Picking The Amp(s) For A Session Or Show. What's Your Process?

László

Too Many Notes
Joined
Apr 26, 2012
Messages
34,835
Location
Michigan
We tend to focus on the hardware here, which is great fun, but (presumably) we don't buy our amps and guitars merely to be tone scientists. At some point we use them to, you know, play some actual music!

If you've got more than one amp, or if you have a modeler, what's your decision-making process for a given project or song? For example, it might be based on how it sounds with a certain guitar, a style of music, what works best with a band you're in, by song, or by venue.

Maybe you just pick 'em at random.

I have four amps and four cabs. For the most part, any of them can work well enough on just about anything except metal. All of them are good-sounding with my electric guitars (of which I only have a handful, but they're the result of an eon or two of trial and error). My gigs are recording sessions; I don't play out any more.

I tend to pick the guitar to use on a part first.

Since the guitars all work fine with all the styles I play, my choice is usually based on the guitar I prefer for a tone color or dynamic range.

For example, if I want something smooth and shimmery I might choose the Northern Lights guitar. If I want a lot of dynamic, lower midrange oomph, I'll often run with the McCarty Singlecut. Et cetera. But these aren't carved in stone. Sometimes I'll just be in the mood to start with this or that guitar.

I'm most comfortable playing three styles: Americana, Brit-Pop, and Blues. I can do halfway decently with simple country material. Metal isn't in my wheelhouse.

Any of my amps will do pretty well in each style, but I'll usually have a starting point based on the amp's coloration, or the type of part. For singing sustain, I'll start with the HXDA, but if I want a more American sound for that, I might start with the Fillmore. If it's Brit-Pop, it's always going to be the DG30 or HXDA to begin with. If I want extremely clean tone, or a country-ish vibe, I'll start with the 100 Watt Lone Star. For Blues, the DG or the Fillmore. I'll start with the DG30 for Americana pretty much every time.

Then I'll run the track on the DAW, record the part, and play it back to hear how the tone works in context. Sometimes it's a good guess; sometimes it's pretty close and I need to tweak the controls on the amp and/or guitar; sometimes I need to switch to another amp and/or cab.

For sessions, I have all of the cabs miked up. If my choice isn't happening, I use an amp and cab switcher to quickly move between each while listening to the track. The starting point for that will be to switch from amp to amp, using its 'usual suspect' cab. If it's still not catching my ear, I'll switch between cabs.

Eventually I find the right combination.

However, there are occasions when I realize the problem isn't the guitar, amp or cab, it's me.

There are ideas and parts I'm simply not the right player for, when even if I write the part I'd prefer someone else to play it. Another pair of hands and ears can often get the idea over the hump. And other players sometimes have a great part in mind. and we don't use my idea.

I always let them choose the guitar and amp for their parts. I want them to be comfortable, whether it's my amp or one of theirs. Ultimately, the part and playing are more important than the small details of the tone.
 
Last edited:
I Pick Whatever I Think Will Sound The Best For What I Am Doing. Sometimes That Can Be Multiple Amps And Or It Can Be Multiple Amps That Can Do The One Thing I Need. If I Am Unable To Quickly Make A Decision I Plug Into Them And See Which One Grabs Me. I Know What I Want To Hear And Feel (Usually) So That Process Isn't Long. I Find When I Am Torn Between Amps, My First Choice In Most Instances Is Usually What I End Up Going With. Learning To Trust Yourself, Your Instincts And Your Hunches Is Important And Saves Time Too!
 
Not totally the same, but since I use a Helix Rack I have banks setup for my main guitars. I have the 57/08 Bank, the 58/15LT Bank, the DGT Bank, the Esquire/51 Bank, and the Higain Bank.

In those banks I have a variety of rigs setup yhat are just amp + two IRs. No effects. Once I begin tracking I'll add what I need to spice up the sound. Usually it's not much. I don't use much reverb until I'm mixing. Same with echo - I'll add it later.

I don't do much live playing anymore, but I used to choose my stage amp based on 2 things - a great clean and a nice hot-rodded Marshall tone. Again, I pretty much just plugged straight into the amp without effects.

That's one of the reasons I played Rivera for so long. I could do Fender clean, hit the switch and be in modded Marshall territory. I always had enough sustain with clarity that I never messed with it too much.

Of course I tried other stuff over the years. Nothing gave me what I needed better than Rivera.
 
I own 8 tube amps. They span various brands and sizes. I tend to gravitate to the 40 watt amps these days and have for the past decade. I pick the amp for the band I am playing with at that time. I also pick pedals for that same reason as well as which pair the best with the amp. I like an amp that gives me plenty of headroom and a very good clean tone for most of what I do.

The amp I have gigged in the past decade is a hand wired modified version of a Vibrolux Reverb amp. It has 2x10s and is a combo just like the Vibrolux. The thing that sold me on this amp was that I was in the shop that sells them one day and someone wanted to test out a guitar. They plugged them into one of these amps and the clean sound blew me away. It is very clean and has a nice warm tone but somehow still retains the top end sparkle. I was immediately hooked. I ended up buying a version of this amp that has a Dumble circuit built into the left side of the amp. IT takes pedals very well too. This amp just sounds really good to me.

