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How to Get Big Tones on Small Stages

Find the sweet spot between volume, sanity, and sonic happiness with classic-style Fender amps.

Well, hey you over there/Turn that damn thing down!
Ain’t you been taught before/You don’t need it that damn loud?
Hey, I’m the soundman/And I’ll pull your plug right out.

Aynsley Lister, an English musician and guitar player I happily discovered a few years ago, speaks to all of us in the second verse of his song “Soundman.” We’ve all been told to turn down and have become frustrated by not getting a good tone from our amps onstage. This is why guitarists love playing big stages. Walking around and feeling the kick drum and bass guitar through the shaking stage floor gives you the elation of freedom, joy, and power. And as a guitarist, I have the time of my life when I can crank my bigger amps seriously loud, hardly needing any help from pedals.

Most of us, unfortunately, don’t play arenas on a weekly basis. Small stages are much more common, and they are more difficult to play because of the volume from our guitar amps. In this column, I’ll share some things you can do to tame your amp and get a decent tone for yourself and your bandmates on smaller stages.

First, you need to take complaints about volume seriously—from bandmates, the sound engineer, or, worse, the audience. A loud bass or guitar amp will ruin the performance for everyone. Each musician needs to hear himself/herself in balance with all the other instruments. Otherwise the band will lose dynamics and control, and sound loud, flat, muddy, and uninspiring.

A balanced stage sound is achieved by a combination of amps and monitors. I don’t like being dependent on harsh-sounding monitors to hear my own guitar. I like the tone of my amp’s speakers—they play an important role in creating the sound I’m looking for. I play better when I have a strong physical relationship with my amp and the sound waves it produces. Sound good, play good, as I like to say. And since I mostly play Fender tube amps, it is also important to crank them up. If not, guitars and pedals will seem edgy and lack dynamic sensitivity. So playing tube amps in their sweet spot is essential.

We’ve all been told to turn down and have become frustrated by not getting a good tone from our amps onstage.

After gaining experience playing various stages, we learn how to pick the right amp for the job and how to position it to achieve an optimal spread, volume, and balance. You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll hear a small 1x10" amp if you raise it about 12" off the floor by putting it on a chair or a box. Sometimes I use the tilt legs on larger amps if I’m really close to the amp and need a better angle, or I need to spare the ears of the people in the front rows. Be careful though—too much tilt can easily cause too much volume for yourself and your closest bandmates, particularly for amps with directional speakers. I find that just a little tilt is more than enough. Or try placing a 2"-thick book or wood block under the front of the amp. It will send the sound waves to your ears instead of your knees.

Big amps are often too loud for small stages, so for them I recommend low-efficiency speakers for reduced volume and more breakup. But in the smaller amps I use on gigs, I prefer bigger, efficient speakers. Using an efficient, loud 12" speaker in a Deluxe Reverb or Princeton Reverb gives me more spread and almost doubles the volume compared to a vintage speaker. Spread comes from the lower mids and bass. Extension cabinets are also great at improving the spread without necessarily increasing the volume. You can also point an extension cabinet in a different direction, as a monitor.

Using plexiglass amp shields is a drastic yet necessary solution for those who play 80- to 100-watt amps. These can cost around $100 to $150 and are very effective. A simpler and cheaper trick in practice environments is to place any kind of object in front of your amp. The other day I placed a Deluxe Reverb in front of a Super Reverb that I plugged into. The front amp absorbed the sound waves from the back amp. I lowered the volume even more by disengaging the Super’s two upper speakers. This also reduced the clean headroom because of the impedance mismatch. A general rule with speaker impedance in Fender tube amps is to stay within the 50 percent to +100 percent range.

To reduce power and clean headroom even further in Fender tube amps, there are several tube swaps that you can easily do. Check out my September column “Simple Tube Tricks for Beginners” or my website for more details. Happy gigging!

Here’s a demonstration of a clean and cranked Super Reverb. These tube swaps and mods were made to cause the amp to break up earlier at a lower volume: The V1 and 12AX7 phase inverter tubes were removed, the tremolo was disconnected via the trem intensity pot, and the two upper speakers were disengaged. Here’s the sequence of what you’re hearing:

  • Clean with the bridge and middle pickups.
  • Cranked with the bridge and middle pickups.
  • Clean with the neck pickup.
  • Cranked with the neck pickup.
  • Clean with the bridge pickup.
  • Cranked with the bridge pickup.

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