Choosing an Amp

Choosing an Amp

Q: I have a question regarding power amps and cabinets. There are so many choices out there, and even more when you consider every amp available online (but probably won’t see in a store). How do you go about choosing an amp without just throwing a dart at the board and taking a huge financial chance?

A: Unfortunately, there is no easy way. I’ve spent many years coming up maxing out credit cards and working over-time in order to buy this or that, only to wind up selling it because I couldn’t get the sound I wanted, or because it just didn’t sound that different from my old amp (which cost half as much). Now that the bad news is done, let’s switch to a more positive view.

The majority of your sound actually comes from your hands. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. I’ve bought and sold more gear than I like to remember and my tone hasn’t really changed that much over the years. I’ve also gotten to hang with bass heroes of mine and try their basses, only to discover that I didn’t sound like them at all on their bass and through their rig (to my dismay).

I’ve had graphite necked basses, wooden basses, cheap rigs, boutique rigs and there are really only a few minor things about one or the other that leads me to prefer one over the other. When it comes to basses, it’s about feel and versatility.

When it comes down to my rig, it’s about power, road worthiness and flexibility with regard to my many different types of gigs.

In order to assess your personal needs, I’d look at what type of gigs you do, and what you like sonically. Investigate the players you admire and the guys who have a tone you like. What doesn’t come from your hands is going to be based on the varying characteristics of different rigs. So you need to figure out how each one might impact your own unique sound and preferences.

Will you be playing at loud volumes and will your gear spend 200 nights a year in a trailer bouncing down the road? Do you mostly just play solo and at moderate volumes? Jazz trio’s with only the occasional large room? How big is your car? (No really!)

These days, you can get some pretty powerful rigs in small packages.

For example, I love Aguilar’s bottom end punch in the chest, and I’ve come to find that they are built like tanks. I’ve never had a problem and I trust them and their quality. They also have back-line ability in most parts of the world and that helps me because I often travel by air and play many different types of venues. I have a 410 for the big rooms, and two single 112 cabs which I can use stacked for moderate to loud volumes or just one for trio settings along with their AG500 head. I prefer the DB751, but I don’t want to lift it every night so I chose to compromise with the solid-state/lighter head. But that’s what works for me right now.

You can also go digital, which is a very clean sound and very light-weight (which is cool).

Here’s a checklist:

  1. Try and find a store that has a good selection and bring your own bass. You need a reference of some kind and that will help.
  2. Don’t get tempted by the 810 monster stack. If you do, try lifting it into your car or truck and imagine doing that every single time you have a gig. If you’re playing rooms that require that kind of power, the chances are they have a good PA and monitor mixes. You don’t need that much volume on stage (in fact, it’s just better for the room mix if the stage volume is as low as possible. Hear yourself and let the sound man mix the rest of the room).
  3. Think about your real world needs and ask a ton of players who have different gear what they like and don’t like. The salesman in the store is the last person you should ask for advice, typically. Do some research online via blogs and forums and ask questions.
  4. Check out the guys who’s tone you dig and see what they use.
  5. Seek out a bunch of Youtube videos and try to hear different rigs in context.

The truth is, I’ve been on many a tour playing through many a rig I never would have even considered buying and have always been able to get at least a decent tone out of it. I’ve also played a few rigs that have completely blown me away.

The only rigs I’ve ever played that really sent me swooning were often about a thousand pounds of tubes packed into a rig that ran thousands of dollars.

The real boutique stuff will definitely blow your mind but could also send your children to college, if you can resist. The general population A-list gear is all top notch and sounds great.

The gen-pop B-list gear is all fine and sounds just fine.

The junk is pretty obviously junk, and you can find that stuff all over if you really want to try it.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Great article Damian. I too, agree that less is more in a lot of instances. I recently purchased a smaller amp that I get an “okay” sound out of so I can “feel” my notes on stage, but I run a good DI through the house so the crowd can hear my “good tone.”

    Yes, most of the tone comes from your hands. But a good DI is cheap, transportable, and can keep consistency when you’re on tour and playing through a lot of different backlines…


  2. Jez

    These days I’m running a tiny super lightweight 500 digital head that weights about 3kgs, I run this into a 2×10″ cab. I also own a 3000watt crown digital power amp (2ru 8.5kgs) which I can run the head into as a pre and use my 6X10″ for big gigs. Todays high powered PA amps are cheap, light and reliable, I can have as much grunt as I want without having to cart it to every gig…

  3. Josh

    I found a really great combo with a Mesa M3 head into a hartke 4×10 hydrive. Running a solid bass it shakes any room.

  4. Damian, you hit the nail right on the head. I have played through many rigs that I would not have bought for myself. I am currently happy with the rig I have now, but it has taken years of trying different amps and speakers.

  5. Another great article. I am all about small amps that pack a big enough sound. Mark Bass, Genz Benz, Mesa Boogie make some beautiful sounding gear that has worked great for me. I used to think I needed 15’s and 18’s on stage, these days I never go larger than a 12”. I performed at a NYC club and the stage amp was a tiny Mark Bass amp that looked like a suit case. It had just 2×8” speakers. I was shocked that I was able to get everything I needed out of that suit case. Of course I also ran thru the house. This is standard fare but The Mark bass made me raise a brow.

