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Mack Amps Heatseeker HS-18

How Much Guitar Amp Power Do I Need?

Do I need to have a loud amp? Is it worth buying a 100-watt guitar amp, or 15-watts will do? Our blog will answer all you need to know about how loud your guitar amp REALLY needs to be!

Amp wall

DInosaur Jr’s amps… most people will be fine with much less than that…

I believe that a guitar amp doesn’t need to have more than 50 watts of power… ever!

Heh! I can hear the clicking of many keyboards preparing their rebuttals to that comment!

It’s never wise to make such a sweeping generalization. But there is some sense behind my comment – at least I think so! My belief that more than 50 watts is a waste has to do with where guitarists play, the type of equipment available in live venues if a guitarist gigs, and how output power affects a guitar amp’s performance.

Guitar Amp Power Requirements Have Changed Over The Years

Back when rock and roll was young guitarists required huge amounts of back line power to fill ever larger live venues. Public Address or PA systems just weren’t up to the task of being used to amplify electric guitars so everyone in the room could hear. So, walls of 100 watt amps became a common site.

Today, if a guitarist plays a venue that would require 100s of watts of amp power to fill the room the venue will have the capability to mic the guitar amp. In that case, a 4 watt Gem or a Fender Champ could work just fine!

There’s also the unfortunate fact that some bands still insist on playing with punishingly high stage volume levels regardless of whether their amps are mic’ed. I’m not going to address this topic here – musicians should protect their hearing and the hearing of their audiences!

So, why aren’t all guitar amps under 10 watts? Because of tradition – that’s a BIG reason why lots of manufacturers still make high powered amps – and because different styles of music require different tones and varying amounts of clean headroom.

Guitar Amp Power Determines Clean Headroom

If you could compare two guitar amps that were identical in every way except one had more power than the other, what would you find?

Well, interestingly, Mack guitar amps make that comparison easy! For example, our Heatseeker amps – the Heatseeker HS-18 and now discontinued Heatseeker HS-36 – are identical amps except that the 18 features two EL84s producing about 18 watts and the 36 features four EL84s producing about 36 watts.

How are they different? The 36 has more clean headroom than the 18. Otherwise, in a ‘blind; testing they sound the same.

What? The 36 has to be MUCH louder than the 18 doesn’t it? After all it has twice the power! What gives??

Guitar Amp Power and How It Relates To Volume

OK, here’s the deal with power and how it relates to volume..

  1. Double guitar amp output power – increase volume by 3 dB. The decibel, or dB, is the unit of measurement for audible sound volume. The more dB, the louder the sound. An increase in sound volume of 3 dB is generally considered to be the smallest change in sound volume that the average human ear can detect!! That’s why the 36 doesn’t produce much of a noticeable difference in volume compared to the 18.
  2. Increase guitar amp output power 10 times – double the sound volume. It takes TEN TIMES the output power to double volume!! That means you have to play through a 100 watt amp to produce twice the volume as your 10 watt amp!!

So, jumping from a 25 watt amp to a 50 watt amp and then to a 100 watt amp will result in higher volume for sure. However, there won’t be nearly as much volume difference between the 25 watter and the 100 watter as you might expect. The 100 watter will be about 6 dB louder than the 25. You’ll hear the difference, but it won’t be huge. 25 watts is already REALLY LOUD! In fact, as you can now guess, 10 or 15 or 18 watts is LOUD AS HELL when you turn it up.

The above information is based on physics and how the human hear translates changes in air pressure – sound waves – to what our brain perceives as sound. It is also based on all things being equal other than output power – primarily that means that to perform comparisons you plugged the amps into the same speaker cabinets and played the same guitar through them with the same intensity.

How Many Guitar Amp Watts Do You REALLY Need?

This is how I help customers decide on how much power they really need. Bascially, we determine together how much clean headroom is required and select the amp on that basis.

Headroom is defined as being the volume at which the amp starts to overdrive or distort the incoming signal from your guitar. Fender Twins are known for producing LOUD clean tones – it’s extremely difficult to get that amp to overdrive. Therefore, it has LOTS of clean headroom.

A 1 watt amp designed to produce overdriven and distorted tones (basically more of a distortion pedal than an amp!) will overdrive at very low volume. This type of amp has very low clean headroom.

So, how do we figure out how much clean headroom and output power is required?

  1. Determine the syle of music. There are two extremes that relate power to music style to clean headroom. AC/DC cover band? Crunch all night with extra distortion for solos. Country band? Predominantly clean all night. The cleans have to be loud enough to keep up with your band’s stage volume.
  2. Determine how to get distortion for solos. Are you going to rely on your amp for distortion or are you going to set up your amp for cleans and use pedals?
  3. Determine the venues where the amp will be played. Do you only play at home? Do you occasionally jam with another guitarist or two? In a garage/basement band? Gig in small venues only? Large rooms? Stadiums? The jump from playing by yourself or with another guitarist to playing in a band is step that may require more clean headroom regardless of music style and method of generating distortion. The jump from a band setting in a small venue (basement, small bar) to a larger venue (bigger bar, halls, etc.) may require another increase in clean headroom. The key is to determine when/if your amp will be mid’ed and your band’s stage volume.

The louder you need clean tones the more headroom you need and the more power you require.

  • Playing music that requires lots of clean tones and you have to be loud enough to keep up with the band on stage? You need more headroom.
  • Do you rely on pedals for overdrive and distortion and your amp to be clean all the time? You need more headroom.
  • Do you want your amp to produce overdrive and distortion and loud cleans are not as important? You don’t need as much headroom – you want the amp to overdrive at lower volumes. You need to drive the amp into its sweet spot at a volume level that won’t make the first 5 rows of the audience look like those guys riding rocket sleds.

Now, not all amps are designed the same. Some amps of equal power are specifically designed with more or less headroom. It’s rare to get the opportunity to play an amp in your chosen venue before buying – whether you buy online or from a local store (ever tried to determine an amp’s clean headroom when the kid next to you is practicing tapping using that 100 watt Marshall?) – so you need to rely on knowledgeable players and the manufacturer to guide you. It also helps to have an unconditional, money-back guarantee so that you can get ALL your money back if for whatever reason it turns out that the amp you bought is not suitable (see Mack’s 100% Money Back Guarantee).

How Much Guitar Amp Power Is Enough?

Getting back to where we started, why do I think that 50 watts is all that would ever be required?

Because regardless of the clean headroom required, you should never be in a position where stage volume demands more power than 50 watts. A 50 watt amp turned up enough to get it into its sweet spot is PUNISHINGLY loud.

