Small Amps – Great Sound

One of my missions in life is to get guitarists involved to consider buying a low wattage tube amp instead of aspiring to their favourite valve icon (some say I should get involved with more meaningful topics!). I’ve owned most of the most of the stuff that every guitarist wants including a 64 JMI AC30, a blackface Fender Twin, a 100watt Marshall 2203 stack + plus some nice boutique stuff.

Now while whilst these all sound great, every amp has the two very same problems. First to get any tube amp to sound at its best, even when you want just a clean sound, it needs to be turned up. In fact it needs to be WAAAYY louder than in any church I’ve ever played (with the exception of a couple of outdoor stadium services) and second, all the above are so flipin’ heavy to carry that even if you don’t get a bad back you’ll get fed up pretty quick unless you have an army of groupies/roadies/interns.

I really like it when amps reach that point where they just start to break up. So not clean, not dirty, …just right. So believe it or not unless your church band ‘goes up to 11’ you won’t need more than 7 watts. I’m serious!

Not convinced? Well last Saturday I played a wedding party gig in a theatre to 200 people with an un-mic’ed 18 watt Burris Royal Bluesman tube head and 1×12 cab. As most people were dancing it was much louder than I would typically play at church and I still had loads of clean headroom available.


So where can I find such a creation? Well in the 1950’s when amps started to develop from old radio circuits most of the amp companies made practice amps around that power. It was only when bands got louder before sophisticated PA were introduced that they started to need 30, 50 and 100 watt amps.

Those practice amps sounded great and eventually found their niche as studio amps where they could be cranked for ‘that’ sound without ear blistering volume. The models I particularly like are the ‘tweed’ model fender Champs and Princetons and the Vox AC4s.

So what’s the point of this? Well I think every worship guitarist need to at least try a great quality low wattage tube amp and see what it does for their tone. The beauty of an amp like this is that you can set the over all volume with the amp and then use your guitar volume pot to control to control the amount of overdrive your sound produces. eg I went into a shop and tried a 12watt Fender handwired deluxe with a Les Paul. I set the amp volume at about 6 and then played with the guitars volume. I found that between 0-4 on the guitar it sounded clean and purely adjusted the overall volume BUT after 5 the sound didn’t necessarily louder, it just got dirtier and more compressed. Total overdrive control with your little finger and no need for pedals!

But the best bit is you don’t need to go out and buy a 50’s vintage (read expensive and potentially unreliable) amp. There is now a whole community of very small companies who are recreating those amps for bedroom players who want the tone without the volume. These are generally hand wired from good components and built in the US by one person and if you dig around a bit they aren’t necessarily expensive. If you are a British reader then its even better news because although you will pay import charges, the current pound/dollar exchange rate means that you’ll pay half of what you would from a British dealer or manufacturer.

So where’s this leading? Well I’m going to start compiling a small database of amp companies that make good quality stuff at reasonable prices and I’d love everyone’s input. I’ll include the mass produced and high end stuff but I’m really looking for those one-man amp builders that take pride in their work, produce a great product and keep their overhead low thus keeping prices low. Here’s a list to start with. Does anyone have other suggestions?

Production amps
Check out the tiny terror – still pretty loud though at 15 watts but with a ½ power switch
Epiphone valve junior. 5 watt tube amp at $199!!
check out the little Giant – similar to above

Harley Benton GA5
same as the epi valve junior in a different box
5watts plus a 6inch speaker for $199

Great Value boutique
Check out the 4 or 8 watt Champster. If you have a cab the chassis is amazing value at $279!
the champ pro looks good at $495
the standard solaris is basically like a Vox AC4 for $575. also check out the Thermosonic 10watt combo for $650 if you haven’t got a cab
classic British brand that started off as Orange amps. The Minimat and First Lady are good value if you live in the UK and want to buy British.
Check out the Royal Bluesman. I’ve got one of these and it’s incredible! 18watts (so a bit louder), weighs 14lbs and the size of a lunchbox with built reverb, trem, worldwide power AND with the footswitch that operates the trem you can power over a dozen pedals!! A true, one-plug solution.
They build classic replicas from amp kits. The smallest seems to be the 14watt 5e3 fender deluxe – great value at $775 but im sure a champ would cost even less if you enquire.

Well respected High End
The mini Z is a cool 5 watt head
Check out the mini II 5watt combo
Great fender tweed replicas from this well respected builder. Check out the sound links on the 5112 combo.

Amp Kits

If you are handy with the soldering iron and want to put together one yourself.
The 5f1 is the Champ and the 5F2 is the Princeton
They do amps + lots of other guitar parts too
They do both kits and fully built amps. Plus they build the units in Malaysia so a fully built model isn’t much more than a kit! Click on the ‘cabinet’ tab to see pics and prices of fully built models.