future 🙂 Get those legs done and then you can focus on the fun thing – enjoying that incredible amp.

Me on April 18, 2017 Reply

Another great thing about the Fender blackface amos is the tiltback legs. I see Nick, earlier complains about small stages and nowhere to point an amp, point it up! I think all amps should have these legs, which also minimise contact with the stage

I’ve also seen guys run 2x plexi’s and 2x 4×12 cabinets backwards, pointing behind the stage. Hey, that works too if you have a monitor

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on April 21, 2017 Reply

    Yep, good point on the tiltback legs thing – we certainly agree on that!

Me on April 18, 2017 Reply

I point my 4z12 right at the audience, and they love it

Izvelle Diaz on February 22, 2017 Reply

I still don’t get why it is important to tilt the head of the guitar?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on March 8, 2017 Reply

    We don’t mean the guitar itself Izvelle, but the amplifier/speaker cabinet! You can tilt the guitar itself wherever you like 🙂

Aaron on February 17, 2017 Reply

Haha, the other band members can’t hear you? That must be a nice problem. I get what a lot of guitarists get, the ol’ “hey, turn that down a little.”

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on February 17, 2017 Reply

    Yeah, we’re normally the ones being asked to turn down too 😉 But stages are getting quieter and quieter these days, especially with inventions like the power soak for amps and in-ears, so it can happen!

Robert on May 7, 2016 Reply

Never considered trying a Deeflexx System?

One thing you should try

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 10, 2016 Reply

    Hmm, we had another comment about this Deeflex system already – we might have to look one out and see how it works 🙂

Zita on May 7, 2016 Reply

I started using the Deeflexx -System half a year ago from an Austrian guy named HooVi and am really content. I play in a Blues-Brothers-Tribute-Band with 12 musicians on stage. I used it now for four gigs: twice with a single 12″-box, now with 2*12″-boxes (of course I now use two Deeflexx-parts). I am really content as I can hear myself very well (incl the mistakes, unfortunately) and our audiance isn’t hurt by noise as described in the article. Yes, you have to pay them, but they are so very very useful!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 10, 2016 Reply

    We’ve not used this Deeflex system before Zita, but thanks for the comments about it – perhaps we should try one 🙂 If it works as well as you say, it would definitely be a useful tool for guitarists!

Dave on May 7, 2016 Reply

All the shows we play now a days even small clubs, run all the amps through the stage monitors so there is no point of turning amps up past 2.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 10, 2016 Reply

    Hmm, the one potential issue with having some amps down low volume-wise is that they don’t sound good unless you crank them. Not a problem if you have an H&K amp with a power soak, of course 😉

    But seriously, this is another point about stage volumes. Better PA systems have made it easier than ever before to be quieter on stage. We’re surpised more bands don’t operate like your band Dave!

Nick on May 6, 2016 Reply

I love reading the various Hughes & Kettner blog posts—good information and well written—but I am at odds with this one.

This article assumes that you have the stage space available and the freedom to decide where to place the amp. This has not been my experience!

I cut my teeth playing small punk/metal clubs where there was NO ROOM to put my amp anywhere else than in line with the drummer and pointed straight at the audience, which is fine because those places had crappy sound systems anyway and, truthfully, the audience and I were there for this exchange of sound pressure direct from the band. I don’t want 100% of the tone the audience hears being represented by an SM57 haphazardly placed in front of the grill cloth.

Whenever my band played as one the opening acts for larger shows, we had no choice but to obey the rules of the backline. I imagine a conversation with a sound guy / show organizer / Head Honcho in Charge to go like this:
“Hey, can I put my amp over th—”
“WHAT THE %$#& ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT GET IN THE BACKLINE OR GET OFF THE STAGE.”

I’ve played through an Orange 4×12 cab for years and I’m definitely grateful that they purposefully put wood slats on the bottom for the express purpose of acoustic coupling. I kept my amp screaming with mids and highs, but with just enough low end that I could physically feel my palm mute through the floor. With all of the chaos of our live show (we were quite animated!) that acoustic coupling kept me grounded.

