I’ve recently been working on downsizing my electric guitar rig. I want top quality gear but I’ve always found those classic amps that give great tone are just too big, heavy and loud for use in most churches. I’ve had Fender Twins, Vox AC30’s and Marshall Stacks and can’t even turn the volume above 1 without deafening the front row. The problem is that tube amps need to be worked in order to sound good. Many people find the ‘sweet spot’ occurs when the sound tips from clean into overdrive and since that happens between 4 and 7 its unlikely that you’ll get anywhere near that on a 50watt or even 30watt amp in church.
So the solution I’ve started to work with is to use a lightweight, very low output, single channel tube amp with one great sound and overdrive and modulate it with a few choice pedals rather than using a multi-channel amp set-up and huge pedal board.
Small light tube amps with great tone used to be difficult to find. Fortunately there has been an explosion in recent years of companies that build amps for bedroom players who want top quality but at low volume. Boutique manufacturers like,THD, Fargen, Electrosonic, Frenzel,Ceriatone,Victoria. Clark, Tophat and many others all build small, lightweight, low wattage versions of classic amp circuits with tone to die for. If you’re handywith a soldering iron you can even build kit amps from companies like Weber, Allen and Mojotone and save a few bucks. Or if money’s tight then try the Epiphone Valve Junior at just $150. Many of these amps are between 7-14 watts and although that doesn’t sound like much, it’s plenty for playing in church where you are going to be miced through the PA anyway.
So which amp do you choose? The best place to begin is to understand what the classic ‘benchmark’ amps should sound like and find a low wattage version of the one you like best.The benchmarks sounds are Fender, Marshall and Vox but even within these there are variations. Fender’s low wattage amps were called Deluxe so listen to both 5e3 ‘Tweed’ and ‘Blackface’ variants.Tweedcovered amps were a little more bassy or ‘throaty’ than the pristine clean blackface sound so compare both. The classic Marshall sound actually comes in many flavours so listen to 18watt, JTM/’Plexi’ and JCM 800/900 models for a good idea. Some of the later JCM Marshalls were voiced more for overdriven rather than clean sounds so bear this in mind. The classic Vox amps were the AC15 and AC30 but again there are variations. Speaker choice makes a noticeable difference with the alnico ‘blue’ being the most coveted and the ‘top boost’ models change the sound too.
So how do you try them all? I used to say go into a shop and compare. I still do, but for initial comparisons these days product demos on YouTube makes things so much easier to at least get to the ball park of what you like. You can get away with as little as a couple of levels of drive and a good delay unit. I use a mild overdrive called a Timmy that pushes my basic clean tone into overdrive and then something dirtier for the bigger moments. If you’re strumming your electric also consider a compressor which adds sparkle to the top end and can alleviate muddiness.
Bear in mind which guitar you use too. There’s a whole black art to matching guitars, amps and pedals and not every guitar works well with every amp. Again find clips that match the rest of your set up as closely as possible as many people spend loads on an electric guitar and consider their amp tone as an afterthought. You should consider the amp as part of the instrument itself as it’s the most important building block in your rig and finding a basic tone that you’re really happy with is a major step in achieving your own distinctive sound and style.