So, before you assume you need 100 watts because that’s what ___ uses, think about the music you play, how you get your overdriven/distorted tones and where you play. Then carefully consider how much power you REALLY need!

– Don Mackrill
http://www.mackamps.com/

Better Now or Then? – The Tone Survey Results!!!

Better Now or Then? – The Tone Survey Results!!
As promised, this month we’ll take a look at the results of The Tone Survey.

Last month, I published a survey that asked questions about the state of electric guitar tone as it is today vs. what I called the “golden age” of rock and roll.

If you missed it you can find the survey here.

Survey Questions & Results:

Mackrill Tone Survey 2010: Question 11) There’s lots of high quality gear available if you’re willing to pay for it, but how has the flood of inexpensive gear affected tone quality in general?

  • 62% – I believe that, compared to the golden age of rock and roll, the average piece of gear’s tone quality has decreased.
  • 38% – I believe that, compared to the golden age of rock and roll, the average piece of gear’s tone quality is at least as good.

Mackrill Tone Survey 2010: Question 2

2) Compared to the 60’s and 70’s, has the glut of inexpensive gear on the market caused a general decline in electric guitar tone as heard on recordings, in live venues and at home?

  • 59% – I believe that, in general, electric guitar tone is not as good as it was in the 60’s and 70’s.
  • 41% – I believe that, in general, electric guitar tone is at least as good as it was in the 60’s and 70’s.

Mackrill Tone Survey 2010: Question 3

3) With all this inexpensive gear at their fingertips, do today’s guitarists spend less time working on their craft and more on finding equipment to make them sound “good”?

  • 74% – I believe that, in general, today’s guitarists spend less time perfecting their skills and more time trying to find gear that will make them sound good.
  • 26% – I believe that, in general, today’s guitarists spend at least as much time perfecting their skills as they did in the 60’s and 70’s.

The results were conclusive and interesting!

In general, the majority of the over 120 survey respondents believe that the electric guitar world was a better place in the 60’s and 70’s.

60% of them believe that gear and recorded/live guitar tone sounded better back then.

However, when it came to how much effort guitarists invest in improving their skills, almost 75% of respondents said that today’s guitarists are slackers compared to the good old days.

Comments ranged from wistful nostalgia and anecdotes from back in the day to virtual shots to the head demanding that guitarists get over vintage envy and take advantage of the cornucopia of gear available to today’s guitarist.

Click here to check out all of the survey comments.

So, are you surprised by the results?

Does it confirm that the gear market and guitarists in general have strayed from the path of tonal nirvana and earnest sweat and toil or that most of us are hopelessly stuck in the past?

Should the gear industry take note and make product development decisions on what appears to be a majority view that, on average, their products just aren’t as good as they once were or should they forge ahead taking as much advantage of technological development as possible?

Email me at Don@MackAmps.com with your thoughts and if I get enough feedback I’ll discuss the deeper issues related to this topic in next month’s article.

Don Mackrill
www.MackAmps.com
Don@MackAmps.com

Better Now or Then? (The Tone Survey!)

Is electric guitar tone better now than it was in rock’s ‘golden age’ in the 60’s and 70’s? A recent article titled “Is It Tougher To Get Good Tone Now Vs. Then?” on Jay Kumar’s fantastic Woody Tone site explores that very question. Quoted from the article, guitarist and producer Dave Cobb, who recently recorded a new album with Black Robot, believes that “Everything was better back then.”

Says Dave:

The guitars were American-made and made at the height of American craftsmanship, the Marshalls were made with quality parts, and you had quality players – you couldn’t record a record unless you had a high level of ability.  Plus studios had the best mics in the world, they had good consoles and tape. Now we might have more stuff available, but it’s not as high-quality.

Jay goes on to ponder the current state of electric guitar gear and whether it is actually more difficult to get what he calls “a convincing, old-school rock tone” than it was when Page, Clapton and Beck were young. So, here’s the deal!  I thought I would ask what you think about this topic…

First, read Jay’s article. Then click on the link below to take a quick four question survey and tell me what YOU think!

CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE “BETTER NOW OR THEN?” SURVEY!

As always, I’ll share the results next month!!

Cheers!

Don Mackrill – Don@MackAmps.com

PS: Check out another article on Woody Tone: “Mack of Mack Amps on EL84s and Tone Controls”. In this two part interview I explain why I like EL84s, how the Heatseeker line of amps came about and why I don’t like TMB tone stacks!!

PPS: Join the Mack Amps mailing list and take advantage of the current Member’s-Only discount on Heatseeker HS-18 and Skyraider SR-15 boutique amps!

Getting Great Guitar Sound On Stage

Guitar, check. Amp, check. Cables, check. Effects, check. You’ve got all the gear necessary to get a great sound on stage. Aside from the guitar player’s skill, why do some sound better than others?

leaguerock

This month we’ll look at a few aspects of getting a good live sound. While this article is mostly aimed at those of us with who have don’t have much or any stage experience, there may be something of interest here for almost anyone.

Last week I had the genuine pleasure of attending a League of Rock ‘dark stage’ rehearsal night at Toronto’s famous Chick’n Deli night club. This was an opportunity for the six bands in the current session to rehearse their three songs on a real stage – and in this case, somewhat unexpectedly, in front of a real audience.

League of Rock is the creation of Terry Moshenberg, a dynamic entrepreneur and experienced marketer and promoter – who also happens to be a guitar playing musician.

Each LOR session, of which there are three per year, some 26 to 30 amateur musicians – ‘regular’ folks, some of whom have never before been in a band let alone performed live – are formed into six ‘bands’ and, over a 12 week period, work up three songs. Each session culminates in a recording date in a pro studio and the final gala gig at a major Toronto live music venue.

So, how did I end up at a LOR gig? Well, Mack Amps is pleased to announce that it is now the official guitar amp sponsor of LOR, Toronto!

Along with meeting a bunch of great people and having a blast, witnessing 18 songs being performed by a diverse group of guitar players who, for the most part, used various Mack amps (2 guys brought their own amps!), was a tremendous live guitar sound learning experience.

Here are some thoughts about what I learned.

The Guitar’s Place In The Stage Mix

I think of live guitar ‘sound’ as being comprised of two concepts: how good is the tone and can it be heard by you and the audience?

