I wish this question had a straightforward answer. There was a time where the answer really was simple: as many as you can get! The concept of the 100 watt fire breathing tube full stack, and heck, even a whole wall of them, was driven by pure necessity. This is because sound systems hadn’t caught up to the popularity of guitar-based music in the 1960s through the 1980s. The average “bar band” was also playing bigger dance halls as opposed to the corner of a dank bar that many of us are relegated to these days.
To be honest, it’s been years since I’ve played a gig without mic’ing the guitar amps. This approach does two things: keeps stage volume to a minimum which reduces vocal mic bleed, as well as creates a more consistent sound throughout the room. For me personally, my tonal sweet spot is having power tubes pushing just to the edge of breakup, and just loud enough to hear myself on stage without putting my amp into the monitors. It’s also important not to get into a volume war with the band while also being heard.
So, how many watts do I need?!?
Here are the series of questions you need to ask yourself first:
1. What size rooms will I be playing in?
2. Will the amps be mic’d?
3. Do I want a sparkly clean tone at all volumes?
4. Do I want power tube saturation?
5. What speaker is in the amp?
6. Does my drummer play like Animal from the Muppets or Tip Toe on the skins like a ballerina?
7. Tube or Solid State?
This isn’t an exact science, but in my years of experience, here are my general guidelines as to what each range of wattage is best for, specifically with tube amps. Hence, why I titled this “Chuck’s Opinion.” I chose the wattage ranges I did because of what amps are typically on the market (how many 17 watt amps do you see?). Also, wattage to decibels ratios are logarithmic, the higher the wattage, the less impact it makes on volume.
1 Watt (or less)
Suitable For: This is optimal for “bedroom” volume. By bedroom volume, I mean being able to get some power tube saturation without disturbing anyone in the next room over, so pretty much the volume you watch TV at. Personally, I live in .1 watt mode when available. Through a small speaker (think 8″ like a Blackstar HT-1), this will sound like a small amp. If you pump 1 watt into a 12″ speaker, it will sound surprisingly full. 1 watt or less will also be good for recording as long a you don’t want speaker breakup.
Not Suitable For: Playing with a drummer or gigging.
Suitable For: This territory will hit the sweet spot if you want either sparkly clean tones at bedroom levels, or if you want power tube distortion that’ll be heard with a mild-mannered drummer. I’ve played quite a few gigs with 4-6 watt tube amps (Bugera G5, Epiphone Valve Jr, VHT Special 6, Vox AC-4). This was all through 1×12″ speaker cabs with rather efficient speakers. It’s giggable with an efficient speaker in the smallest of rooms, say fire code of 40 people or less with a mild-mannered drummer and if you don’t need clean headroom. Of course, you can mic it in any size room, but on a bigger stage you’ll need to add it to the monitors and side-fills.
Not Suitable For: If you want a clean tone that will be heard with a drummer. If you have a Keith Moon wannabe on the drums, this wattage range ain’t for you unless you’re gonna have the mic’d amp added to the stage monitors and side-fills.
Suitable For: This wattage range starts opening up the clean headroom that’s available. Also, to me, they’re the best option for weekend-warrior types of players. With an efficient speaker, you’ll be able to have clean headroom with mild-mannered drummers, or power tube distortion with Bam-Bam on the drums. This power range will also start introducing speaker break-up on less efficient speakers if you so choose. You’ll be able to play un-mic’d gigs in medium size bars (something with a fire code capacity of 50-150 people) with a good amount of power tube breakup. If you’re mic’ing the amps, I’d say this range can cover pretty much any size gig.
Not Suitable For: Bedroom playing (unless you have an attenuator), or if you need clean headroom that can be heard over a hard hitting drummer. If you’re playing outdoor gigs without mic’ing the amp and want clean headroom (think funk, ska, or jazz), this wattage won’t quite get you there.
Suitable For: If you want clean headroom in almost any size room smaller than arenas. Most modern heavy types of sound are more preamp distortion than power amp distortion, this range will get you there. This wattage range is also for people who think “sound guy be damned, I need to feel my pants vibrate!” This range will be heard over Captain Caveman on the drums with clean headroom, especially if going through a 2×12 or 4×12 cab. There’s a reason the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe is one of the biggest selling tube amps of all time at 40 watts, it’ll have enough clean headroom for almost any room.