I realize that my stance pertains to high-volume-on-purpose-in-dingy-club-because-Punk-Rock situations. If or when I can move up to larger venues and better stages, I may consider the finer points of this article.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 18, 2016 Reply

    Nick, we don’t mind you being at odds with one of our blogs – in fact, we encourage healthy constructive criticism like this! What you’ve written should also be really useful for other guys reading this, because you are totally right that in some cases you simply don’t have the room on stage or the option to choose where/how your setup is being put up. Thanks for taking the time to write it all, and we hope that you come back to this blog when your band moves up to the next level. Or in 30 years when you’Re playing acoustic folk jams instead and need to approach it all from a different angle 😉

Scott Whitacre on May 6, 2016 Reply

Thanks for addressing such an important topic! My amp, speaker choice, and placement, varies depending upon the stage size, room acoustics, and whether it is an inside or outside show. For decades I’ve always used some type of side wash position.

For smaller rooms, a single 12″ open-back combo typically sounds great. Sometimes however, if there is a hard wall behind the amp, I’ll lean the foam covered lid of my pedal board against the wall, with the foam facing the amp. This acoustically dampens the reflected sound and helps keep the stage volume bearable. It’s not a bad idea to carry different sizes of area rugs for hard stage floors either. Getting the bass guitar eq’d on the stage to tame resonant frequencies is super important too. I also try to place amps where they aren’t aimed toward un-gated open mics. If you’re fortunate enough to be working with an experienced sound crew, they’ll appreciate your efforts at making their job easier.

Outside shows will have headroom to infinity, but louder is not better. Standing in front of 2 – 4 x 12’s and a 100watt JCM 800 was memorable for me in the 80’s, but tinnitus sucks and will end your career! Let the PA do the work. Thanks again!

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

    Cheers for sharing your experiences with us Paul – these are some really useful tips you’ve given us all here!

    It’s always – always – worth your while being as nice to the venue and sound crew as possible, and helping them out as much as you can around soundcheck. Trust us, it’ll reap dividends during the show!

    And yes, we’ve said this meany times on the blog too – back in the day, full stacks were necessary in terms of making guitars audible on larger stages, and they were cool as hell. They’re still cool, but technology means we really don’t need them any more to play a decent show, and a lot of guys who used them throughout their careers are now stone deaf. So you can make your choice based on that really 😉

David Gates, Bassist on May 5, 2016 Reply

Over 50Yrs Play-Experience tells me, be close by the Drummer A little Behind him, so he can hear the Backbeat of the Bass Amp- angled sideways toward the BackupSingers /Guitarists for Best Overall-Sound Mixture.
As A Lead Vocalist mostly, I’ve perfected an Ear,first, to hear both theDrums and Lead Guitarist and Secondly,Allow any Horn or Keyboardist enough Space ,nearby me, to keep A Floor Monitor for their listening.

Almost Always, the Group listens for their Instrument, but One should know that mixers can’t help you , if You over modulate (Turn Up)constantly ’cause One Can’t hear themselves play. Amen

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

    We agree 100% with the “everybody turning up” thought David – it just doesn’t help the sound, and it’ll make everyone deaf in the long run too! Thanks also for the interesting comments on stage placement. Maybe it would be useful to have more drummers playing closer to the front of the stage?

Paul Pearce on May 4, 2016 Reply

I am a big believer in both attenuation (I use amps without a master volume) and plexiglass screens. Since I got the screen, nobody tells me to turn down. I wish I’d done that sooner!