Consider what is going on when a typical rock band performs live:

  • Drums: A drum kit produces a tremendous amount of sound energy with fundamental frequencies that range from the bass part of the audible frequency spectrum to mid range. Harmonics of fundamental tones reach all the way into the high midrange and even high frequency portions of the spectrum. You might be surprised at how much high frequency sound energy is present in a kick drum thwack not to mention toms!
  • Cymbals. Of course, cymbals produce lots of high-mid and high frequency sound energy. However, their fundamental tones are centered in the mid range.
  • Bass. True to its name, the bass produces fundamental tones in the bass to mid range frequencies.
  • Vocalist. The vocalist is producing mid range fundamentals with high-mid and high frequency harmonics.
  • Keyboards. If your band includes keyboards, they can be pumping out sound that spans the entire frequency spectrum from sub-bass to highs.

The guitar’s fundamental tones span bass to mid range frequencies and the guitar’s harmonics add energy in the high-mid range.

If you simplify each instrument’s frequency range to be generally characterized by its fundamental tones you can get a fairly realistic picture of what’s happening on stage:

  • Lots of bass and low-mid energy from drums and bass.
  • Lots of high-mid and high frequency energy from cymbals, vocals and often keys.
  • Lots of mid range energy from low frequency instrument harmonics and lower fundamental tones from vocals and keys.

There is a LOT of competition on stage fighting to be heard!

Obviously, guitars are a critical part of a band’s sound and are known for being heard, but how do you obtain that ideal combination of stellar tone that is easily heard by both you and your audience?

EQing guitars in a recording mix is a topic of many books and is well beyond the scope of this article. However, there are a few simple things that any guitarist can do to get good live sound.

Analyze Your Guitar Tone

Your tone may sound great when you are practicing at home or playing along with recordings. However, it may not translate well to the live stage.

A fairly common characteristic of what I heard the other night is guitar sounds that seemed muffled and lost in the low-mid wash of sound booming from the stage.

In these situations the guitar players usually increased the volume at the amp in an effort to hear themselves, further adding to the general pandemonium going on in the lower half of the audio spectrum.

What to do? Here are two very basic, but critical suggestions:

  1. Turn your guitar volume to 10. Many, but not all guitars feature a ‘volume control bypass capacitor’. No, that’s not something from a Star Trek episode, it’s an electronic component wired across a guitar volume control that prevents your tone from becoming muffled (reduction in high midrange frequencies) as the volume is turned down. If your guitar does NOT have one, whenever you turn down its volume your tone will generally lose presence and recede into the mix. In this case keep your guitar’s volume at 10 to help you stand out. If your guitar does have a volume bypass cap, it’s still a good idea for you to have all of your guitar volume pots full up when you hit the stage and adjust your sound before the first song’s count-in. This will ensure that you are tweaking your sound with the most signal possible coming from your guitar and gives you the best chance of avoiding a gear adjustment that will actually fight against getting a good stage sound.
  2. Turn your guitar tone to 10. Guitar tone controls have one function: they roll of high and high mid range frequencies. Since we are trying to achieve optimum ‘sound’ – the combination of great tone that is easily heard by you and your audience – and since guitar tone ‘lives’ in the upper and high mid range frequencies, it makes sense to hit the stage with tone on 10. As with guitar volume, this gives you the best opportunity to properly adjust your gear and it ensures that you do not inadvertently roll of the highs and cause your sound to recede into the mix. Having said that, there are times when a tone control adjustment is certainly warranted: for example, removing the ‘ice pick’ quality from some Teles or getting Eric Clapton ‘woman’ tone from a humbucker guitar. But, generally tone on 10 will help you cut through the mix.

3 Ways To Get Clean Electric Guitar Tone On-Stage

The term ‘clean headroom’ is often used, but having spoken to many guitarists over the years there is generally some confusion as to what it means.

The practical definition of clean headroom is the volume level at which your guitar signal starts to become distorted. The volume at which your tone just starts to breakup or overdrive is the point of maximum clean headroom. How loud you can get a clean tone depends on many variables such as how hard you pick, pickup output level, amp design and settings, etc.

There are three ways to achieve a clean tone:

  1. Guitar volume 10, amp clean. Your basic sound is clean and, if you use overdrive and distortion it will come from pedals.
  2. Guitar volume less than 10, amp dirty. In this case you set up your amp for a distorted tone and roll off your guitar volume to get a clean tone. Your distorted tone is only a flip of the guitar volume away. Note that this contradicts my earlier recommendation to leave your guitar volume on 10. “Switching” from clean to overdrive and distortion via your guitar volume control is a great strategy if your guitar volume pot is set up properly (see above) and your amp is sensitive enough to changes in guitar volume. Some amps do a great job of changing their tone with guitar volume changes and some don’t – check our your amp to see how it responds.
  3. Guitar volume 10, amp channel switching. If your amp has multiple channels one is usually adjusted for a clean tone and one for an overdriven or distorted tone.

Any of the above methods of achieving a loud clean tone is valid. The one you choose depends on your gear, the music you play and whether switching tones within a song is a necessity.

Note that a clean tone will most likely have a better chance of cutting through the stage mix. Generally, the balance of upper and high mids will be greater than an overdriven or distorted tone and your guitar sound will be less compressed allowing your picking and playing dynamics to be heard.

Distorted Electric Guitar Tone On-Stage

Whoever came up with the phrase “Less is more” must have been referring to distorted electric guitar tone!

You will likely have heard this before, but some of the heaviest electric guitar tones feature relatively little distortion.

For example, Keith Richards, ACDC, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, etc. have recorded some of the heaviest rock guitar sounds ever – and many of these iconic ‘heavy’ tones are really not all that distorted.

I realize that LOTS of great guitar tones feature LOTS of distortion, but to achieve the best stage guitar sound for classic rock and blues music styles, dialing down the distortion is almost always beneficial.

While there are many flavors of distortion – overdrive, fuzz, etc. – I generally think about it related to two needs: rhythm and lead.

If a song requires a distorted rhythm tone, often referred to as ‘crunch’, the ‘less is more’ credo is critical. Richards and the Young brothers are the masters of getting incredibly juicy, resonant and HEAVY crunch tones that are, when you listen closely, amazingly clean relative to their impact.

The distortion required for lead playing is dependent on the song and the player. However, I believe that the ‘right’ amount of distortion for solos is just enough to produce ‘flow’. What’s flow? It’s that musical moment where your tone is distorted and compressed enough and possesses enough sustain that the player can focus on their performance without having to ‘fight’ their way through a solo.

