Who’s Using Boutique Guitar Amps

Who’s Using Boutique Guitar Amps

 

As I was thumbing through the latest GC  flyer, I started thinking about all the different brands and models of guitar amplifiers that are available (and these are just the better known brands and models).  I mean, there are so many to choose from.  While most are ac15c1 gutsdesigned to utilize the temperamental vacuum tube, there are many other models that are designed with the latest in solid-state components, with some using a combination of both.  Some are even software based and can be setup to emulate go-to sounds we’ve all heard for years.  And all these flavors from just one store.  Now, factor in all the brands and models that are out of reach for many, and that’s lots of guitar amps.  No wonder it takes almost forever for a guitarist to settle on an amp (and let’s not get started on pedals).

During the past ten years or so, there has been an emergence of independent guitar amp brands (aka Boutique Amps) that have appeared in music stores or factory direct via on-line.  While the majority of these home-brew companies have products that are pricey amp tubesand, sadly, out of reach for too many players, it seems that in recent years the independent, entrepreneur-driven, small company has been very popular in our culture.  Similar to the local craft brewery or distillery (bakery, micro-farm, etc.), it’s obvious that the concept of smaller, independent amplifier companies has seen a wave of excitement and point to pointsupport.  Though I wonder what happens when this enthusiasm dies off, as trendiness always does.  However, for many users, there is the continuing quest for a better amp.  Features like point-to-point wiring, custom transformers, hand-picked (and measured) components, wood board cabinets, customized design concepts and small shop attention are all expensive but justifiable reasons to spend the big bucks.

In the end, however, I  think most amp designers would agree that most of their amps are conceptually based upon several old tried and true desiHiwatt-logo.jpggn concepts originally created by companies like Fender, Supro, Marshall, Vox and a couple of others.  These landmark brands began in the 1950’s during the birth of electric music.  The 1960’s & 70’s saw more choices of amplifiers from Ampeg, Gibson, Sunn, Peavey, Mesa Boogie, Guild, Epiphone, Orange, Hiwatt, Crate, Carvin, Laney, etc.  Though the choices for guitarists began to expand, the basic designs brought to msunn logoarket from all these vendors were based upon the same basic Fender and Vox concepts in allowing the amplification of the electric guitar to be manipulated by the physics and principles of electricity.  Even then, some Marshall designs were based upon Fender concepts.  Similarly, many Laney products were re-thought Vox designs.

Through the years, we’ve all seen hundreds of models come and go from long-standing and one-hit manufacturers (Sunn, Acoustic, Chicago Blues Box, Crate).  Sure, each brand had differences in their designs and sounds.  Multiple input channels and switching, built-in FX and tuners, loudspeaker celestionadvancements and other features (some not so well received) were often added in hopes of allowing manufacturers to set themselves apart from the competition.  But in most cases, players have typically reverted to the tried and true favorite brands and models.

What’s the benefit to us players having all these amp choices?  I mean, the traditional market structure that says “more choices will drive down prices” isn’t very true.  From what I’ve seen in my music store travels, prices continue to climb, features and quality often suffer, and the main music store chains are forcing the same brands on us.  Take a look around GC or Sam Ash (or Sweetwater and many otherBadcat amps logo on-line vendors). We seem to be told that these same brands from Vox, Fender and Marshall (and others) are the only accessible choices.  Sure, there are some other lesser known models that appear every now and then from various makers, but I see very few of these in use or on stage.  Even many of our guitar heroes play the well-known brands on stage but, behind the studio glass, tend to break out the boutique amps in hopes of creating or replicating a desired guitar sound.

Who’s buying these Boutique Amplifiers?  Good question.  I reside outside of a major US city where live-performance music clubs and venues are everywhere.  From bars and clubs, to Pot Belly and House of Blues, there are gigs and opportunities for plenty of players.  But lately, I notice that guitarists all seem to all be using Fender, Marshall, Peavey and Vox amplifiers.  Other than larger cities having more stores with raysmore brands and products to choose from, many of you are stuck having to visit the local Big Box retailer or choose to purchase on-line (from the same Big Box companies).  For those lucky enough to have independent music stores within driving distance, the choices of brands and models begins to expand and will allow the purchaser to have more buying options and often from lessor known amplifier makers.  So why all the love for just the familiar brands…?

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most guitarists make their amp purchasing decisions based on just a few factors:

  1. Comfort level of a known brand
  2. Price (budget always is an issue)
  3. What amp my guitar hero plays

Unfortunately, I think price is often the real driving factor of these criteria that ultimately matters.  With so many brands available, manufacturing quality control and fantastic warranties, along with attractive store return policies, it goes without saying that your choices playing electricat any of the Big Box stores is better than ever.  But, I always have to laugh when I hear someone say they are choosing an amp because that’s the brand Vaughan, Hendrix or Page used.  Though once they make the purchase and get it home, they are typically disappointed because they don’t sound like their hero (and likely never will).

