Big Amp, Little Amp: Wattage, Tone, and Volume for Playing at Home or Recording

Dan & Mick have asked many questions about amps, volumes, wattage, and tones over the last few years. This week, they tackled an issue that is relevant to guitarists in any number of playing environments. Simply put, is it easier to conjure a top-quality tone from a high-wattage amp at low volumes or from a low-wattage amp pushed to the hilt?

Of course, the final answer to this question lies in your own preference, experience, and style. So, not surprisingly, Dan & Mick didn’t offer up a final prescription or one-size-fits-all solution. However, their study of the behavior of a Marshall Class 5 (the tiny amp in the equation) compared to a Mesa Boogie Lone Star (the big amp in the comparison) did result in some outcomes that are relevant to any quest for pristine tone.

Whether you’re asking this question for playing in a low-volume environment or for seeking out different recording options, here are three things worth considering.

Learn the Behavior of Your Amp’s Built-In Attenuator

With more and more amps coming with built-in attenuation options—such as those in the new Marshall Origin series, the Mesa Boogie Mark Five, or many heads by Victory—the ability to switch to low-wattage means the possibility of exploring different tones from a single amp. Attenuators, however, are not simply a shrink ray for guitar tones. As they do their work to reduce wattage, there are often other things that happen.

In the case of Mick’s Boogie, the wattage options scale from 100w, to 50w, to 10w. After flipping through this range, Mick automatically remarked that “any amp that’s got an attenuation function, the first thing I miss is the bottom end.” Amplifying a sound with a lot of lower-end frequencies typically requires more wattage, which relates to the “breathability” of the amp. As Dan reflected after playing at all three levels, “in the 10-watt mode, there was this chewiness to the sound, that when we had it in the 100-watt mode turned down, wasn’t there.”

For the attenuated amp, while there was at times a feeling of varied EQs when its wattage was reduced, it still retained that “bigness” due to its reactive nature of its components. So, you can go big at home.

Pedals React Differently when Hitting Amps of Different Sizes and Wattages

It’s likely no surprise at this point in the life of TPS to hear that guitar pedals are organic—their sonic structures relate directly to the other items of gear they are use with. When it comes to amps, then, the question of volume and wattage will necessarily mean they respond differently.

The two main pedals Dan & Mick toyed with to demonstrate this were the Keeley D&M Drive and the Hudson Broadcast. For Mick, the difference was that “the Broadcast feels like it is pushing all of the Marshall,” whereas the D&M’s set up was targeting the character of more mid-range frequencies. As Dan responded, the Broadcast went from an almost “fuzz” in the tiny Marshall to more of a “fizz” in the Mesa!

The lesson here seemed to be that when drive pedals hit an attenuated high-wattage amp, the place where that gain was felt most was in the pre-amp with very little impact on the power amp section. As Dan commented, for the larger amp, the power amp was really “just idling…it was barely tipping over.” For the Marshall, on the other hand, everything was working hard already and quickly felt the punch of the overdrive.

Be Aware of the Variable of Your Room Size and Structure

Arguably, one of the biggest challenges related to the topic of the week on TPS was how playing environment impacts tone and feel. For example, if you find yourself in a space that demands lower volumes, how does the architecture of your room relate to the sounds hitting your ear and how should that inform gear choices?

Take Mick’s Two Rock amp, for instance. As Dan commented, “the venue that the Two Rock is designed to play in is gonna be bigger than our little room here.” Here again, the episode was not short on stellar tones from amps both big and small. However, the reflection on room size is worth a pause for one simple reason: we spend a lot of time mulling over which gear to buy and how each new item will respond and react to all others in the chain but give little thought to how the sound of that entire set up wil be dictated by the physical spaces we find ourselves in. The lesson here? Think about your gear but also it’s relationship to your room.

Related to room size, of course, is how space, volume, and wattage impacts recorded sound. As Dan & Mick commented several times, “the mic doesn’t know what it’s hearing, the mic has no idea what volume you’re playing at.” If the topic of the TPS episode was of interest to you for recording, then be sure to think about how combinations and locations of microphones as well as their input gain levels relate to the feel and size of the sound captured.

No matter the size of amp you’re after, whether a wall of stacks that would make Spinal Tap blush or a pocket-sized practice amp, be sure to head over to Riff City in store and online for all your amp needs.

TPS Rig Rundown

Guitars: Fender Custom Shop 1952 Telecaster , Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-355.

Amps: Mesa Boogie Lone Star Classic, Marshall Class 5.

Pedals: D’Addario Chromatic Tuner, Bigfoot Octo Puss, Analog Man Sun Face NKT275, Hudson Broadcast, Keeley D&M Drive, Longamp Roxanne, Dunlop EP-103 Delay, Source Audio Ventris Dual Reverb.

4 thoughts on “Big Amp, Little Amp: Wattage, Tone, and Volume for Playing at Home or Recording

  • March 20, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    I’d like to thank you for the efforts you have put in penning this
    blog. I’m hoping to check out the same high-grade content by you in the future as well.
    In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own, personal blog now 😉

    • October 7, 2018 at 12:17 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying the content! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our other weekly feature on gear history in the “Sunday Papers.” Happy reading!

  • March 19, 2018 at 2:56 pm

    TPS……Always interesting, always entertaining and always learn something. …….just not always sure how to apply the knowledge to my playing LOL.


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