This may sound kind of esoteric, but I am sure you have wrestled with solos where your tone wasn’t quite there – either there wasn’t enough sustain or not enough distorted breakup and compression. Dialing up the distortion to get to that point of ‘flow’ alleviates the problem, but overdoing it will cause your sound to, once again, recede into the stage mix.

I also believe that the amount of distortion needed to obtain flow varies according to the song. Heavy songs with lots of crunch backing the solo requires more distortion; a much less distorted tone is often the perfect fit for obtaining flow with ‘lighter’ songs.

Having said that, I know there are lots of examples of impossibly distorted solos in otherwise clean songs and clean solos in heavy songs – in those cases the contrast is what works. However, I believe that a good rule of thumb is to use just as much distortion as it takes to get you into flow – and no more.

What happens if you use too much distortion on stage?

Your tone won’t fit the song and will negatively impact the quality of your band’s overall sound and its performance. Part of getting a great stage sound is making sure your audience isn’t cringing even if they can hear you LOUD and clear. Since the primary objective of performing live is to provide your audience with an enjoyable experience, this problem should be avoided at all costs!

Worse yet, using too much distortion can overly compress your tone and, depending on how the distorted tone is EQ’d, there can be a dramatic perceived loss in highs and clarity and you end up not blending in with the song and not being heard properly! I suppose that if your tone is negatively affecting the overall performance, not being heard might be a good thing, but I think you get my point.

How do you easily get the right amount of distortion on stage?

So,this is how to best get a distortion sound on stage and still be heard properly:

  1. Crunch. My favorite method of getting good crunch is from an amp – preferably one that features power tube distortion. Richards and the Youngs rely on plugging a great guitar into a great amp and turning it up until they get the tone they want. Although there are lots of overdrive and boost pedals that can get crunch tones, for the most part you will find that amp crunch is more dynamic, resonant and pleasing to the ear. Dynamics are important because a good amp will respond to your picking attack by changing the amount of crunch. Organically altering your distorted tone by playing harder and softer during a song is FUN!
  2. Lead. This is where pedals can really come into play. Stomping on a box to elevate your tone for solos is a classic method. However, you can get great amp lead tone by setting your amp for lead distortion and rolling your guitar volume down for clean/crunch and up for solos. Or, if you have a multi-channel amp it is easy to set up rhythm and lead tones.

There are many more aspects of live guitar sound that we haven’t covered. If there is enough interest in this topic I’ll continue next month.

Let me know how you get great live guitar tone by emailing me at Don@MackAmps.com or simply post your reply, below!

Don Mackrill
www.MackAmps.com

What Is A Boutique Guitar Amp?

Most guitarists instantly create an image in their minds when they think of ’boutique’ guitar amps. But, what does the term really mean? Perform a Google search on the term “What is a boutique amp” and you will find many threads from many gear related forums where members debate the meaning of the term and the criteria by which a boutique amp is defined. This month we’ll sort through the debate and see if there is an underlying theme that describes what makes an amp worthy of being called ’boutique’.

The Meaning of Boutique
Boutique is a French word whose literal translation is “shop”. It appears to have come to prominence worldwide in reference to the fashion industry: boutique fashion designers and boutique clothing stores that sold pieces made by boutique designers.

Two dictionary definitions of the word boutique reads: “a small business, department, etc., specializing in one aspect of a larger industry” and “a small, exclusive producer or business”.

These are somewhat vague explanations and if we were to get really philosophical we would examine the terms “specializing” and “exclusive” in an attempt to achieve a precise definition. You’ll be please to learn that we won’t go there in this article!

It appears that there is a common theme developing regarding the concept of business size: to be considered boutique a business must be small.

However, is there more required of an amp company to be considered boutique?

The Boutique Debate
If you spend any time at all browsing online forum threads that address this topic you will see a number of different criteria discussed relative to defining a boutique amp and/or amp company.

Following is my assessment of the most commonly mentioned characteristics. And, I’ll give you my 2¢ worth on each one!

  • Size: Yes, as the tired joke goes “size does matter”, but in this case small is better (if only my wife would agree…). Virtually every participant in the online boutique debate agrees that to be considered a boutique amp company small or limited production capacity is a requirement. A common example is Mesa Boogie. Often considered the first boutique amp company, Mesa seems to have outgrown the genre. I agree that mass production is not a characteristic of a boutique builder. There are some fine amps that are mass produced – many by Mesa – but, that is not the essence of a boutique builder as will be discussed below.
  • Philosophy: There’s that word again. Don’t worry! A few thoughtful forum dwellers brought up the idea that boutique amp companies have a different mission than non-boutique companies. They believe that a boutique amp builder’s primary focus is on the integrity of their product concept: “built to a standard not to a price” was how one put it.I think this is a critical characteristic of boutique amp companies. Whether a builder focuses on replicating vintage designs or developing unique creations, each one follows their own recipe to make a ‘better than mass produced’ amp.Evidence of this is seen in any boutique builder’s product line. There is almost always a direction or common theme to which their products adhere. You don’t see boutique builders going after widely divergent market segments as some ‘big’ companies do: $200 entry level amps all the way to multi-thousand dollar, hand wired reissues!
  • Hand wired vs. printed circuit boards: There is much lively debate concerning the authenticity of boutique amps that use printed circuit boards (PCBs). Is this an oxymoron? Many guitarists think so. The hand wired camp believe that only an amp whose every component and wire has been hand soldered can be considered boutique. However, there are many amp companies that are generally considered to be boutique, such as Soldano, Rivera, Fuchs and THD to name a few (Mack uses a PCB in the Gem) that use PCBs. Note that while these amps use PCBs, they are hand assembled and, in at least the case of the Gem, are hand wired to the chassis mounted components.Does an amp have to be hand wired to be considered boutique? Not in my opinion. The manner in which components are attached and soldered to a circuit board simply does not affect tone. A poorly laid out eyelet board will sound just as bad as a poorly designed PCB. A well designed PCB amp will sound indistinguishable from a hand wired example.Reliability is often cited as a problem with PCB amps. While a poorly designed, mass produced amp is a recipe for problems, a well designed PCB amp will be at least as reliable as a hand wired amp. After all, PCBs are used in spacecraft and military electronics – two of the most inhospitable environments on or around the planet – and, since in both of those applications cost is insignificant compared to reliability, hand wired electronics would be the norm if PCBs were unreliable.
  • Price: Many guitarists believe that boutique amps are very expensive – and many are. As we all know boutique amp prices can easily run from $2,000 up to tens of thousands for Dumbles and the like. However, there is a growing segment of boutique builders who offer amps at prices in the $1,000 range and sometimes less. While $1,000 is not inexpensive, it is much less than many guitarists believe possible for a boutique amp. Plus, there are many mass produced amps from big companies that are in this price range – and higher!Nonetheless, relative to a small builder (there’s that size thing again) price is indicative of what goes into their products. Building amps completely by hand or hand assembling them simply requires more labor than if the same product is mass produced. That means a higher price. When you add in the additional cost of high-end and sometimes custom components that some boutique builders use, the price quickly escalates. BTW, my explanation of high priced, mass produced amps is that their price reflects what the company thinks they can get for them.
  • Location: Most if not all participants in the boutique debate seem to agree that to be considered a boutique amp builder, production must take place locally – not in Asia or other areas of the world where labor rates are low. To my knowledge there is no small amp building company from these areas that claims boutique status (although there is a Malaysian maker of reportedly high quality amp kits that many consider be in the boutique category).I tend to agree with the assessment that an amp builder should not be considered ’boutique’ if it has their product manufactured by a third party company in, say, China. I believe that the ability to maintain product integrity relative to component quality, build quality and functional consistency is compromised if production is not close at hand.There appears to be a growing body of evidence supporting this belief based on a North American amp company that would have previously been considered boutique, but who has, it appears, elected to manufacture at least some of their product overseas. While their amps have proven to be popular and are now sold at GC (the boutique builder kiss of death?), anecdotal reports suggest that the tone and build quality of the amps are not on par with their past, domestically produced, products.
  • Tone: It’s interesting to note that in all of the online forum threads that I studied, VERY few participants mentioned tone as a defining factor of a boutique amp! A few commented that not all boutique amps sound good to them. Most did not mention relative tone quality at all!I think this reflects the reality that while many boutique amps produce exceptional tone, there are mass produced amps that sound good too – or at least ‘good enough’. This is where price enters the thought process of guitarists. Is the improvement in tone worth the extra money for a boutique amp? Or, is there even an improvement in tone at all? Since tone is such a subjective assessment there are many answers to the above questions. That said, I think there are many guitarists who don’t equate significantly better tone with a boutique amp simply because they would never consider buying one.Nonetheless, I believe that if an amp claims to be boutique, that it should produce very good tone indeed. This leads to another personal belief: once in the boutique price range every increment in price should produce a noticeable improvement in tone – otherwise the value of the higher price amp is degraded.

