Dealing With Guitar Amps On Live Gigs

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One frustrating thing about playing electric guitar live is the variation in tone from night to night. Rooms sizes change as does the materials the room is made from. Reflections can play a bigger role on some nights more then others. 

The room sometimes can put handcuffs on our ideal amp tone. Playing live is a little bit of a chess game. More so for guitarists then bassists. Guitarists tend to rely on gain staging more then most bassists. 

I’m going to chat a little bit about some of the various rooms I’ve played and how I’ve had to adjust my amp situation. 

Over the years I’ve gathered a collection of amps. I do like amps. So, why not have more? That’s not the only reason I have multiple amps. 

Watt for Watt

The wattage varies on each of my amps. I don’t have two amps that are the same exact wattage. This is partly by design. 

I tend to choose amps based on the venue I play. Part of my guitar tone is pushing the amp a bit. I like to have any amp I’m using about half way up at least. 

I do this so the amps starts to compress a little and breakup. This can be a complicated recipe in certain venues. If I bring an AC30 to a small club and roll the volume half way up, it’s gonna be uncomfortable.

This is why I might have an AC15 for such applications. Lower wattage means I can push the amp more. 

I have amps that are 1/2 watt, 5 watts, 12 watts, 15 watts, 20 watts, 28watts, 80watts and 100 watts. 

These days, I don’t have to use 100 watts really except for a specific tone. I play festivals with a Tweed Victoria 35115 or a Vox AC30. You don’t need that much wattage anymore. 

I rarely go above 20 watts for a club date. This is somewhat dependent on the drummer. A hard hitting drummer is going to result in bringing a louder amp. 



Small Clubs

A lot of small to medium clubs won’t run everything though the PA. They don’t need to if the band is balanced. Your job as the guitarist is to blend with the band. A lot of venues in NYC will generally only run vocals, acoustic guitar and keyboards into the PA. 

The key is to be loud enough to pop out when you need it, but not over power. One thing that works about small amps is they’re more contained. High Wattage amps are unruly in small spaces. They push a lot of air and can dominate without permission. 

I often use one of three amps. A Headstrong Lil King Reverb (Princeton Reverb circuit), a Henry Amps Bad Hombre or a Vox AC15 from the 90’s. 

Large Clubs

If you’re playing a bigger club, you’ll start seeing mics in front of guitar amps. In these spaces such as Brooklyn Bowl and City Winery, it will be a combination of stage volume and mic in the PA. 

In large clubs, you could still have a hostile takeover if you bring too high wattage of an amp. A twin reverb is a volume diva unless you need crystal clean headroom.

For most large club dates, I can still use the Headstrong, Vox or Henry. The only thing that can start to create a issue onstage is sub woofers. If a large club has some beefy subs, you’ll start to notice your volume disappear onstage. 

It doesn’t mean that you won’t be heard. It means that if you use your amp as a monitor, you’ll have a harder time hearing it clearly. 

Monitor Rant

Personally, I hate monitors unless they’re some super high end monitors. I almost never put my amp in the monitor. They often sound like paper. It’s a real buzz kill. 

The solution? I might use a slightly larger amp. Not for a lot more volume, but for the extra air it pushes. There will be more headroom which some are going to argue is volume. And yes, I will play slightly louder. But, higher wattage amps are a little better at pushing low frequencies through. 

A Princeton can get eaten up on some big stages unless you have great monitors and a great FOH sound person. 

For these type of gigs, I’ll use one of three amps. A Victoria 35115 Tweed Pro (with 15” speaker), Vox AC30 or a Marshall JTM45. 

For live purposes, this is the extent that I will up my wattage. I haven’t needed anymore even on large festival stages. 

A Fender Deluxe Reverb style amp will also work great in these environments. 

These amps will allow me to compete with the subs. I still think it’s important to keep the stage sound balanced. A large club is still reliant on the sound coming from the stage. You don’t want to blow out the band. Your band will sound better if your stage mix is balanced. The FOH will just embellish. 

Using a 100 watt amp is often going to yield an unbalanced sound unless you put it on a tight leash which wont emphasize the signature sound of that amp.

Damage Control

You might not have a collection of amps and are wondering what to do in the small club situation with a loud amp. I recommend using the Weber Attenuator. It allows you to turn your amp up and get power tube saturation but, contain the volume. 

Master Volume

I’m not a huge fan of master volume amps. I really thrive on power tube saturation. This is why I use the Weber Attenuator. 

One tip about using attenuators. Make sure the one you use is reactive not resistive. Resistive attenuators can damage your amp. Reactive attenuators are completely safe.  



Brown Box

One lesser known fact about using guitar amps is how power affects them. The modern standard in America is 120v coming out of an outlet. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be exactly 120v. 

