From low-watt heads to high-powered, fire-breathing monsters, here are some of the amps we caught at Musikmesse.

Carlsbro previewed a new class A, 15-watt, dual-EL84 combo amp at Musikmesse 2014: the VAC 15 Classic. It will be a budget-conscious model, yet it boasts a bona fide 12" Celestion Greenback speaker.

Musikmesse isn’t what it used to be, show veterans say. Attendance is far from peak. There are fewer full exhibition halls. High participation costs (and the ability to announce and publicize products digitally) have prompted numerous companies to bypass the once-essential event.

But you know what? Messe is still huge.

NAMM’s European equivalent, held each year in Frankfurt, Germany, is substantially larger than its Anaheim counterpart. Far louder, too: As at NAMM, “sound police” armed with decibel meters patrol the floor, but they’re slackers. Messe is deafening.

But, hey, what’s a little tinnitus when you get to spend four days ogling so many cool new music products? From March 12th through 16th we roamed the vast halls, marveling at superbly crafted boutique instruments, solid working-player tools, and some remarkable budget-gear bargains.

The show highlights? For North American players like us, it’s probably the chance to fondle the phenomenal creations of small-production European shops whose instruments tend to be scarce in the States. The phrase “Old World craftsmanship” may be a cliché, but Messe schools you on how it became one. You can hardly turn around without being dumbstruck by a ravishing instrument that blends the engineering chops of Stuttgart or Turin with the design elegance of Milan or Barcelona.

But our report isn’t just some glamour-gear buyers’ guide for investment bankers and lottery winners indulging in a European grand tour. Quality work and compelling style were equally evident in mid-priced gear for working stiffs and in some remarkable entry-level bargains.

It’s hard to summarize such a vast event with a simple tag—but if pressed, I’d go with “retro fun.” Per usual, vintage-inspired designs reigned supreme. But we saw more manufactures playing with vintage aesthetics, recombining old-school elements in winning new ways. By and large, manufacturers seem to be having fun. We certainly were—and it’s not just the beer and schnitzel talking!

Need to buy a new bass? Start here.

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The emotional wallop of the acoustic guitar sometimes flies under the radar. Even if you mostly play electric, here are some things to consider about unplugging.

I have a love-hate relationship with acoustic guitars. My infatuation with the 6-string really blasted off with the Ventures. That’s the sound I wanted, and the way to get it was powered by electricity. Before I’d even held a guitar, I knew I wanted a Mosrite, which I was sure was made of fiberglass like the surfboards the Beach Boys, Surfaris, and the Challengers rode in their off time. Bristling with space-age switchgear and chrome-plated hardware, those solidbody hotrod guitars were the fighter jets of my musical dreams. I didn’t even know what those old-timey round-hole guitars were called. As the singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey strummed off into the sunset, the pace of technology pushed the look and sound of the electric guitar (and bass) into the limelight and into my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I had to begin my guitar tutelage on a rented Gibson “student” acoustic. At least it sort of looked like the ones the Beatles occasionally played. Even so, I couldn’t wait to trade it in.

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Need an affordable distortion pedal? Look no further.

We live in the golden age of boutique pedals that are loaded with advanced features—many of which were nearly unthinkable a decade or so ago. But there’s something that will always be valuable about a rock-solid dirt box that won’t break your wallet. Here’s a collection of old classics and newly designed stomps that cost less than an average concert ticket.

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