In part two of our “boutique tube amps demystified” series, we’re going to talk about how to figure out which boutique amps are right for you. Without some help, it’s not an easy thing to get started on: at last count, I logged more than 200 builders of boutique amps.
But, as usual, we’re going to figure out a way to simplify. We’ll link the type of guitar you play to the vintage amp it was meant to be paired with, and then we’ll look at some of the core components of that vintage amp. All of that will lead us to a short list of boutique amps that have a good chance of being in the sweet spot for your guitar. This is where you’ll start your search.
If you recall, in part one of this series, we talked about the “primary colors” of the vintage guitar amp world. These are the sounds of classic VOX, Fender, and Marshall amps. When you listened to the clips, you got a chance to hear what each sounds like.
We chose those clips for another reason: each amp you heard was played with a guitar that’s a classic pairing for that vintage amp.
For the VOX clip that featured the Beatles playing “Taxman,” it’s a Rickenbacker. Is that what you play? Or a similar lighter-weight guitar with a sound chamber and single-coil pickups?
For the Fender clip that featured Derek and the Dominoes, it’s a Fender Stratocaster. Is that what you play? Or a similar mid- to heavy-weight solid body with single-coil pickups?
For the Marshall clip that featured AC/DC, it’s a Gibson SG. Is your guitar like an SG or a Les Paul – mid-heavy to ultra-heavy in weight with humbucker pickups?
Now that you’ve picked the guitar most like yours, I want you to keep it in mind. We’re going to briefly digress into another quick lesson. But when we bring it all together, I promise you it’s going to help make a lot more sense out of the world of tube amps.
We’re going to talk about power tubes. In amp jargon, power tubes are the tubes in your amp that generate the energy needed to make your speaker move. Of all the tubes in your amp, they do the most work. Because they do the most work, in general, their behavior defines the sound of your amp more than any other tube in your amp. Power tubes also generate the sweet overdriven distortion tones that guitarists like you seek.
So if you’re looking at a boutique tube amp, and you don’t know a lot about it, the power tubes can tell you a lot. You see, it’s likely that in designing their boutique amp, the amp designer is “paying respects” to a vintage amp design – and the power tubes are going to be a giveaway for which one it is. This chart sums it up:
|Power tube model||Vintage amp||Reference guitar|
|6V6 or 6L6||Fender||Fender Stratocaster|
|EL34||Marshall||Gibson Les Paul or SG|
So, assuming you’ve already got an electric guitar, you can look at the tube type of the boutique amp you’re interested in, and take a guess at which amps may be best mated to your guitar’s characteristics.
Now, we look at the tubes behind some of the best boutique amps out there, and match them to your guitar type. Here’s where it all comes together:
|Reference guitar||Which boutique amps would be a good place to start||Power tube model|
|Rickenbacker||Matchless DC-30, Valvetech Hayseed, JMI Amps, Kingsley Deluxe 30||EL84|
|Fender Stratocaster||Dr. Z Z-28, Top Hat Super Club Deluxe, Tony Bruno Cowtipper||6V6 or 6L6|
|Gibson Les Paul or SG||Matchless Independence, Metro Superbass, Divided by 13 LDW||EL34|
Of course, there are other reasons to choose a particular boutique amp. But we’ll cover that in another story!