You may find in some places you get 123v or even 126v. This has an impact not only on the tone of your amp but the feel. 

I find that if an amp is run with more voltage, it feels colder, brighter and louder. Plus, higher voltages are harder on your amp components. 

I tour with a Brown Box. This allows me to control the voltage being supplied to your amp. 

Although 120v is standard now, it’s considerably higher then what vintage amps were created for. An original Tweed Bassman was designed to run at 117v. 

In the road case for my pedalboard, I also take the Brown Box. This eliminates one more variable that messes with your sound. 

Theater Stages

Theater stages are interesting in the sense you get the impression that they can handle more volume. But, that’s a bit of an illusion. Theaters are often resonant rooms. Often more so then clubs. Sound travels. You could in theory play a theater and a club with an AC30 on the same volume, but blow out the theater more. 

It wont always feel like this from the stage either. The little volume devil on your shoulder will be telling you “feed me, feed me”. It’s hard not to give in. 


One thing I like to have is the option of plexi glass shields. This can be a bit of a heated discussion with musicians. You would think the biggest protest would come from guitarists. Personally, I don’t mind playing with them. It turns out, other musicians in the band often resist them. 

I’ve played with a few bassists and drummers that don’t like where the shields direct the volume. Sound has to go somewhere, right? It often goes to the back of the stage. 

To deal with this, you can also put a plexi baffle behind your amp. I’m quite happy if the sound just rises straight up and to my ears as I really like my amp as a monitor. 

Why not play quieter and put the amp in monitor? Don’t make me get my ruler out! Remember when I said I hate the sound of guitar amps through stage monitors? Just thinking about it makes me cringe. Nails on a blackboard! 

Festival Stages

Festival Stages are a unique environment. It can feel quite isolated on a festival stage. Everyone in your band is kinda dissembled only to be put back together by the FOH engineer. 

You’ll see musicians from across the stage, but that doesn’t mean you’ll hear them. You’ll be relying on monitors more then in any other situations. The turn over is also really fast. So, there won’t be a soundcheck for you to tweak your mix. 

I tend to choose louder amps for these gigs. The PA will be loud and a small amp can get eaten if you have a rocking band. If you have a folk band, you could still get away with a smaller amp. Remember, this is all dependent somewhat on the music you make. 

The gigs I’ve been doing are pretty rockin. When I’ve played Mountain Jam or 420 Fest, a 20watt amp wouldn’t cut it. I needed at least 30 watts. There are going to be no reflections on these gigs as they’re mostly outdoors. The sound evaporates. 

In theory, you don’t have volume restrictions. But, if you open up a 100 watt amp and your drummer is a light player, you’re not going to hear them. So, you’ll need to dial the volume and tone that you want, within reason if you want to hear things onstage. 

I use a loud enough amp that I can hear myself and play the amp in it’s sweet spot. 

On festival stages, I try to take myself out of the equation. I’m going to have to spend some time getting my monitors settled more then in a large club or theater. 

There are 3 immediate things I go for in my monitor. Bass, lead vocals and drums. If it’s a large band, it would be nice to have everyone. But, locking the pocket is crucial. I need drums and bass to do that. 

Drums can be especially tricky. In a lot of venues you cant get rid of the cymbals enough. But, on festival stages they disappear. So, if you just ask for bass drum and snare in your monitor, you might have a surprise waiting for you on the downbeat of the first tune. You can’t hear the cymbals!

This will make it incredibly hard to groove. To deal with this, I add drum overheads into my monitor. This will represent the whole drum kit. 

Again, sometimes you have 15 minutes to turnover a stage at a festival. You won’t have time to debate the EQ on the toms in your monitor. It’s a set up and go situation. We have to think survival. 

My advice is don’t waste time adding things to your monitor mix that’s not a deal breaker. 

Small room with no drums

If I’m doing an intimate show with no drums, I will use a 5 watt amp. I use a Victoria 518 which is a tweed champ. This is the perfect amount of volume (and sometimes still too much). 

The 518 won’t be over bearing to an acoustic guitar or piano. These environments are especially hard to use loud amps in. A 50-100 watt on 2 not only doesn’t sound good. But, it immediately takes over. You’ll notice a lot more volume inconsistencies with pedals and gain staging. They were not designed to be used that way. 

You don’t have to have as many amps as I do. Having two could do you a world of good. If I had to pick two, I would settle on something in the 12 watt range and something in the 30 watt range. Those two amps can pretty much get you though any gig that may be sent your way. 

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Guitarist Mark Marshall located at 51 Macdougal St #264 , New York, NY . Reviewed by 11 customers rated: 4.9 / 5
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