What Is A Boutique Amp?
I believe that a boutique amp is made by a small manufacturer who follows their own philosophy of how to build amps that are better than mass produced products.

Yes, there are lots of ways to interpret that… and that’s why there are lots of boutique amp companies!

Mack Amps Heatseeker HS-18

Mack Amps Heatseeker HS-18

Send me an email and let me know what you think!

Don Mackrill
Don@MackAmps.com
MACK AMPS

Getting Your Own Sound with Guitars & Amps

Hello my friends in guitar land. The most frequent question I receive from my fellow guitar players is how do I get my own sound. First, I would like to say that in my opinion a signature sound comes from your hands not from your gear. And also from a picture you have in your mind of what you want your “voice” to convey. But the idea that certain equipment will help reproduce the sound you have worked so long and hard to achieve is relevant. So I will give you an idea of what I think is a good set-up for certain types of music and specific roles being played in a musical setting. Please remember that I humbly submit these opinions in good fun and are based on over 30+ years of playing live and in the studio, as well a collecting guitars and amps during those years. I know there are plenty of guitar players out there who know a helluva lot more then I do about guitaring.

First some quickie suggestions right off the bat for you guys and gals.

Phase 1

  1. When using a wah wah and a distortion always have the wah wah before the fuzz box (how’s that for old school?) in your chain. You want to effect your guitar signal before you distort it. When using a clean boost that should be last in your chain right after your distortion units.
  2. Use as few pedals as you can. The more effects you use the more your sound suffers. If you are using more than 5 or 6 pedals try using an A/B switch and set up two loops to keep the chain as short as possible.
  3. If you like a tight sound, ceramic speakers are a good way to go. In general AlNiCo speakers tend to be a bit more saggy. But there are some Alnico speakers that are clean too, these tend to be the higher quality ones. And as they break in the ceramics tend to be tighter and cleaner.
  4. Lower output pickups tend to be thinner eq wise, and subsequently a hotter pickup tends to be darker sounding. If you want to use a lower output pickup for the reason that they reproduce your playing dynamics better, you must use a higher output amp. Again, if your guitar is a high output axe you can use a smaller amp, and still achieve a nice fat sound.
  5. Shorter scale guitars make light gauge strings feel extra light, and consequently longer scale guitars make light gauge strings feel a bit heavier. This is why back in the day when light gauge strings were not readily available, guitar players preferred Gibson guitars over Fender.
1962 Fender Telecaster Electric Guitar (Vintage)

1962 Fender Telecaster Electric Guitar (Vintage)

Phase 2
Next on the cavalcade of hits, I will give you some examples of typical setups for certain types of music. Remember you can mix and match these suggestions for your signature sound.

Clean Country Sound:
This is a sound made popular by country pickers since the 1960’s. It’s a clean sound, very little if no distortion at all.

  • Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, the bridge pickup for a bright twang with a bit less output and fatness then the Tele bridge p/u. You can also get a great albeit a more modern country sound using the between the pickups sounds (2nd and 4th) on the Strat. For all you Eastwood fans check out the Wandre and the Joey Leone Signature Models for a great bunch of aforementioned country sounds.
  • Gretsch models w/ DeArmond Dynasonic pickups give you a great country sound with alot of dynamic range for subtle to ear splitting tones. For those of you who want to dabble in some cool country tones try the Eastwood Classic 6 for a very reasonable starter country axe.
  • A Gibson thin line arch top like a Byrdland is also a great clean country axe, don’t believe me? Ask Roy Clark and Hank Garland (Mr. Sugarfoot Rag). One of my idols Scotty Moore (of Elvis fame) played an L5 and an ES-295 during his years with the King.
  • Amps: The cleaner the amp the better, period. A Twin Reverb comes to mind immediately as well the solid state high wattage steel guitar offerings from Peavey like the Nashville and Session 400. Amps with at least a 12-inch speaker will help you get that twang. If you are the only guitar player in the band consider using an amp with a 15-inch speaker. You can also use a smaller amp at a lower volume with a mike on it.

