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 designed 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 and, 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 support. 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 design 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 market 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 advancements 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 other 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 more 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:
- Comfort level of a known brand
- Price (budget always is an issue)
- 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 at 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 set one model apart from another. I mean, why not? There are always going to be many 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 typically 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.
- 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 as many brands and models as possible. And remember, there is no Holy 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.