If I started playing in a band where I needed more drive tones, I would take the Twin Sister out. I have not had the opportunity to take this amp out since I bought it a couple of years ago. I really like the way this amp sounds too. I run it into a Dirty Shirly 1x12 cabinet that is open back. I also took a Fender extension cabinet and swapped the speaker for a Celestion Creamback 75. With both of these cabinets plugged into the TS, it just rocks. The Fender cabinet is a sealed cab.

All of this to say that I pick both my amp and my pedals based on the music I will be playing. I try to also make sure I have a wide variety of tones on tap. The guitars tend to be one of a few that I really like playing. They are fairly versatile too.
 
The band I played in usually played bars and hotel entertainment lounges, so I was lucky to turn my amp half past three. I'm an amp guy, so I decided to build a Tweed Deluxe with a built-in attenuator and used pedals along with jumping the channels to get the dirt I wanted. I think I put a Warehouse ET65 in that amp, a great all-around Fender-type speaker, in a pine cabinet.
 
The band I played in usually played bars and hotel entertainment lounges, so I was lucky to turn my amp half past three. I'm an amp guy, so I decided to build a Tweed Deluxe with a built-in attenuator and used pedals along with jumping the channels to get the dirt I wanted. I think I put a Warehouse ET65 in that amp, a great all-around Fender-type speaker, in a pine cabinet.
Pretty cool that you were able to build your own amp!!
 
Being the low life rhythm player in a cover band I needed to... um... cover a lot of bases.
The journey led me to a Kemper.
The journey with the Kemper made me do a complicated thing (for a time).
I researched the amps that those bands/players used, and their effects. Then I reproduced them (as best I could) across numerous "rigs" in "Performance" mode.
In order to alleviate the tap dance required to get to a specific rig/performance the geek in me got a wireless bluetooth Midi adaptor. I then programmed my tablet to pick a song, and it would automatically shift my Kemper to the correct rig/performance required for that particular song.
...
...
Yeah... geek mode on...
Suffice to say I got tired/sick of that. So for the past year or so I have changed my rigs/performances to 2 or 3 amps with 3 or 4 effects.
It's way easier, and I have very little tap dance.
I typically take two guitars to gigs or practice. They are there for fun, change, and backup.
One of my most often used guitars is my 594 soapy. Dayum that thing covers a lot of ground!
The Kemper remote/footswitch is always setup for clean to filth starting with the left footswitch. If I switch guitars it's easy to choose another gain level and/or adjust the guitar controls.
Super happy with the setup, and it's so easy to hook up to FOH without any mics etc.
Love it!
 
Cathode-biased Tweed circuits are probably my favorite of all time. They’re so expressive, the cleans are sparkly with fantastic mids, and they know how to grind.
I love a well maintained vintage Tweed amp, as well as a high quality modern Tweed clone. The mids are magic. The breakup right at the edge of clean is beautiful, too.

Among a very select group of grail tone amps, as far as I'm concerned.
 
When possible, I will visit the venue ahead of time to check its size,
the wall coverings, the "carpet to hardwood floor ratio" and the
size and quality of the PA if there is one.

If I have to go in blind and cold, I will take either a Gibson SG, an ES 335 or both,
a small pedalboard, a small towel and some tape in case the wall behind the band is mirrored.
(Taping a towel to the mirror directly behind my amplifier makes a huge difference in the "brain dart" level.)

Oh, and a Fender blackface ampliier.
I will also tuck an E 609 in my bag.
 
When possible, I will visit the venue ahead of time to check its size,
the wall coverings, the "carpet to hardwood floor ratio" and the
size and quality of the PA if there is one.

If I have to go in blind and cold, I will take either a Gibson SG, an ES 335 or both,
a small pedalboard, a small towel and some tape in case the wall behind the band is mirrored.
(Taping a towel to the mirror directly behind my amplifier makes a huge difference in the "brain dart" level.)

Oh, and a Fender blackface ampliier.
I will also tuck an E 609 in my bag.
If I'm booking an outside studio for a session and I'm laying down my parts there, I'll scope it out beforehand for the same reasons you do.

These days I book an outside room mainly to record drums. I record my parts in my home studio, so it's unusual that I'll bring much gear.

However, I've been known to bring amps, mic preamps, mics and direct boxes for larger sessions, just in case. I've had musicians show up with only their instrument, and they expect the studio to provide the rest of the gear. Sometimes what the studio has isn't what I'd use.
 
If I'm booking an outside studio for a session and I'm laying down my parts there, I'll scope it out beforehand for the same reasons you do.

These days I book an outside room mainly to record drums. I record my parts in my home studio, so it's unusual that I'll bring much gear.

However, I've been known to bring amps, mic preamps, mics and direct boxes for larger sessions, just in case. I've had musicians show up with only their instrument, and they expect the studio to provide the rest of the gear. Sometimes what the studio has isn't what I'd use.

