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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Check out the guys who’s tone you dig and see what they use.
- 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.