Gritty Country Sound:
Same guitars choice as above, just crank your amp up. 10 inch speakers are okay for this application. The Marshall TSL Series, Fender Deluxe. Vibrolux, and Super Reverb will make you smile.

Heavy Rock Sound:
Again I remind you I am an old school guy so I say….

  • Guitars: Gibson SG w/ humbuckers is my choice for ultimate heavy rock guitar. It cuts and yet is still as fat as your fifth grade Home Ec. teacher. Tony Iommi, Angus Young, and Glen Buxton (the most underrated heavy rock guitar player) are shining examples of what an SG in the hands of a capable axe murderer can do. Gibson Les Paul Customs like Steve Jones and Mick Ronson used to play also kill.
  • Those pointy guitars from the 80’s, Jackson, Charvel, Ibanex JEM and ESP’s are all a bit more edgy and hotter then a stock SG or Les Paul.
  • I also love the sound of P90 equipped solid body axes for a great crunch sound, maybe a more punky sound is a better explanation. Les Paul Jr.’s ala Johnny Thunders and Leslie West are prime examples of this guitars sound when cranked. I am sure these guys influenced Billy Joe Armstrong in his choice de axe. Again, Eastwood offers some great single coil guitars of this ilk, the P90 Special, Stormbird and JR Elite just to name a few.
    1962 Fender Telecaster Guitar – Sunburst
  • Amps: Marshall, Marshall and more Marshall. The JTM 800 is numero uno in my book, as well as the JCM 900 for a more modern shred vibe. I was also impressed with the Carvin stack offerings back in the day. THD, Randall, and Peavey also have really good sounding shred generators in many configurations.
Marshall Guitar Amps

Marshall Guitar Amps

Rock and Alternative Sound:
This is a potpourri of suggestions, please take one and pass the rest back.

  • Guitars: Well take your pick, I am just gonna rattle em off….first the off the wall ones. These are the “next big things.” Maybe? Remember Cobain’s JagStang? Gretsch solid bodies from the 70’s and 80’s ugly as your neighbors AMC Gremlin. Silvertone’s and Danelectro’s from the 60’s. Link Wray, Jimmy Page, duh! Kramer’s from the 80’s, Eddie something or other played one of these. Carvin solidbodies from the 80’s. Still a great deal on Ebay. Ovation guitars form the late 60’s and 70’s (the Deacon, the Breadwinner, and Tornado.) The pickups were nasty sounding, but oh so cool. Legit ones. Fender Telecaster, Rickenbacker solid and semi-solid guitars, Gretsch arch tops, Mosrite solidbodies, and Gibson solidbodies guitars w/ P90’s.
  • Amps: The Vox AC-30 is a seriously important amp in the history of rock and roll, for a very good reason, it’s an original. History tells us that early Marshall’s are in essence copies of a Fender Tweed Bassman. So the Vox is the only original amp design of the “Big Three”. Best news about that is that it sounds great! The Vox AC-15 is also a slammin’ amp. Portable, strong and ballsy just like my first wife.
  • Fender Deluxe Reverb, crank it up and feel the magic. The singularly most versatile amplifier in the history of guitardom. This little dynamo is IMHO the best sounding amp ever made (Blackface models produced from 1964 to 1967).
  • The Silvertone/Danelectro Twin Twelve. What a great/cheap amplifier should be. Two twelve inch speakers (usually Jensen’s) a killer tremolo and reverb. Most models I have seen run four 6L6’s in the output section. Although I own an early Danelectro Twin Twelve which runs a duet of 6L6’s that is a great amp. Also any of the Valco made amps will do the trick (Supro, National, Airline, Montgomery Ward).
  • There are so many great boutique amps out there that are really well built and versatile. They are expensive, usually very expensive. Also they are tough to try out as many of these amps are not in music stores. Making it hard to test drive them . And if they do have one, that’s the problem they only have one, so you can’t a/b them with your favorite guitar plugged into them. Some of the ones I have either owned or played are Victoria (a tweed Fender vibe), Matchless (some Vox like models). I also really liked the early Bedrock amps that were basically JTM 45 clones.

Guitar Amps: What’s in a Brand Name?

This month’s article is interactive! That’s right, you have an opportunity to voice your opinion and I’ll publish the collective feedback next month.

The topic is… branding.

WAIT!

Before you click the back button, hear me out.

The simple definition of the word ‘brand’ is the image that a particular product has in a person’s mind. Let’s use some examples to illustrate this idea.

If I were to say the word… facial tissue… and ask you what product name comes into your head first, those of you in North America would likely say… Kleenex.

If we were talking about cars and I said… safety… what car would you think of? Most likely Volvo. Staying on the car theme, what if I said… ultra-luxury? Rolls Royce, right?

OK, you get the picture. Now, let’s play the same game only related to guitar amps. Here’s a couple to get you warmed up.

Metal. Let’s see, I would probably say… Mesa Dual Recto. Jazz. Hmmm… I’d go for Polytone Mini Brute. Rare. Easy! I’ve only ever seen one of these… on stage behind Robben Ford… Dumble.

Wanna have a go at it? Just copy the following table, paste it into an email (click on the link at the bottom of this article), fill in as many answers as you want and click on send. I’ve left some blanks so you can even write in a few of your own categories. Easy! I’ll tabulate the results and Next month we’ll see if there are any surprises! I’ll also let you know how the answers varied in each category.

Category Amp Category Amp
Jazz Chime
Country Classic Rock
Shred Meltdown
Metal Solid State
Punk Traditional Boutique
Blues Budget Boutique
Reliable Rare
Built-Like-A-Tank Ultra-Expensive
Beautiful Good Value
Ugly Wacky
Fender Clone Vintage – Cheap
Marshall Clone Vintage – Expensive
Over-Hyped Favorite
Most Complicated Vox Clone
Clean Most Drool-Worthy
Off-Brand Vintage Best Kept Secret
American Sound British Sound

Let’s have some fun!

Amp Tone Controls: Tone & Gain Sucking Leeches?

Guitar amps have tone controls. Always have, always will… maybe.

More tone controls are better – treble, middle, bass – a tone stack for every channel! Always has been, always will be… maybe not!

WHY?

Tradition is a powerful thing and change is hard to make. But, if you consider how tone controls affect an amp’s signal chain, investigate what a guitar and amp sound like with minimal tone controls (or none!) and then decide if you REALLY need them, you might be surprised at your conclusion.

