Measuring Up Micro Amps

A look at micro-amps from Marshall, Fender, Danelectro, Orange and Smokey

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You’ve seen ‘em before, the pint-size Marshall stacks and Fender combos. They’re like mini monuments to your favorite tones, but taken to the next level—you can actually play them. And while they’re probably the last stop you’d make on your journey for tone, micro amps might just surprise you. We’re not suggesting that you budget $50 for your next touring rig and set yourself up with one of these little guys; we are suggesting that you might have a little fun in places your full stack just can’t go.

Have a desk job? They’re discrete enough to stand in as desk décor or a paperweight, proclaiming to your co-workers, “Hey! I play guitar,” all the while waiting for everyone else to go home so you can wail away in 1W, 9V-powered heaven. They’re also a good option if you want to rock out in the wilderness. Of course, their portability is useful for some gigs, like an electric version of the Naked Cowboy, or providing live elevator music. Kidding aside, we’ve really enjoyed spending some time with these little guys. Here’s our rundown.

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Fender Mini Deluxe MD-20 $32–$50
The Mini Deluxe is an itty-bitty (1W) version of the Hot Rod Deluxe combo. It has four minichickenhead knobs for Volume, Tone, Drive and On/Off, along with 1/4" Input and Headphone Out jacks, and a standard AC power jack. The enclosure is plain plastic, which is less appealing than some of the other amps, but the chrome control plate was a nice touch. It would’ve been nice to have a 1/8" headphone jack, rather than the 1/4", since most of our ‘phones are 1/8" and we’re probably not going to run this to an extension cab that often.

It’s got pretty crisp cleans with single coils at low Vol/Drive, good for cowboy chords and country pickin’—though it’s as tightly mid-focused as you’d expect. Dime it to get a fat, hairy fuzz tone that’s louder and edgier than you’d imagine. If you’re practicing up for your psycho-punkabilly- surf-rock debut, this is the micro for you.

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Danelectro HoneyTone N-10 $20–$40
The HoneyTone probably wins the “cutest” award, resembling a cross between a ‘50s radio and a toaster. It comes in Burgundy, Aqua or Yellow, though the Aqua model we received looks more like Seafoam Green. There are controls for Off/Volume, Tone and Overdrive, a 1/4" input jack, 1/8" headphone jack, and a standard AC power jack. The amp’s soft leather handle and belt clip are a couple of thoughtful additions; this was the one of two amps to include a belt clip, which made it even more mobile, if not a stunning fashion statement.

With low OD settings, the HoneyTone label is an apt description: smooth and lightly sweet with a little thickness. It’s very middy, and has more gain than its tiny speaker seems to be able to handle, so it may not be the best choice for practicing your leads, but it is somewhat sensitive to playing dynamics. It can go from warm and snappy to a gritty, chewy rhythm tone quite nicely just by digging in, and would be a good choice for all-around desktop use.

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Fender Mini ’57 Twin-Amp $40–$60
The Mini Twin-Amp definitely makes the best first impression. It’s one of our bigger micros, and features wood construction and authentic tweed. It has the same controls and features as the Mini Deluxe (chickenhead knobs for Volume, Tone, Drive and On/Off; 1/4" Input and Headphone Out jacks and AC power jack), but adds a second 2" speaker to handle its single-watt output. The leather handle is a nice upgrade from the Deluxe’s plastic one, and is long enough to actually carry the amp around comfortably.

The dry cleans here are more “amp”-like than the other micros, with some sponginess and a decent ring. It’s got similar attack characteristics to its larger brethren. Not quite cranked, the overdrive is juicy and more open-sounding, less restricted to the mids, with a crunch that’s fairly well controlled by the guitar’s volume. Dimed, it rocks; hit a chord and listen to it oscillate into harmonic feedback—like a tiny howl.

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Marshall MS-2 $40–$50
Marshall actually has two very similar micros, the MS-2 and the MS-4. We checked out the 1W MS-2, with Volume, Tone and On/Off/OD knobs and a single speaker. The MS-4 adds a second speaker and Gain control, but is still 1W. This amp does a great job of visually replicating a Marshall half-stack, with gold control panel and knobs, and that famous script logo on the cabinet. The plastic is molded to look like tolex, and there’s a strangely non-functional handle on the “head.” This amp also has a belt clip, so the handle isn’t really necessary.

While the “clean” setting is nothing to write home about, this tiny half-stack has a surprisingly authentic, good Marshall-sounding OD with a tight, compressed crunch that’s great for rock riffs, bluesy runs, and pinch harmonics—and it’s perfect for power chords. If you’re jamming out classic rock deskside, from Humble Pie to The Hold Steady, this one’s got you covered.

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Orange Micro Crush CR3 $40–$60
The Micro Crush was without a doubt the heaviest and largest of our micro amps, and possible the most legitimately useful as well. The cabinet is wood with orange finish and Orange’s classic white metal chassis. There are several nice details, like the woven grille and rubber feet. It has Tone and Volume knobs, and buttons to activate its built-in overdrive and tuner, plus a power button. It has a 1/4” input, 1/8” headphone output and a standard AC jack. Because of its weight, a belt clip wouldn’t have been practical, so the Micro Crush very thoughtfully ships with optional strap buttons.

The amp is pretty loud, and it offers an exceptional variety of good, useable tones for such a small package. The Orange-flavored, crunchy overdrive shines. Among all of the micros we’ve played, this one is least saddled by the nasality that goes hand-in-hand with the micro design. We wouldn’t be surprised at all if you bought it for fun and ended up sticking a mic in front of it.

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Danelectro Hodad DH-1 $40–$50
The Danelectro Hodad differs from a lot of the other micros we checked out in that the company seemed to forego design features for functional effects. It has two 2” speakers and features Tone, Gain and Off/On/Volume controls, along with Echo and Tremolo buttons—and there’s a trim pot on the back to adjust the Trem speed. The lack of any sort of belt clip or handle makes this one slightly less convenient to tote around, and the plastic enclosure is retro-stylish but lacks the detail touches like tolex and leather found in a few of the others.

Soundwise, the Hodad also evokes a retro-cool vibe. Like the other micros, it doesn’t deal extemely well with the low end, but this one has a nice, pleasant top that’s not too pinched. Add the echo and the tremolo, and it evokes the guitar-driven instrumentals of days gone by. It’s highly addictive fun, and will have you noodling right through your lunch hour.

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Smokey Mini Amp $20–$25
The smallest amp we tried was the Zinky Electronics’ Smokey Mini amp, which fits in a cigarette box. The standard production version of the amp is in a glittery plastic case, but we also have one in an old Lucky Strikes box. Zinky also offers custom boxes. The Smokey has a single, exposed 2” speaker, and no controls, just a 1/4” input and extension speaker out—you control the sound of the amp with just your guitar. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket, which makes it as portable as they get.

The tone of this little amp depends a lot on the guitar you plug into it, but if you roll the volume up all the way, the Smokey will produce a loose, rolling, lo-fi distortion that will have you reliving your garage-band days in no time at all.
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Knowing how to function in different keys is crucial to improvising in any context. One path to fretboard mastery is learning how to move through positions across the neck. Even something as simple as a three-note-per-string major scale can offer loads of options when it’s time to step up and rip. I’m going to outline seven technical sequences, each one focusing on a position of a diatonic major scale. This should provide a fun workout for the fingers and hopefully inspire a few licks of your own.
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