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The Revolution is here ...

Posted by on 29 December 2009

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:: The Revolution is here….low price, low wattage tube amps (and why you need to have one) ::

One of the most interesting things about working in this industry is watching the way the market changes as new products come to light. Technology changes and generally keeps on making a guitarist’s life better, whether it be through advances in the way guitars are built, whole new sounds that can be created with pedals and digital effects, or whatever. It all keeps the game fresh and interesting.

However, the developments that always hold the MOST interest for me, are the changes that occur in the realm of guitar amplifiers. Although I love all guitar gear - whether it be guitars pedals, cables or whatever, I am actually (in my heart of hearts) really an amplifier guy. After all, an amplifier is , in my opinion, THE most important part about your electric guitar tone.

Consider this ... a $200 cheapo guitar through a $5,000 MESA amp sounds pretty darn good and a competent guitarist could certainly play a gig with this rig.

However, a $5,000 Gibson guitar through a $200 practice amp sounds like ... well ... a $200 practice amp.

As I’ve often said (to anybody who'll bother listening) – your amplifier is what defines your overall tone, and as such – it’s important to get the right amp to suit your style.

So over the years, there have been a number of changes in guitar amplifier technology that have given guitarists many MANY options towards tonal nirvana. From tube amps, to the onset of solid state amps (late 1970's), hybrid designs (ealry 1990's) and into the recent realm of digital “modelling” amps (2000's) - technology has twisted and turned to provide a variety of amplification options to today's guitarists. Right now though, at the turn of the decade we are at the cusp of another big change, the onset of low price, low wattage valve amplification which is not only affordable, but also addresses the growing market demand for low power (5W to 30W) guitar amplifiers…

 

Why do I need a tube amp? Isn’t that really old technology?

Yes, it IS old technology but there is a good reason why tube amps (or valve amps as the Brits prefer to call them) are still around and in high demand. They just sound and feel better to play to most guitarists.

Solid-State amps for years were the “cheap”option. They were priced much lower than tube amps to make amps accessible to beginner/intermediate players. Aside from a few notable exceptions (such as the almighty Roland JC120) they had a reputation for sounding “thin” and “brittle” as opposed to the big, warm tones that tube amps produce. Also solid-state amps, when driven to distortion, tend to sound harsh, cutting and not at all pleasant. So for many years, the market made a natural diversion, expensive tube amps for pro players, cheap solid state amps for beginner / home players.

Large advances were made in the late 1990’s with the advent of Line 6’s “digital modelling” technology (soon copied by everyone else on the market). Digital technology was used to accurately “model” the tone produced by much larger and more expensive amplifiers gave a quantum leap to the quality of sound that could be produced from cheap amplifiers and processors. This technology has been so successful in fact that it has been incorporated into everything from the cheapest of small practice amps, up into processing units used by the world’s top recording studios– many of your favourite songs may have been recorded completely using digital modelling techology.

However, as good as digital modelling sounds it still cannot replicate the feel of playing through a tube amp. It is something that is very difficult to describe, but the visceral, immediate feel of hitting the strings with your pick and feeling the response and sound that emanates from a tube amplifier is truly addictive and has an amazing, 3-dimensional quality. Little wonder that despite the prevalence of digital modelling technology in the world’s leading studios, the vast majority of professional guitarists will still be playing tube amps at every gig they do!

 

What’s the deal with “low-wattage”? Will a 5w or 20w amp be enough for me?

Yes, probably!

50w – 100w tube amps are great for some players – especially Hard Rock/Metal players who require amps with a lot of headroom to accurately amplify their preamp-distortion based tone. (not to mention to cope with the low frequencies produced by down-tuned guitars).

Also Jazz and Country players will often still favour high-wattage amps so they can keep a pristine clean at any volume.

For the majority of today’s rock/blues/indie guitarists who are looking for an involving, responsive and organic guitar tone – then a low-wattage amp is just the ticket!! Most people have never driven a 100w, 50w or even 30w amp into overdrive and don’t realise just how loud it is! Bear in mind that The Beatles used 100W guitar amps to fill a stadium – before the days of miking guitar amps through a PA system!!!

Individual scenarios can vary, but here is a bit of a guide…

5w tube amp
Perfect for at home or in the studio. Still much louder than you might think, but perfect for dialing up some juicy overdriven tones at tolerable levels.

