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10 Huge Sounds Recorded on Small Amps

Dave Hunter

Tone hounds in the know, especially those who have spent any time chasing great sounds in professional studios, have understood for years that one of the best ways to get a huge-sounding guitar track is to stick a good mic in front of a small tube amp and crank the thing up. These same players rarely use such small amps live, however, so we usually aren’t let in on the secret. Let’s open the door on the live room with the green light on and the tape running, and discover some powerful tones achieved on pint-sized amplifiers.

10) Eric Clapton

The man they called God recorded his signature song, “Layla,” on Derek and the Dominoes’ 1970 Layla and Other Love Songs album through a 3-watt tweed Fender Champ combo from the 1950s, and amp originally designed for beginners and students. Big sound, small package — and that’s what it’s all about. We’ll see the Champ return, oh, once or twice more in this list. Clapton only at No. 10? Yeah. It’s a legendary recording, but probably not quite as stunning a tone as he was getting a few years before on other gear, in other settings.

9) Ted Nugent

The Nuge may be noted as one of the loudest live performers in the history of rock, but he purportedly recorded his best-known hit, “Cat Scratch Fever,” through a little tan Tolex Fender Deluxe amplifier from the early ’60s. Once that roar is on tape, “size” is judged in a totally different dimension.

8) Joe Walsh

A noted gear head, Walsh turned to one of the humblest of amps, a tweed Fender Champ, for the famous slide solo on “Rocky Mountain Way” from his 1973 solo album The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. This is the archetypal cranked-Champ tone, a sound that applies particularly well to slide guitar, and a theme that is echoed throughout the world of great recordings made on small amps.

7) Joe Perry and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith

Honkin’ On Bobo? Should have called it Wailin’ On Champ. Yep, that little tweed lunchbox makes its return to the studio for this rough’n’ready session, which found Perry and Whitford tracking most of their guitar parts live. You hear it all over the place, but check out the loose, lithe riffing on “Shame, Shame, Shame” for a prime example of the fiery beastie.

6) Dave Davies of The Kinks

Frustrated with his inability to achieve a big, filthy sound from the Vox AC30 he was recording with, The Kinks’ lead guitarist Dave Davies bought a small Elpico tube amp at an electronics shop down the road from the studio, slit its tiny speaker with a razor blade, and cranked it to high heaven. The result was the gloriously filthy and ragged sound on the band’s early hit “You Really Got Me,” a track — and a studio moment — logged in the annals of tone legend.

5) Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top

The Reverend has himself stated on occasions that the righteous tone laid down on “La Grange” from 1973’s Tres Hombres was recorded on a petite tweed Fender Champ. Then again, Gibbons is a notorious bullpooper of Tejas-sized proportions, and has always been fond of spinning a few tall tales in the interview seat. That said, it sure sounds cranked-Champ to me.

4) Steve Cropper with Booker T and the MGs

Can “big” also mean “clean”? You’d better believe it, as Steve Cropper and his early ’60s Telecaster demonstrated through a little tweed Fender Harvard amp on countless Stax recordings through the early to mid ’60s. A little 10-watter with a 10” speaker, the short-lived Harvard was much like a Vibrolux without the vibe (or tremolo, rather). Bigger than a Champ, it oozed a rich, woody, juicy clean tone when cranked up to the sweet spot, made all the bigger by the sheer massive simplicity of Cropper’s tasteful riffing.

3) Jeff Beck


Well, we know it was something small at least, and sources close to Mr. Beck report it was yet another Fender Champ, but the searing, singing tone achieved on “Cause We Ended As Lovers” from the 1975 album Blow By Blow deserves a mention even if time and the wearing affects of recreational soda pops have dimmed any hope of precise recollection.

2) Neil Young

Young’s famous use of a cranked tweed Fender Deluxe helped earn him the “Godfather of Grunge” title in many circles. His use of a massive sound-support system to help this thing to be heard on stage is widely discussed (and offers us a rare instance of a small studio amp that’s also used on the biggest concert stages), but many classic Crazy Horse recordings offer the sound of that busted up old box in a room with a microphone. When I need to be razzed from my slumbers, I like to turn to “Country Home” and “Over and Over” from Ragged Glory. Mmm … feel the burn.

1) Jimmy Page

Although he was the archetypal Les Paul-and-stack performer live (with a Tele subbed in now and then for good measure), Jimmy Page recorded the majority of the first couple of Led Zeppelin albums through a small 12-watt Valco-made amplifier, most likely one utilizing the now-rare 6973 output tubes. Check out the definitively meaty and surprisingly well-define crunch of “Communication Breakdown” from 1969’s Led Zeppelin, or the snarkier rasp heard in “Heartbreaker” from Led Zeppelin II, released later the same year, and you’ll quit that big-amp jones for good.


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