Tone controls change or modify the tone of an electric guitar signal as it passes through an amp. However, the primary determinant of how your electric guitar sounds is the instrument itself, the amp’s overall design (gain stages, pre vs. power tube overdrive, etc.), its tubes, the speaker(s) and YOU the player. Tone controls are but one in a long line of factors strung between your brain, your gear and your ears.

We all have used tone controls to change the sound that our amp produces. Roll off the bass for a humbucker equipped guitar; trim the treble when you plug in that ice-pick Tele; peg the bass when playing your Strat; boost the mids to cut through the mix. All useful stuff. But, what would you sound like if you didn’t have tone controls at all?

In my opinion, despite their tone tweaking usefulness, traditional tone controls can detract from the quality of the tone… if you consider what your amp would sound like without them. Let’s dive into the nature of tone controls to find out why I hold this wacky belief!

Virtually every tone control you’ll run across, at least in a typical tube amp, is a ‘passive’ device. That means that it cuts or reduces the volume of certain frequencies. A passive tone control cannot boost frequencies.

Terminology check: tone controls are often referred to as ‘tone stacks’. The passive components that comprise tone controls – resistors, capacitors and potentiometers – are connected in such a way that when they are drawn on a piece of paper – a schematic – the treble, middle and bass controls look like they are ‘stacked’ on each other. That’s where the term tone stack comes from.

Because tone stacks are constructed from passive components, even if you turn the knobs up to 10, each tone control still reduces certain frequencies.

Yes, that’s right. With passive tone controls there is no such thing as a TRUE ‘flat’ setting where the signal is not affected in any way there is always some signal loss.

What the heck does all that mean?

Below is a graph that shows the frequency response of a typical treble, middle, bass (TMB) tone control often used by an amp company originally located in southern California. The graph depicts the level of frequencies with all the tone controls set to 10. As you can see the signal level at all frequencies is well below 0 dB — that means that the signal level is being attenuated or reduced as it goes through the tone stack – even at a 10 setting (yes Nigel, the same would hold true at 11 too!).

What does this mean? Two things.

First, a tone stack reduces the overall level of your signal. That’s why amps with traditional tone stacks need an extra gain stage to return the signal to its level before it got hosed down by the tone stack – more components, more cost, more complexity.

Second, even when all the knobs are on 10 the stack is changing the tone profile of your signal. The tone stack’s frequency response as shown in the graph has a big dip centered on 300 Hz. That means that the volume level of those frequencies around 300 Hz is a lot less than the rest of the frequencies – a cut in the low mids.

Here’s our tone stack’s frequency response set to provide a flat frequency response. Note that although the tone controls are not shaping the tone – all frequencies are being passed at an equal level -the signal has been severely attenuated across the board.

  • 10Hz
  • 100 Hz
  • 1000 Hz
  • 10000 Hz

You’ll likely be surprised to learn that to produce this ‘flat’ response the controls have to be set as follows:

  • Bass = 1
  • Middle = 8
  • Treble = 0

I bet that’s not where you set your tone controls!

There are a few things at play here. First, at this flat response point you have to really boost the volume to compensate for the gain loss through the tone stack. Second, it shows how much the typical tone stack scoops mids – bass and treble have to be severely attenuated to match the low mid-frequency response of the stack. Finally, this shows that the tone controls are highly interactive and changes in one dramatically affect the other – you have to dial in crazy settings to get a flat response.

So, if it takes this dramatic an alteration of your tone controls to get a true representation of what your guitar sounds like why bother?

Is all this ‘bad’? Not necessarily. The tone stack in question has been used in dozens of amp designs that produce great tone. Maybe you won’t like the true sound of your guitar!

However, I want to plant a crazy idea in your brain: what would happen if you didn’t have a tone stack or you had a very simple tone control that could make subtle tone changes, but would not suck nearly as much gain and would not dramatically alter the frequency response of your guitar?

Well, in my experience you can really ‘hear’ your guitar (!) … you’ll hear a more balanced tone coming from your rig. Your tone will have more presence and, with an amp that has been designed with minimal or no tone controls, you will experience a more responsive, dynamic feel. If you like that sort of thing it’s VERY cool!

Of course, it’s impossible to properly convey the sound of a ‘tone-stacklessR17; amp on a piece of paper … you have to hear the difference!

So, when you see amps with minimal tone controls don’t dismiss them. Play through them when you get the opportunity so you can see for yourself. You may be surprised at what you hear and feel!

Send me an EMAIL (Don Mackrill) if you would like to discuss this further!

PS: Crystal ball time! I predict you’ll see an increasing number of amps with ‘lift’ switches that take the tone stack completely out of the circuit. A few big name amps have had this feature for years labeled as a “solo” switch. Why call it a solo switch? Because eliminating the tone stack increases gain and midrange response – both perfect for bringing your sound front and center! Wouldn’t that boost in tonality be a good thing all the time?

Consider having your local amp tech add a lift switch to your favorite box so you can experiment for yourself … the stack might get lifted and never put back!

Budget Boutique Amps: What Are They and Why Should You Buy One

Here’s a common scenario:

You’ve finally made your decision to slap down some of your scarce cash on a reissue or new model tube amp built in the Far East for a BIG name manufacturer. It seems like a great deal: the vintage amps of this model sell for thousands of dollars more, it looks like the real thing and the specs appear to be the same (same tubes, same power, same controls, etc.). And, it sounded pretty darn good in the store too.

So, why should you NOT buy it and instead consider a hand made, BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp?

An excellent question and on that I’m sure will generate many opinions. Following is my take on this scenario. It may change how you pursue your quest for spine tingling tone … without having to re-mortgage your house to get it!

Why shouldn’t you buy the reasonably priced BIG name amp? That question can be answered in two words:

Value and Quality

BORING you may be thinking: these are goals that any business tries to achieve. However, in this case they really mean something and by paying attention to them you can have a significantly better amp ownership experience.

Bottom line: you CAN get an amp that sounds better and is more reliable than the BIG name, mass produced amp made in the Far East … for not a lot more money.

That’s right, in exchange for a reasonable price premium (I know … yeah right, you’re thinking) you really can get kick-ass tone that puts a mile-wide grin on your face and a piece of gear that is versatile and won’t break (and if it does it’s fixed pronto by someone who cares!). That’s the definition of a BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp. Sounds like good value? It is.