    I am all about small amps that pack a big enough sound. Mark Bass, Genz Benz, Mesa Boogie make some beautiful sounding gear that has worked great for me. I used to think I needed 15’s and 18’s on stage, these days I never go larger than a 12”. I performed at a NYC club and the stage amp was a tiny Mark Bass amp that looked like a suit case. It had just 2×8” speakers. I was shocked that I was able to get everything I needed out of that suit case. Of course I also ran thru the house. This is standard fare but The Mark bass made me raise a brow.

    My current stage amp which I can carry with one hand is a Ampeg PBC228. I love the sound of this amp. I own two of them in the event I need more volume for louder gigs but 90% of the gigs one of these is more than enough. It contains only 2 8″ speakers.


  6. Damien references that the amps that really blew him out of the water were heavy tube amps. If anybody is looking for a great tubed bass head that isn’t TOO ridiculously heavy and is very modestly priced look up the Ampeg V-4B. 100 watts of all tube power, about as heavy maybe as a Fender Blues Junior, and only should cost $500-600 at the most. Breaks up if you’re using a very powerful bass (Like my 60’s EB-3) but even when its broken up it still sounds awesome.

  7. I agree with Damien. Lets say, a GallienKrueger MB 800 and a GK 410 RB will deliver enough power for anybody. I bought a lot of gear from the second-hand – market. Lots of fine gear there to have, often less than half the price you have to pay when its brand new. Even my GenzBenz GBE 1200, one year old, was half the prize, not to mention my Tecamp L 810. € 2.400,– new, I bought one, half a year old, 2 1/2 years guarantee, for € 850,–. You see, thats affordable.

    I agree totaly with the statement, that the most of Your sound comes from Your own hands. So think about buying an ampo that suits YOUR needs, not the needs of the salesman. Take Your own bass to the shop, and play as many amps as You can to make a decission.

  8. I bought an Eden WTX 500 head and an Eden 4×10 cab.A couple of years ago and find that it is really good in a large room but compact enough to play the small gig’s also.Lots of bottom!

  9. I have had the rig in the picture, a GK800RB with an old SVT cabinet, as well as three Ampeg SVT heads and cabinets, and I agree with Damien, I have learned that SVT stands for “Severe Vertabrae Trouble”, but to me and my tastes, an SVT with a fresh set of round wounds on a P Bass is the Gold Standard for bass tones. One deciding factor when trying to emulate the tone that is right for you is to decide on Solid State, or a Tube sound. I now use an Aquilar DB750 and 4×10 cabinet (I have an extra 4×10 cabinet for larger stages where the top cabinet is there more for my monitor and impedance matching for the rig at higher volumes). I prefer the tube sound they provide and the hybrid of that is wonderful. I also have a Mark Bass TTE 500 and 2 Bergantino single 12″ cabinets for smaller venues with the small footprint but plenty of tone and sound from that rig being great. That set up would be fine all the way up to moderate gigs. Your tone comes from your Bass, your hands and fingers, tone settings on your instrument as well as the instruments in the band you are playing with. If you are in a large band with Keyboards, multiple guitars, drums and maybe horns, your rig will sound different than if you are in a Three Piece power trio or a Jazz trio with piano and drums with brushes. The stage and the room define your sound as well. There is no easy answer to this and like all of us, it’s a series of trial and error before you settle on your perfect rig. I have been playing for 40 years and I am still in the process of seeking it. I have had countless rigs. Like in many things in life though, The Hunt is sometimes better than the Kill!


    • This, John is where we have to differ. I agree on the GK 800RB, the svt cab and the roundwound strings…But make my stick a RIC 4001. Preferrably an S model in seafoam.

    • I have one as well Scott, but I defer to the old posters I used to see as a kid in Music stores “9 out of 10 Bass players use Fenders”, and they were right. At least 90% of the music we listened to growing up and an awful lot today is a Fender. The most recorded and used basses in the world. There’s a reason for that. I bought my Ric after hearing “Roundabout” on the radio and trying to figure out what the heck that sound was!! Chris Squire blew my mind. I love that sound but a lot of it was the pick. My P Basses though is like putting on your favorite pair of Jeans.I have a bunch of other basses but that P Bass just sounds so right and so familiar. It’s like coming home.

    • Bass is just one of my many hats. Like you , I’ve had many a rig including some that you’ve mentioned. A few years back I bought a Bergantino IP112/XT112 mini stack and have’nt felt the need to keep searching. It’s not for everyone, but IMHO it sits just right in every mix I’ve played in so far. But then again, bass is not my only gig… and my back thanks me every time It gets moved.

  10. Aguilar Tone Hammer DI/Preamp is AWESOME! Sends a clean, tone-rich sound to the board.

  11. After using many amps, tube, hybrid, and solid state, the best amp in my opinion is a GK 800RB. The Bi-Amp features and the EQ are extremely useful, it’s light, and has plenty of power to keep up with loud guitar amps and drums. Another benefit to GK’s and solid state amps is that you don’t have to take it to the shop to get retubed or break your back every time you play a gig.