"I forgot my wire.
Can I borrow one?"
 
I love a well maintained vintage Tweed amp, as well as a high quality modern Tweed clone. The mids are magic. The breakup right at the edge of clean is beautiful, too.

Among a very select group of grail tone amps, as far as I'm concerned.
I ditch the standby switch and death cap, put variable NFB on the back and primarily use the "good" orange drop caps. The last one I built, I used carbon film resistors and (sacrilege) metal oxide on the plates. It sounds rich, sparkly and has some really nice bass. She likes to be pushed...
 
I ditch the standby switch and death cap, put variable NFB on the back and primarily use the "good" orange drop caps. The last one I built, I used carbon film resistors and (sacrilege) metal oxide on the plates. It sounds rich, sparkly and has some really nice bass. She likes to be pushed...
I don't have the experience to know what half the stuff you're talking about actually is, but it sure sounds like you know what you're doing!
 
Since most of my work is “studio” (aka glorified man cave) right now, I’m 50/50 between picking a certain guitar, or a certain amp, for a part. Some of my guitars and amps have a very defining characteristic to them, for example, in amps the HDRX 20 and Smallbox are definite vintage M (starting to think the HDRX has a good amount of JTM in its blood), for guitars the 594 and Silver Sky… well, we all know what those are. If I know I want that defining flavor, that’s where I start. Then, whichever comes first, I’m generally next going for whatever I know is a good match for that guitar or amp.

On top of that, speakers/cabs are as important for me as the guitar or amp, so my big tone decisions really have 3 main parts. The tone of a speaker can be so defining. I know they’re not as expensive or sexy as a guitar or amp, but I always think of them as an EQ built into the signal chain, and not a subtle one, it’s a big deal.

But, I’m an idiot. Sometimes I demo something in a track and it doesn’t quite fit right, and I might swap a different guitar, amp, or speaker/cab in. I’m working on a piece to accompany some B&W stills that my dad took, it has a heavy classic rock vibe, and I’m using a lot of things that I normally wouldn’t use together. Silver Sky into the Custom 50, which isn’t usually a great match for me, and using the position two bridge/middle pickup combo, which I NEVER use, and it’s the defining tone of the whole thing. Whaddya know? It really has been a fun tune that work on, though, because I’m working in odd choices that create the mix in an unusual way for me. Using a lot of of vintage speaker IR’s that piece the mix together through what I would say are somewhat extreme individual flavors, but blend together nicely.

Live play is a much more boring decision making tree for me. Usually a decision about power, maybe solo boost or effects loop, but honestly I could probably do most of anything I could potentially have to do with my Custom 50 and MT15, and the excessively large collection of pedals I’ve accrued.
 
I don't have the experience to know what half the stuff you're talking about actually is, but it sure sounds like you know what you're doing!
Rob Robinette’s website is commonly referred to as an excellent primer on how many Fender amps work along with preamp and power section basics: robrobinette.com. I bet you’d dig it. I’m only barely dangerous as this stuff goes, and am always learning more. Enjoy.
 
On top of that, speakers/cabs are as important for me as the guitar or amp, so my big tone decisions really have 3 main parts. The tone of a speaker can be so defining. I know they’re not as expensive or sexy as a guitar or amp, but I always think of them as an EQ built into the signal chain, and not a subtle one, it’s a big deal.
I agree with this completely! That's why I got that KHE amp and cab switcher. It's just a matter of flicking a few toggle switches and I can try 'em all with each other.

I could do the manual plugging and unplugging, but this is so simple, fast and a no-brainer that I'd have no excuse if I didn't take advantage of it. I'm the kind of lazy lout who needs a 'no excuses' option. ;)

Plus I can keep everything miked up when I'm working without having to move a thing to get to the back of the amps and cabs to change out cables, etc.

I also dug the rest of your post, btw.

Rob Robinette’s website is commonly referred to as an excellent primer on how many Fender amps work along with preamp and power section basics: robrobinette.com. I bet you’d dig it. I’m only barely dangerous as this stuff goes, and am always learning more. Enjoy.
That sounds interesting - Thanks for the tip!
 
Last edited:
I'm talking about digital here, since I usually don't take a tube amp when I play live. Depending on if I'm playing one song, two, or a set, I pick all my presets to match what is needed for A) the song(s) and B) the parts of the song(s). Sometimes I'm doing nothing but leads, and I pick both amp and effects based on the tone that fits best. Some times I have to strum some chords and play leads, so I set up one preset for each. Sometimes it's more than that and I might use three presets even in one song, if I need more or less effects for a certain part.

My most used amp models for this scenario are Fender Twin and Deluxe for cleans, Dumble for smooth singing gain tone solos. Last night it was just my "Smooth lead" preset which is the Dumble amp with some comp, delay and mild OD.
 
Regarding speakers, I've found the Fane A60/F70 pairing to be about as top dog as any combo I've heard. Snappy cleans, smooth creamy overdrive, it does it all. Another winning pair is the Tone Tubby Red/4040.
 
Last edited:
Back
Top