I just got back from playing a rock show at a very small venue. It’s basically a 30 seat theatre that usually hosts folk acts. I wanted to be able to play hard without blasting the audience or overpowering the vocalist, so I used a 4 watt Vox tube amp through a single Celestion Greenback and it sounded great. The amp was actually a bit on the loud side, and this was with a drummer and another guitarist and bassist.
Picking the right size amp for a gig is important if you care about your tone. Too powerful and you won’t get the amp humming with that nice amount of hair that we all love. Too small and you will be drowned out by the rest of the band. I tend to gravitate towards smaller amps. My usual rig is a 25 watt Valvetech VAC25 with a single 12” speaker. If I need to hear myself better I bring a second speaker and put it on top of the amp so that I can push out more sound. I find that most places where I need to be really loud have a PA and they can mic my cabinet, so I don’t need to bring a 100 watt amp to the gig.
I know that the 100 watt amp with the 4×12 cab is a rock staple, but most of us are not playing huge venues and we simply don’t need that much volume. What ends up happening is that the amps are not being pushed hard enough, nor are they pushing the speakers. You’ll get better breakup with a smaller rig. Remember that a hundred watt amp is not ten times louder than a ten watt amp. It’s actually only twice as loud. A Vox AC30 or AC15, for example, will be plenty loud enough for most venues.
One place where I tend to use louder amps is when I play outdoors. The sound dissipates more quickly and there is often more distance between myself and the crowd. I tend to run a 100 watt Fender Bassman through a single, very efficient EV12L. I can play loud and stay pretty clean.
I also try to stay as far away from my amp as possible. I like the amp to be about fifteen feet behind me so that it is not blasting directly into my ear. I want to hear myself in the mix, not on top of the mix. I tend to tilt the speaker up slightly as well.
There are other considerations when picking the right amp for a show. How much space do I have on stage? Am I going to need to play really clean most of the time? Are there three flights of stairs and no elevator? But mostly I am thinking about how to get my favorite, slightly broken up sound without blasting everyone in the room. I play better when I can push the amp so making sure I am not too loud is also a way of making sure I have set up my playing environment for the best chance of sounding and feeling good!
Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.