Not Suitable For: Bedroom playing or having power tube distortion in any room with a fire code capacity of less than 150 people. If you crank a 50 watt tube amp in suburbia, you will have the cops called on you.
My Favorite Of The Types Of Amps: Peavey Classic 30, Vox AC-30, Orange AD-30, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, Marshall JCM 2000 50 Watt, Mesa Boogie Mark 5:50, Marshall Origin 50, Orange Rockerverb, Fender Hot Rod Deville
70 Watts and Up
Suitable For: Frankly, a very few number of players. If you’re playing a huge place without mic’ing amps and have Thor hammering on the drums and want clean headroom, then a 100 watter might be needed. Or, if you live in the middle of nowhere, don’t care about your hearing, and just love playing through the loudest amp possible, then by all means, put that Marshall plexi on 11 and go for it. I also think this wattage range is better for extended range and de-tuned guitars in large venues. Lower frequencies require more power to push air, and a dropped-A eight string guitar will need some power to push those frequencies. There are also some bands where their sound is just a wall of sound and want to inflict sonic carnage on their audience/victims, these amps will get you that sound too. Johnny Ramone used cranked 100-watt Marshalls as weapons to pummel the audience into submission. Same with Ted Nugent and his pyramid of Fender Twins.
Not Suitable For: Anyone who wants power tube distortion in any room smaller than an arena. Or anyone who doesn’t want to get evicted. Or anyone who wants to be invited back to play at a small club or bar again.
But What About Solid State?
Solid state amps are a whole other ballpark. Solid state amps do have less perceived volume than tube amps, which has to do with clean headroom. I will probably try to wrap my head around the science behind this for a future blog post, but for purposes of this guide, just believe me, solid state amps do not sound as loud as tube amps.
40 Watts or Less
Suitable For: Home practice, recording, small low-volume jams. In general, a 40 watt solid state amp will struggle to keep up with a drummer. The exception I’ll make are the Orange Micro Terror and Micro Dark Terror, as well as the Joyo Bantamps, which utilize class D solid state amps. To be honest, I’m not the smartest on Class AB vs Class D amplifiers, but somehow these little tiny heads produce a sound louder than they should. Also, that is dependent on the efficiency of the speaker it’s pushing too. But a small solid state amp is great for practicing since it will sound pretty much the same at minimal volume as it will cranked.
Not Suitable For: Gigging, or playing with a drummer using anything other than brushes, except for the aforementioned Orange Micros and Joyo Bantamps.
50 to 80 Watts
Suitable For: Small gigs, band practice, recording. This wattage gets you in the equivalent range of 15-22 watt tube amps. The difference is, solid state amps don’t really have a “power tube distortion” equivalent stage. Once solid state amps run out of headroom, that’s it for volume, it just distorts more, and usually not in a pleasing way. But in this wattage range, you’ll be able to keep up with a well-mannered drummer (with efficient speakers) and play small unmic’d gigs.
Not Suitable For: Huge gigs, un-mic’d gigs with a loud drummer.
100 Watts And Up
Suitable For: This range will get you into the equivalent of 50 watts of tube power. This wattage range, with good efficient speakers, can really handle almost any gig. You’ll get clean headroom for days, which can be good for you pedal gurus. There have been some short lived very high power solid state amps, like the Marshall Mode 4, which welded a respectable 350 watts. Legends like Creedence Clearwater Revival used solid state Kustom amps to have a loud, clean tone. There really is a clarity to a high powered solid state amp.
Not Suitable For: Well, really, solid state amps are ok for anyone. A solid state amp will generally sound the same no matter what volume it’s set to. So even if you have a 100 watt solid state amp, you can turn it down to bedroom levels and still have pretty much the same tone.
There you go! These aren’t steadfast rules, just realistic guidelines. Having the right sized amp can mean the difference between getting invited back or your phone calls being ignored. A bar owner doesn’t want a band with a guitarist so loud the bartenders can’t hear drink orders because he just has to have the 100 watt Marshall he saw his heroes of yesteryear play in an arena. You also won’t get called back after a full band audition you show up to with a 15 watt solid state amp. Have the right gear for the gig.
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