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

    It’s funny you should mention the plexiglass screens Paul. We actually just answered someone else’s question on this very topic and we told him to get his hard-hitting drummer to (among other things) get some screens in. But of course, they’re also cool for containing some of the pure volume big cabs spit out. Good call, and thanks for the tip! 🙂

Joep on May 3, 2016 Reply

I like ampstands that change the angle in a way that it is pointed directly at you. This way you can turn the volume way down and minimalize the stage volume. However, in the rehearsal space my fellow bandmembers complain about not hearing me.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 4, 2016 Reply

    Hi Joe, we’re also a big fan of amp stands! Even raising the amp up off the floor will work wonders, but getting it pointed directly at where your ears are is an ideal way of hearing yourself at manageable volumes. Our advice? Try asking your bandmates to turn themselves down a little during rehearsals if they can 🙂 Might not sound like the most rock ‘n’ roll, but it’ll save all your ears in the long run!

    Plus, if you’re quieter in the practice room you’ll be quieter on stage, and in this day and age the vast majority of audiences appreciate that very much indeed.

Sam on May 3, 2016 Reply

What do you do when the Amps aren’t getting micd up in a small pub/club venue and you want to hear the amp yourself and from the crowd, And your using a valve amp so still want to turn it up a touch to get good tone??

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 4, 2016 Reply

    Hmm, what you describe sounds like a bit of a catch-22 in a way Sam, but what we’d recommend you try (without knowing the full context of what kind of shows you’re playing, if there’s a live drummer to compete with, etc.) is using a smaller amp, or one with a power soak/power attenuator. For example, our TubeMeister and GrandMeister amps have built in power soaks. On the GrandMeister and the TubeMeister 36 and TubeMeister Deluxe 40 (which offer 36 watts and 40 watts in full power mode) the power soak works by first disabling two of the power tubes to reduce the output power by half – to a still pretty rocking 18 watts. When you press the 5W and 1W buttons, some of the power is converted into heat to further reduce the output to five watts and one watt respectively.

    The power soak lets you crank the amp as much as you like, then, but at smaller overall power settings – so you can crank 1 watt in your bedroom for practice, 5 for rehearsal, and 18 should be more than enough for smaller gigs. If you need it, there’s also 36/40 watts available – with a decent cab you’ll cut through any drummer with that, and hear yourself on stage no problem. Don’t forget, point your speakers towards where you stand (in particular, where your ears are!) during the gig to hear yourself the best.

    We actually did a blog about using smaller amps here: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/small-amp-big-sound/

    And for more info on the power soak, read/watch this: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/the-best-way-to-control-your-guitars-volume-onstage-the-power-soak/

    Hope this info is helpful! 🙂

Harper on May 2, 2016 Reply

Our drummer is a VERY heavy hitter. So I find myself being stuck between cranking and, possibly, drowning the other guys out, or keeping low and Run the risk of hardly being heard, which is something I’ve ran into several times before (I’m guessing because the sound guy isn’t paying attention/doesn’t care?). Any suggestions?

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 4, 2016 Reply

    Hi Harper. Hmm, this is not a simple situation. There are many things that affect levels onstage, but the first thing we’d ask you to do is actually look at the drummer first 😉 Could he/she play more dynamically/sensitively, or use a drum shield or drum dampeners to reduce the noise pollution they’re giving off? They don’t need to be playing proper loud at all times, even if your band is playing metal!

    Because the problem with everyone just turning up to compete with everyone else on stage is that you end up (a) sounding crap, (b) deafening the audience, and (c) deafening yourselves. And that’s no fun for anybody!

    Other things you could try, though? Moving as far away from the drummer as possible, for a start, if your stages give you that space luxury 🙂 More seriously, in-ear monitors could do a job for you, but that’s a big change, and we’d recommend the whole band use them if you go down that route – the drummer too 😉 Next, how are you positioning your amp when you play? On the floor, or on on a stand? Or have you got a stack? Try some of the advice from the blog here and tilt the speakers towards your ears as much as you can. Trust us, that’ll help.