So where do makers of Boutique Amps fit in?  In my opinion, purchasers often view these products with hesitation because of several factors.  First, a minimally perceived sonic difference by the uneducated buyer when compared to the hefty price is a big problem.  Sure, modifications to a classic Fender amp design such as tube-type changes and tube brands, circuit enhancements, loudspeaker types, solid wood cabinets and more can solderingset one model apart from another.  I mean, why not?  There are always going to be mold amp cabinetany players that are always searching for that vintage sound, ultimate overdrive, more headroom or something that helps set them apart from the thousands of other players with traditional amp types and sounds.  Frankly, many of the design engineers who work on these high-end amplifiers found their roots working for the big boys like Fender or Vox.

Some things to remember about Boutique Amps? 

  • These manufacturers are making one amp at a time, with each product getting more hands-on attention, where larger vendors are using the assembly line approach.
  • The level of detail is often better. Fit and finish, final testing and more are carefully approved prior to shipping to the customer.  Custom orders are often available from some boutique makers, allowing design changes or cosmetic enhancements.
  • Domestic or import? While a VOX AC15c1 has British design origins, it’s owned by a Japanese company and manufactured in China!  Boutique Amps are typicallyno chia made (or parts are made) in their country of origin.  This helps the local economy and supports the “Homemade” enthusiasm.
  • Uniqueness of design and concept. While many builders like Fender base their newer products on market trends, price and user feedback, Boutique Amp makers are free to apply whatever they view as what’s best for the player, amp and company.
  • Reliability. While big name vendors have lots of advantages and have the ability to offer extended warranties, a broken amp sitting at the manufacturer (while under warranty) is very frustrating.  Boutique companies will use better quality parts in hopes of producing a better product that is free of defects.  However, when one of these amps does fail, shipping costs to the factory, turnaround time and frustrating warranty policies tend to level the playing field in this regard.
  • Custom orders. While many of these companies allow or only take custom orders, be sure to clearly understand the time to build your amp before you take delivery. In fact, a few of these smaller builders only start assembly as orders are placed (you pay, we build).  So if time is critical for you, keep this in mind.5 year warrany
  • Are they still in business…? Sure, companies like Fender, Vox, Marshall, Orange and others have been bought and sold, but they still have been going strong for decades.  This provides many of us some added piece-of-mind when making a purchase.  However, these smaller Boutique Amp companies are often challenged financially, have limited staff and are little more than a garage operation with few resources.  Chances are, they won’t be around long.  Therefore, when a broken amp from a long-gone vendor needs repair or parts, the price to fix it can be scary. 

So, when the time is right for a new (or another) guitar amp, keep an open mind.  Do some research and try AMS Logoas many brands and models as possible.  And remember, there is no HozZounds Logoly Grail or perfect amp.  What works for me and my rig may not work as expected for you.  Keep things like warranty, user reviews and features at the top of your list.  Things like loudness, cosmetics and who plays it should be low on your list for reasons to buy.  There are some nice offerings from the big players that I listed above.  Similarly, vendors like Fuchs, Allen, PRS, Matchless, Badcat, Carr, Divided by 13, Victoria, Dr. Z, Fryette, Soldano, Two Rock, 65 Amps, Bogner, Budda, Bruno, Tophat, Suhr, Welagen and many more Boutique Amp companies have some outstanding products and sounds.  Think about combining your next out-of-town festival gig with a visit to the local guitar shop and try some of the under-the-radar brands.  

Guitar Amps…. Which Type For Me?

Guitar Amps…. Which Type For Me?

Like many of you who use social media, and specifically Facebook, I think I’m like most people in that I spend the majority of my FB reading dealing with topics that interest me. FB has thousands of groups and topics to suit any interest, hobby or fascination. For me, I’ve joined a couple of groups dealing with Vacuum Tubes, Taylor & Fender Guitar products, Pro Sound, Antique Radios and several others.  As I read the posts from experts and rookies, I’m amazed at the attitudes and strong opinions concerning guitar amplifiers and the various designs that are available today. For now, I’m not going to discuss the huge market for Boutique amplifiers as they deserve their own blog. However, I will be offering some thoughts on tube, solid-state, hybrid, and modeling amps and their pros and cons.  Each type has its strong points and weaknesses, so I’ve listed some of those below.

Tube Amplifiers

This design type is arguably the most used and sought after amplifier type and has been since dinosaurs roamed the earth in search of the ultimate guitar amp sound. Most players will agree that the tonal characteristics, breakup and distortion, and the vintage appeal they can provide are the go-to choice. Prices range from several hundred to several thousand dollars and there are many players that search high and low for that old Fender, Vox or Marshall retro tube amp. Lastly, a tube amp’s sound is directly affected by the brand, type and design of the tubes plugged into the amp. All tubes sound slightly different from ac15 rearothers. Even the same type tube from a single manufacturer can sound different. For some players this is a cool thing, but for others it’s frustrating because of the lack of sonic consistency.  The old tubes from the 1950’s and 60’s made by GE, RCA, Telefunken and Mulard are long gone.  But the same designs are utilized by today’s Russian & Asian tube makers.  There’s even a large group of players who seek out N.I.B or N.O.S tubes in hopes of finding that perfect 12ax7 preamp tube from RCA. 

