How Many Amps Are Enough?
Do you stockpile amps for every occasion? Do you channel-switch between several amps to get the right tone for every song in the setlist? Do you use a single, versatile amp for everything and call it done?
There’s been something on my mind the past couple of weeks. Between addressing the subject in the last couple of columns, and conversations on a road trip this past weekend, I am once again pondering the question, “How many amps are enough?'
Whether you’re facing the age-old “little amp in a big room” or “too big amp for a small room” problem, you’ve all thought about it. Do you stockpile amps for every occasion? Do you channel-switch between several amps to get the right tone for every song in the setlist? Do you use a single, versatile amp for everything and call it done?
I believe in choice, and in using what makes you feel good about your playing. If it takes three amps to get the job done, then carry three amps. How you feel about your tone has a direct result on how you play. I’ve always felt like I play better when my tone is right.
Nowadays, I work for a man who could squeak tone out of a cardboard box with a speaker in it, but chooses to use four amps for his live shows. Does he need to do that? Not hardly. There’s not a tone in any song Brad’s ever written that couldn’t be mimicked with an amp and a couple of stompboxes. I’ve stood on the side of a stage and watched him play along side of Redd Volkaert and Billy Gibbons; with one amp each, they all sounded incredible.
So does Brad do it so I’ll have a job? Because he feels sorry for me and no one else will hire me? Probably. But he also plays those amps because he can, and not because he has to. He loves having the ability to have the guitar tone he recorded a song with at the touch of a button during his shows. I respect that, and it keeps the job challenging.
The other two guitar players in Brad's band, Gary Hooker and Jody Harris, typically use single amps, but their choice will vary from venue to venue. If it’s a TV performance, it’s not uncommon to see these guys with a Dr. Z Carmen Ghia or Fender Deluxe so they can get that cranked-up tone at a volume level that audio guys can work with. But when we hit the bigger stages, Gary will wheel out his 4x12 and take it to 11! It all depends upon what the venue requires.
Years ago I worked in a music store for a man named Don Gorman, who to this day is still one of my favorite guitar players. He was a lot like Brad in that he could play through anything he wanted and would always sound amazing. His favorite amp was an old Fender Super, but on rare occasion could be seen with a wet/dry effects rig and channel switching amps.
The thing that always intrigued me about Don was no matter what amp he played, he always worked his guitar’s volume and tone controls, bringing a whole other variance in sound. I love to see guitar players do that—use the volume and tone controls on their instrument like they're tweaking a pedal to make the amp do what they want it to do. Over the last five years I've watched Brad do this more and more. It's taking the choice of sounds your rig gives to making even more tones to play with. The use of these two knobs and your own touch and pick attack is what turns a good amp into a great amp—and just might cut down on the number of amps you need to have.
I'd love to hear what you guys are using out there. In a club, theater, arena or a basement... wherever you play. Let's hear what amps you’re using and how/if you're chaining them together.