Here’s the alternate scenario to the one above. Magically, you’re now presented with a second amp featuring:

  • All tube circuitry
  • Kick-ass tube tone that blows you away
  • Telepathic sensitivity to the player’s touch
  • The ability to morph from chime to crunch to face-ripping distortion with the twist of your guitar’s volume knob
  • Hand made, hand wired construction that is robust and reliable
  • Customer service provided by a company that cares about creating a great ownership experience

All for only $200 – $300 more than recent Fender reissues or the same price or LESS than many Marshall tube amps… that are made in the Far East featuring printed circuit boards to minimize cost.

How do you decide whether to spring for the BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp? Let’s play out the scenario.

Is the tone difference that big a deal?
You bet it is – that’s owners speaking, not me. The difference between playing through an amp that sounds pretty darn good vs. playing through a BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp that blows you away is huge – you deserve the experience! BUDGET BOUTIQUE amps can do that.

Touch sensitivity isn’t even on my radar screen, what’s up with that?
An amp that is sensitive to your playing dynamics and instantly responds to your picking hand is a revelation. Warm, vibrant notes pop out of the amp almost before you play them. It adds a new dimension to your sound and a whole new layer of pleasure to your playing.

In my experience I set my amp up for a good tone and go for it. If I want to change tones I twiddle with the amp or throw pedals in front of it. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. But, a really good BUDGET BOUTIQUE amp will be versatile giving you a range of awesome tones controllable from your guitar. Set the maximum volume and level of distortion you desire and then roll off your guitar’s volume to morph into beautiful clean tones and everything in between.

Won’t a mass produced amp with machine-stuffed, printed circuit boards be more reliable than a hand made amp?
Talk to owners of these amps and read on-line reviews to discover the answer. Amps that use printed circuit boards instead of hand wired boards or point-to-point wiring are inherently more difficult to repair. For example, a simple component replacement job that takes a few minutes on a hand wired amp could take an hour on a printed circuit board amp.

My local music store gives me good service. They’ll look after my amp if it breaks won’t they?
Sure they will or at least they’ll try. Unfortunately, the good people at your local music store are often stuck with a BIG name amp manufacturer’s less than satisfactory repair policy and response time. Dealing with a small amp builder can be a vastly different experience. Most recognize that satisfying EVERY customer is absolutely critical because they don’t have as many as the big guys and they know that bad customer service can sink their business. That means you get responsive service designed to get you back up and playing as quickly as possible.

Hand made, boutique amps have an image of being extremely expensive. However, BUDGET BOUTIQUE builders really do provide terrific amp value. It just takes a little effort to find them. Believe me, they’re out there all right … making great amps.

So, for a few hundred dollars more – or in some cases at the same or even lower price (!) – you can get strikingly better tone, much better reliability and personalized product support if anything goes wrong. Which amp would you choose?

BUY TONE NOT GLITZ!

Class A Tube Amps: Marketing Hype vs. Reality

(From The Pet Peeve Dept.)

Class A tube guitar amps. Everyone’s heard the term. It’s generally associated with higher-end amps in support of an amp maker’s claim that their product sounds “better”.

I’ll leave the debate as to which is better to others. What I want to discuss is what Class A really means and, from the pet peeve perspective, to debunk many amp manufacturers’ claims that their products are Class A when clearly they’re not! You may be surprised at how many amp makers falsely claim Class A operation. So, let’s review, in practical terms, what Class A really is and learn a simple rule of thumb you can use to spot operating class BS!

There’s no denying that Class A amps have different tonal characteristics when compared to the more common ClassAB amps. However, as with anything related to tone, “better” is in the ear of the beholder. There are plenty of butt kickin’ amps out there of both classes.

What does “Class A operation” mean? Technically, it refers to where on a tube’s operating curve, it’s biased. That’s it. Bias a tube one way and it’s operating in Class A, change the bias and it’s in ClassAB.

Of course, there are always technical details that complicate things. In this case, the complicating detail is that tubes biased to operate in the Class A “zone” require a lower voltage supply. Otherwise, they’ll quickly fail. Enough tech stuff, no need to worry about that. I mentioned it to avoid a misperception that you can simply take your amp to a tech for a 5-minute re-bias job and you’re in Class A land. Can’t happen. Fundamental changes to your Class A/B amp would be required to lower the voltage and otherwise set it up for Class A operation. Back to regular programming!

Fixed vs. cathode biasing is another “Class A” related misconception. Many believe that if an amp is cathode biased it is Class A. Not true. An amp can be A or A/B and fixed or cathode biased. Again, it depends on where the tube is biased on its operating curve not how it is biased.

Another factor in the myth is that if an amp has a “single-ended” power tube configuration it is Class A. Conversely, so the myth goes, if an amp has a push-pull power tube configuration it is Class A/B. Once again, the operating class of the amp is not defined by the power amp configuration. It is true that many (most?) single-ended amps are, in fact, Class A. But, on its own “single-ended” does not define an amp’s operating class. An amp can be Class A push-pull or Class A/B single-ended or vice versa.

The technical difference between single-ended and push-pull power amps are perhaps a topic for another article; I mention it here because they are common terms and often enter into the Class A vs. Class A/B confusion.

I mentioned above that Class A amps sound different from Class A/B amps. To review, Class A means the tubes are operating in a different part of their operating zone as compared to Class A/B. Two important things happen as a result. First, tubes operating in Class A produce more even harmonic content. Second, they produce less power.

Tubes biased to operate in Class A/B produce more odd order harmonics. Generally, even order harmonics sound more pleasing than odd. That’s why Class A and Class A/B sound different. However, as I mentioned earlier there are MANY GREAT sounding Class A/B amps. Don’t get unnecessarily biased toward Class A amps (amp builder’s humor – HAHA!).

The fact that a Class A amp with the same power tube configuration as a Class A/B amp produces less power leads us to the simple rule of thumb you can use to check whether an amp is really Class A: just compare the power tube configuration to the claimed output power rating of the amp.

Here are the guidelines I use to tell if an amp’s manufacturer doesn’t have their facts straight:

Power Tube
EL84
6V6
EL34, 6I6
2-Tubes
15 watts A/B
20* watts A/B
40 watts A/B
4-Tubes
30 watts A/B
40 watts A/B
80 watts A/B

*Some smaller Class A/B Fenders (e.g. early Princetons and Deluxes, etc.) that feature two 6V6s are rated around 15 watts – later examples are in the more typical 20+ watt range.

If the marketing hype shows output power near or above these ratings and it says the amp is Class A – there’s something wrong! If the output power is a fair chunk lower, the amp is most probably Class A. Simple!

Next time you read a guitar mag have fun by checking the tube configuration, power rating and operating class claims of your favorite amps. You may be surprised at what you find!