15w – 20w tube amp
Can deliver “edgy” clean tones and organic/aggressive distorted tones at gig volumes suitable to be heard over the drummer.

30w tube amp
Suitable if you want your clean tones a little cleaner, or if you play with a particularly heavy-handed drummer

 

The Good news ...

Guitarists have been asking for lower-priced, low wattage tube amps for a while and I think the dam has been on the verge of breaking for a while – but in 2009 it actually happened and we have now seen a veritable flood of new low wattage tube amps hit the market at VERY affordable prices.

It’s been amost like from famine to feast - so to help you make sense of it - here is a roundup of my favourite low-wattage beasts out right now!!!

 


Blackstar HT-5 - 5w amp
($899 combo, $799 head, $1,299 mini-stack)

Blackstar are a fledgeling company, formed in 2007 from some ex-Marshall employees. They were not only one of the first companies to market with an affordable 5w tube amp – but the first to deliver a high gain, channel switching little beast that can go from clean to scream at the touch of a button.

This little amp has been a worldwide phenomenon and brings a smile to the face of everybody who plugs into it. This amp is definitely tilted towards the Hard Rock genre and delivers some surprisingly tight high-gain tones. Awesome!!!!

The Bottom Line: For the “at-home” rocker. Hi-Gain saturated tones at palatable (but still raucous) volumes.

 

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Marshall Class 5 – 5w Combo
($899)

One of the most jaw-dropping little amps I’ve played in some time. There is a reason that people worship the tones of vintage Marshalls – because the experience of playing through an old Marshall “Plexi” amp is a sublime one. Nothing on the planet feels like a Marshall and the aggressive yet silky, enveloping sound of an old Marshall running hard is truly breathtaking. It is also rip-your-face-off loud – so it is a welcome relief to have Marshall create a 5w amp that truly delivers the vibe and tone of it’s granddaddy. It really sounds that good….and it’s still loud enough to scare the cat! Every Marshall fan needs one of these amps.

The Bottom Line: Vintage “Plexi” tone in a bedroom-friendly package.

 


Epiphone Valve Junior – 5w amp
($279 head, $369 combo)

Surely no amp on the planet has the “bang for buck factor” of the Epiphone Valve Junior. 5 watts and one knob of awesomely fun, rip-snorting Class A fun. No other controls required – just a volume knob – the more you turn it up, the more the amp overdrives and the bigger your smile gets. The combo is my personal fave, but you can get a massive dose of fun by plugging the head version into your nearest Marshall 4x12 cabinet and watch the jaws drop around you!

The Bottom Line: Absolutely immense fun – and a good sounding little amp.

 


Orange Tiny Terror – 15w amp
($999 head, $1,599 combo)

The amp that kicked off the low cost low wattage tube revolution. Now in it’s 3rd year on the market the Tiny Terror continues to impress with it’s edgy, organic tone in a compact form factor. At 15W it is well-suited for gigging and has turned up on stage with a number of touring artists including NZ’s own Elemeno P.

With 3 tube gain stages, this little bad boy has reasonable hi-gain capabilities – although it can tend to start sounding a little loose at high gain levels. It’s core competency is in it’s mid-gain rock tones where it delivers a great staple sound. The head version is the “must have” - paired with a good cab it will produce surprisingly large sounds as opposed to the combo which can sound a little impeded.

The Bottom Line: A giggable amp that gives a solid foundation of tone to work with.

 


Jet City Amplification
(JCA20H 20w head $799, JCA2112RC 20w combo $1,099)

My absolute favourite amplifiers of the moment right now are the brand new, hot off the line, and righteously good JET CITY AMPS.

These amps have just hit the world market this month and my prediction is that they are going to see some stellar success in 2010. JET CITY have managed to create some excellent sounding, cool looking, giggable amps at super affordable prices. The excellent tone comes courtesy of Mike Soldano who designed these amps. Soldano became one of the most revered names in amp design in the late 1980’s after building amps for Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton and many others. This lineage is clear in the JET CITY amps which produce Soldano’s trademark high gain sounds with awesome clarity. Whether you set them clean, dirty, or anywhere in between – the tone is addictive and very responsive. High class tone at cheapskate prices.

The Bottom Line: Try one. Now!!!!