When I first got into guitars and guitar amplifiers, I just assumed that bigger amps were better. Whenever I could afford a larger amp or make the space for it, I felt that having more wattage and more speakers was the key to a pro sound.
In fact, my first genuinely professional amplifier was a Fender Twin Reverb 2×12”. With 85 watts of power and a gorgeous tube combo section, it was LOUD. It actually got me through my first few years of serious gigging. It was also the only amplifier that I had for many years. I took it to just about every gig I had around town, using all my might to load it in and out of clubs and dive bars. I took it to various studios for session work, and I even took it on my first few tours through the Pacific Northwest and South.
A few years ago, I decided that it was time for a change.
The Drawbacks of Having a Large Amplifier
There were two main reasons why I decided it was time to let go of my Twin Reverb and opt for a smaller amp:
- It was way too loud
- It was way too heavy.
The amp was 85 watts, which is a serious amount of power. To get the true grit from the tubes, you had to crank this thing up. For smaller gigs, studio recording, and home practice, it was not a practical amp. Even on the largest stages that I played on, the sound guy would often tell me to turn my amp down.
The older I get and the more experience I have as a guitarist, not to mention the more traveling I do, the more I find myself wanting to play with smaller, low-wattage amps. I’m a sucker for an amp that doesn’t break my back while hauling it backstage for a gig.
Now, this is something I never believed I would find myself saying, as I’ve always loved the feeling of immense, loud, powerful amplifiers that push air like nobody’s business. Everyone knows the feeling of being on stage and having that wall of sound blowing a hole in your jeans behind you. It’s quite magical.
However, that feeling alone wasn’t worth the struggle of not getting to enjoy the authentic sound of my amp more than half the time.
The Transition to Smaller Amplifiers
Over the past few years, I have been making the transition to smaller, low-wattage amplifiers. One of the first small amps that I fell in love with was the Fender Blues Jr. It has become somewhat of a staple for me in both practice and studio environments.
I use it in just about half of my recordings, if not more, and it sounds great.
A few years after I bought my Blues Jr., I invested in what has become one of my favorite pieces of guitar gear, my Supro Comet. The Supro is a great amplifier. It’s small, it’s lightweight, and it packs a serious punch. You can switch the amp between six and 14 watts, use the tube-driven tremolo, and indulge yourself in the onboard spring reverb.
What I love about it most, however, is that it is simple. The only controls you’ll find are Volume and Tone. I’ve had this amp for a few years now, and I use it far more than the Blues Jr., thanks to the fact that the tones are so sweet.
One of the huge selling points of this amp is that you can get incredible overdrive sounds at low volumes. When you think of overdriven amps, you tend to think of their “power amp distortion.” Power amp distortion is the power tubes distorting, not the preamp section.
When you have a smaller amp, you can get insane overdrive sounds with low-volume, bedroom-friendly volumes without any attenuator wizardry that you would need to use with traditionally large amps. Smaller amps, like the Supro Comet, can operate wide open and give you tons of perceived power, thanks to the small, low-wattage speakers.
If you’re thinking, okay, sounds good, but what if I want true, ass-kicking power from my tiny amp?
This is where a boost pedal comes in handy. I typically use my Vertex Boost to kick the front end of the amp just a bit harder.
Another Reason I Love Low-Wattage Amps
While different guitarists might have various reasons for loving small guitar amps, my main reason is quite simple:
They record like a dream.
I work as a professional producer and mix engineer for a sync music studio in Los Angeles. My projects often require that I work quickly and from any environment available at the time. The great thing about recording with a small amp is that I can get a massive sound without having to crank the volume.
When recorded properly, small amps can fit in a mix exceptionally well. They sound far bigger than they look, making them excellent tools to have around the studio, whether you are writing or recording.
When you think about some of the most iconic guitar recordings throughout history, many of them were done using small amps, including Tweed Deluxe amps, Tweed Champs, and Gibson Skylarks.
In Defense of the Little Guys
Now look, I’m not here to tell you that riff-based, heavy metal stacks don’t have their place in music these days. However, I will say that there is genuinely no reason outside of mind-blowing volume or masculine overcompensation to have a large amp.
If it sounds good, it is good. That’s the motto I have always lived by when it comes to music. If you can get the same tone from a small amp, then why kick it to the curb? If you’re sick of hauling your 50-pound dinosaur from gig to gig or having to deal with weak, wimpy tones when playing at home because your neighbors aren’t down with your 3 a.m. recording sessions, then it might be time to make the transition to small amps.