Tiny tools for towering tone
Guitarists are spoilt for choice when it comes to amps. There are amps for literally any size, style, specification or budget, so how do you choose the best one for you? Say, for example, you’re booked to play a show at a small local venue. Putting your ego to one side for a second, there is literally no point in turning up with a 100w, triple gain stage, no-master-volume head and outsized 4×12 cabinet. Thankfully, there are an abundance of low to mid wattage amps which will more than fill a room. Let’s take a look a five of the best amps for small gigs.
If it’s tonal versatility you’re after, then the Blackstar ID range is perfect for you. The ID range is a collection of good quality modelling amps, with few neat tricks up their sleeves. For one, Blackstar has incorporated its own TVP – True Valve Power – tech into each amp in the series. What this means is that unlike other modelling amps, which offer up versions of existing well-known amps, the ID range instead give you a selection of different pre-amp voicings and then the ability to model the output section on a host of different power amp valves. In combination, it provides a far more varied approach to tone building, which encourages and rewards players who have a rough idea of what they’re trying to achieve.
Metal players will know, for example, that a classic Peavey 5150 sound is created in part due to the use of four 6L6 power tubes. Instead of giving you a 5150 preset, the ID range instead allows you to find the right tubes to match the job, and then experiment further. Perhaps, if you’re a valve nerd like us, you’ve wondered what a 5150-esque gain stage would sound like with the booming low end provided by a KT88 power valve section (it’s incredible, in case you were wondering.) Also included in ID amps are a well considered selection of effects, all of which can be controlled either on the amp itself, via a dedicated floorboard, or through a computer interface.
The specific model we’ve chosen is the Blackstar ID:260. It’s 60w, so easily large enough to fill most rooms, yet doesn’t lose any tonal integrity at lower volumes thanks to the modelling technology.
Yeah yeah, say the valve purists, you can approximate a valve tone but you can never truly replace it. That may or may not be true, but there is something undeniably cool about a small-sized valve combo operating at full tilt. This Fender Blues Junior is a great example of an amp begging to be lugged around the local circuit. Standing at just 15 watts, the Blues Junior is a perennial favourite for a number of reasons.
The all-valve tone is legendary, creating just enough natural breakup at mid to high volumes to make it perfect for blues and rock. It’s also a superb pedal amp, colouring the tone enough to give it character, but not so much that it drowns out your board’s characteristics.
When the Orange Tiny Terror was released, it broke new ground and with it came an entirely new subsection of portable amps – the lunchbox and further on down the line, the Micro Terror. The 20 Watt Orange Micro Terror is as simple as they come, with only a volume knob, gain knob and tone control on the front. The gain control is great for offering users the ability to sweep between a mid-heavy, Sabbath style tone at one end, and a more classic clean tone at the other. As it’s a head, you’re going to need a cab to play it through – we’d recommend the Orange PPC112 for gigs or the matching PPC108 Micro Terror Cabinet for practicing- but if you’re playing somewhere with a backline you can simply sling the Micro Terror in your back pack and travel light.
The Vox AC30 was the original power combo, favoured by everyone from the Beatles to Brian May. It offered rugged build quality, delicious tone and was portable enough that it could be carted around without too much fuss or strained back muscles. For smaller gigs, we’d recommend the AC30’s little brother, the Vox AC15C1. Effectively the same, but shrunk down to a more volume friendly 15 watts, the AC15C1 is perfect for anyone looking for warm, clean tones with a nod to British musical history.
Finally we have the Marshall DSL15C, which is a great entry point for anyone looking to achieve that classic Marshall tone. The DSL15C features two gain channels, classic and ultra, meaning it can cover a wide range of musical bases, while a unique switching system enables it to perform at much lower levels than you’d expect from a 15 w valve combo making it perfect for after-hours practice.
So there we go, five small-ish amps which could cope with most musical settings with ease. It’s worth pointing out, for any still sceptical, that many venues will have a PA system too; this means that you’ll likely have the option to mic up the amp on stage, further reducing the need to a vastly over-the-top rig. Indeed, some people would argue it is better to fully crank a smaller amp and take advantage of the juicy harmonics provided at the power output stage than it is to try and ‘tame’ a large amp. Neither way is right, it’s about finding what is best for you. Hopefully this list has shown there are at least plenty of options out there for you.