    Finally, the sound guy issue. That’s a tough one too – sound guys get a lot of grief from musicians (and they can tend to give a lot of grief out too!) but if your drummer is playing as loudly as possible there’s only so much that can be done! You can’t turn down drums unless you play quieter or get an electronic drumkit. But still, try during your soundchecks to work directly with the sound guy to get a monitor mix that works to your satisfaction as best as possible. We actually did a blog with soundcheck advice whihc might help you here, give it a read: http://blog.hughes-and-kettner.com/seven-simple-but-effective-band-soundcheck-tips/

    We hope this helps a bit – try some of these tips out and let us know how it goes 🙂

    P.S. By the way, we did some research on making drummers play quieter for this, and it threw up an interesting article about controlling the volume of acoustic drums in live situations – might be helpful for you too: http://www.kungpowpro.com/12-ways-to-control-drum-volume-on-stage/

Dave on September 6, 2015 Reply

Great blog – thank you.

After reading this piece and seeing the pictures, My question is – what wheeled flight case would you recommend to use the TM212 cab on stage? Is there one specifically designed for use with H&K equipment?

Which ones are in the pictures?

By the way – had my Grandmeister 36 for a while now and it is by far the best amp I have ever used. Thank you!

Dave

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on September 18, 2015 Reply

    Hi Dave, and thanks for your geat feedback! The amps/cases featured in the blog are actually part of the Alan Parsons Live Project’s touring rig – the pics are from their outdoor German shows. We’ll shoot a question over to them and see if any answers are forthcoming. Otherwise, any reputable case with suitable dimensions will do the trick. Just get the measurements (on the site or in the amp manual) or even take your amp to a place that does cases, and pick a nice sturdy one that does the job for you. (There are no cases that we know of that are specifically designed to fit our 2x12s, but there are companies out there who would make you one!)

    Hope this helps a bit, and we’ll let you know if we hear back from the APLP crew! 🙂

Mat on August 20, 2015 Reply

Great article. I stumbled across placing my amp side of stage out of stage size restrictions only to find the mixer and I found it to be the perfect setup. I now always run my Grandmeister into a 2×12 side stage and the band can hear me more clearly and I don’t effect the front house mix. I actually place it (when possible) so the alignment of the speakers shoots behind the singer to try and avoid them needing me in the fold back but still able to hear themselves. Works great!

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

    Cheers Mat – funny how these things kind of fall into place naturally sometimes, isn’t it. What you’ve been doing by feel and instinct pretty much correlates with what we said in the article, so we must both be doing something right 😉 (And by the way, we also learned it through trial and error, and stage restrictions!) At the end of the day, as long as the singer’s happy…

PR on May 2, 2015 Reply

My view is-if your amp head is 6V6 power tubes, it should not be on top of the speakers, unless a massive cushion/sponge between head & speaker cab.
If your guitar cab is closed back, it should be right in front of the kick drum (to kill it some), but not if open backed cab.
From 40 years of experience, all drummers and bass guitarists are fully deaf, or they have some vendetta against vocalists.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 4, 2015 Reply

    Hmm, thanks for the interesting feedback! Closed back/open back is certainly another consideration we need to make when deciding on amp placement. And yes, drummers and bassists are all deaf, or at least have selective hearing 😉

John on May 1, 2015 Reply

In my playing days, too many years ago, I played in a 2 guitar band. We always set our amps/cabs up on opposites sides of the stage pointing across the stage. They were basically side-fills. Worked great. Really helped us hear each other without too much guitar in the monitors. He played through a 4×12 and I played through 2 custom fan-ported 2x10s stacked on top of each other. I was running a rack through a Carvin 100 watt power amp. I think he was running through an Alesis 75 watt power amp. Indoors or outdoors. Small club or large club. I always thought it was the way to go.

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on May 4, 2015 Reply

    Interesting points John, and sounds like a pretty cool setup! Very versatile indeed, and would’ve been a nice way to keep the stage a bit less cluttered too… Thanks for taking the time to read, comment and share your experiences with us!