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Big Sounds for Little Bucks: Get the Most Out of Your Amps

Ted Drozdowski

Every time one opens the pages of a guitar magazine there’s a bunch of reviews about new monster amps that get great tones under all kinds of conditions. The problem is, these boutique beasties cost a bunch of moola, and for actual working club musicians that’s usually an obstacle. Plus, spending $3Gs on a new amp that’s going to travel in the back of a van with a pile of other gear and get scraped, bumped, dropped and scarred as it zips between vehicle and stage numerous times – or, the horror, gets used as a drink table by the drummer – is impractical.

Here’s one solution for getting killer tones on the road that won’t axe murder your budget: learn to get the most out of cheap amplifiers. A cheap amp won’t have fancy turns like point-to-point hand-wiring, state-of-the-art speakers, or even, necessarily, the best tubes, but with some modifications and patience, they can bark, snarl and purr similar to fancy best-in-shows. Or at least close enough for rock ’n’ roll.

Consider these tips:

• Buy used, funky and unpopular: Always buy used amps for the road. They are cheaper and if there’s already a little or even a lot of wear and tear you’ll shed no tears the first time the van gate opens and your amp falls face-down on the pavement. Off- or undervalued brands and models can provide great bargains for the working player, and unpopular models of superior brands are also good scores. These are great sounding amps capable of big, nasty tones and perfect for playing small rooms, even unmiked. For larger places, miking makes the size of an amplifier irrelevant. Typically, less popular models of respected brand name amps have fewer features. Usually an amp’s quirks can be compensated for by an inexpensive pedal of some kind.

• Speaker replacement: This is even easier than it used to be thanks to the wide variety of speakers available and the fact that most amp manufacturers no longer solder, but use slip-on connectors for speakers. Upgrading the speaker in a combo is often as easy as removing four Philips head screws, removing the old speaker, slipping the connectors onto the new one and screwing it in place. Some cabinets with 10-inch speakers even leave room for upsizing to 12s.

• Pedal power: If you’re looking for snarl and instead get a little “grrr,” think about keeping an overdrive pedal permanently deployed. Put it at the front end of your board, just after the tuner, and add another down the line from it for when you want to kick things up a notch.

• Double-up: Think about using more than one small amp. Two amps do indeed make twice as much sound, and you can have a dual-amp rig for less than $500 – and far less, with luck, via Craigslist and pawnshop. Plus, there are other advantages. If you’re playing a room too small for miking amplifiers placing an amp on either side of the stage fills the room better and also gives you a more inspiring sonic spectrum to work within. A second amp well placed can also compensate for the lack of a monitor for the drummer and/or bass player.

• Make-overs: This is a radical step, but I’ve had amp techs and gurus offer to gut and rewire my tiny titans so circuit boards would be replaced with point-to-point wiring and the like. It’s like turning a sedan into a hot rod, and while it’s a labor intensive and therefore costly process, it’s still cheaper than laying our boutique-amp-level money.

• Learn to drive: Don’t be shy about really getting to know your amp. Sometimes winding up the volume, radically banking up the treble or reverb, or manipulating the gain can get you right into the tone zone you desire. Roy Buchanan almost always played through unfamiliar backline gear and yet always managed to achieve his distinctive tone thanks to his touch and heavy-handed way with reverb and treble. Focus on the key elements of your sound and seek them out in your gear. There are solutions for opening amps wide – like turning the speaker face to the side or a wall, or carrying a Plexiglas sheet to place in front of your amp – without deafening your fans or your friends onstage, so don’t fear volume.

• Re-biasing: Not surprisingly, many used amps need to be re-biased. More surprising is that fact that new inexpensive amps sometimes arrive on the showroom floor without having been properly biased at the factory. Have your amp tech check the bias of your tiny terror, and put it within spec, which, if there’s a problem, should make it hotter or colder and improve natural tone.

• Tube replacement: Simply swapping out tubes can yield improved sound. Sometimes even factory equipment tubes aren’t the best choices for getting cheaper amps to sound the way you’d like. And while moving to a radically different tube style requires re-biasing, there are simple drop-in replacements, like swapping 6L6s for KT88s or EL34s for KT77s.

• EQ-ing: You can sculpt the shape of your tone with an inexpensive EQ pedal, which might just get you where you want to go, especially if you’re looking to brighten up an amp. And remember to consider the used rack a resource for pedals, too – especially for basics like overdrive, EQ and tuners.

• Frankensteining: Cheap amps have cheap parts, so don’t be afraid to replace a few things that can enhance form and function. Higher value pots, transistors and even PC boards can be purchased and installed by electricity savvy guitarists or qualified amp repairmen.

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