Pros: Great sound, warm present tone, sought-after breakup

Cons: Expensive (new or used), failure rate (they get hot and tubes blow up) and heavy

Mfgs: Vox, Fender, Supro, Peavey, Marshall, Orange, Mesa Boogie, Randall, Laney, Blackstar, Bogner & many others

Solid State

While technology has allowed this type of amp design to have many advantages on paper, the audible output is often a bit questionable. Jazz guitarists or players who utilize a “clean” output feel that Solid State is the way to go. Furthermore, these amps are often budget friendly, and can offer a better variety of tones from that of tube amps.  But if you are seeking that ultimate heavy metal overdrive sound, look elsewhere.peavey solid state

Pros: Budget friendly, light weight, reliability, increased tone options

Cons: Odd sounding at loud volumes, questionable overdrive (distortion)

Mfgs: Peavey, Roland, Fender, Ibanez, Orange, Marshall, Acoustic, Line 6, Blackstar & more

Hybrid

These amps combine both solid state and tube elements and can vary drastically in their design. Years ago, as tubes were thought to be falling out of favor, designers were using tubes in the amp’s power amplifier stage in hopes of obtaining smoother distortion at high volumes and figuring the front end or pre-amp section would be better sounding with solid state technology employed. Frankly, this configuration sucked (I had a Peavey 212 classic and hated it.) In recent years, developers have applied the opposite thought process, having tubes drive the pre-amp (front end) and solid state technology being used to drive the output section. While this reverse design practice has provided better results, there are still many of the same limitations as with pure solid state products.

Mfgs: Vox, Bugera, Fender, Line 6, Hughes & Ketner, Marshall & more

Modeling (digital)

These design types are the newest choice for players and combine the later hybrid technology with advanced digital processing concepts that allow users an almost limitless choice of sounds. Most brands include usb (and even Bluetooth) computer Line 6 top panelconnectivity giving the modern player an in-depth, hands on interface to create and build their own custom sound. These amps have the ability to convincingly mimic both tube and solid state amp sounds and are often the go-to choice for younger players who have grown up with digital, computer control as a way of life.  These amps are also great for recording projects as they offer so much variety.

Mfgs: Peavey, Vox, Fender, Line 6 & others

There are many other factors to consider when thinking about which type of amp to buy. Cabinet design, speaker size, built-in FX, channel switching, effects loops, reverb and tremolo all either directly affect the sound or are added features to help you tailor the sound to your liking. There is no right or wrong design when choosing, because trying them all is key.  Keeping an open mind will help sort out the many choices that are available.

So how do they sound and compare to each other sonically? Well, that’s a question that should be answered by you, the user. What sounds great to me may sound terrible to you, but our differing opinions don’t mean any brand is bad or should be tagged as a “don’t buy”. But here are my thoughts….. For me, I love the sound of solid state amps at lower volumes. The breakup or distortion is typically smooth and almost creamy sounding. I also like the reliability of these types. I have a 1994 Peavey Transtube 112 guitar amp gutsthat has been through countless gigs and performed reliably. It’s light weight and looks good, but if I’m playing a larger stage or have to crank it up, it suffers from poor sound. I have found that most solid state amps (along with hybrid and modeling amps) don’t sound very good at higher volumes, especially if you are looking for a smooth overdrive sound. I like to say that these amps, when cranked, sound like a “box of bees”. But for clean, non-distorted sound, they can be a go-to choice. For tube amps, the opposite seems true. At lower volumes, the sound can be considered somewhat thin. But when cranked, the overdrive and distortion are fantastic. There’s nothing better than a Vox or Marshall cranked up giving you those creamy and chimey sounds. But again, sound is subjective. I think a cranked Fender tube amp sounds like it’s going to explode. They often sound as though there’s something wrong and sorta gritty. I once heard a studio producer say that a Fender amp should never be set to anything higher than a volume of 4.  But I’m not sure this is very realistic.

In conclusion, try’em all. Try starting with the many videos and amp reviews from players that are available on YouTube.  But keep in mind these videos are a starting point, and they shouldn’t be used to make a final purchasing decision.  Why..?  Because using your ear buds or computer speakers to truly hear what an amp will do is silly. Bring your favorite guitar to a local music dealer and try every amplifier in your budget. Let your ears (and wallet) make the choice. Don’t be biased because of player perceptions of a given technology or brand.  If the choices for you of local music stores are limited, try purchasing an amp online from the many retailers like American Musical Supply who offer great pricing, flexible return policies and have a vast selection of brands and models. Don’t get frustrated, have fun and crank it to 11 (it’s one more).

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