When I was around 15 or so the conventional wisdom was that more power was better. Not just louder, but somehow “better” as well. It made sense to us that as you moved up the line the parts inside would all be better. It was also considered cool if your amp had JB Lansing speakers. Not only could you see that silver dome shining through the grill cloth, but if you looked at the actual speakers themselves you could see they were more robust. They just looked more massive: a Jensen or a Utah just looked wimpy and cheap by comparison.
Growing up in the Northwest, many of the bands that played in local venues used Sunn Amplifiers, 100 Watt ones that had huge speaker cabinets with either two 15″ JBL’s or one 15″ and a Horn. If they didn’t have Sunn amps, the big bands used Fender Dual Showmen, also equipped with JBL speakers.
Everybody wanted a piggyback amp of some sort. A 30 watt amp with 2 x 12″ like a Silvertone “twin twelve”, (which is how everyone referred to the model 1484) was considered minimum. And those were quite popular. But what everyone wanted was a piggyback Sunn or Fender of some sort, and the bigger the better.
Move up into the late 60’s , and we became familiar with the British bands using Marshall Stacks, and by then the deal was sealed that rock bands used big, powerful amplifiers. It was expected that you’d have a big backline. I remember seeing bands in clubs well into the 80’s and early 90’s still hauling around 4 x 12 double stacks.
The little Vox amp in the photo above is neither big nor powerful. It’s rated at 2 watts into 16 ohms or 1.5 watts into 8 ohms. It’s entire purpose is to make a guitar sound good in a room somewhat smaller than a basketball arena or even a small club: a bedroom or living room is it’s natural habitat.
For certain types of music, tube guitar amplifiers tend to sound the best when they are near the end of their operating ranges. As they approach the limits of their amplification capabilities they start to add additional harmonic tones to the signal, and at extreme levels that turns into fuzzy distortion. In addition, they start to compress the signal to the point where it becomes easier to produce long violin like phrases. Amps at their limits also lose a little control over whatever speaker the amp is connected to, although the degree this contributes to the tone is a little controversial.
The bottom line is that guitarists can use these properties to shape the sound they are making.
Many of the pedals and other devices that guitarists use are designed to simulate the behavior of a tube amp as it nears the limits of it’s abilities. Some people, and I am one of them, feel no one has created a better way to get these sounds than an actual amp working at it’s limits.
Most amplifiers, even those with as little as 5 watts, are too loud for home use by the time they get in the zone that produces the sounds described a couple of paragraphs above.
I recently purchased a Fender Greta which I review in an earlier post: Fender Greta
When I first opened up the little Vox and plugged it in, I thought I was I prepared for what it was going to sound like as I had read a number of reviews where the amp was described as “bright”. That was an understatement. I’d never heard an amp that was even remotely as bright as this amp. I usually wait at least a couple days before I mod any amp or even try different tubes, but I found only one guitar in my collection that could produce a usable sound with the amp, my little powder blue SX “Tele”, which did an acceptable acoustic guitar impression. After trying multiple tube substitutions and different speakers I concluded that I had to either return the amp or void the warranty by clipping one of the capacitors; a mod I’d read about in several amp forums. You just clip one wire on the C19 cap, just google “Lil’ Night Train C19 mod“.
I opened up the little amp, found the offending part and then with one little clip, sealed my fate.
If anyone out there owns one of these little amps and is wondering if they should do this, I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t like the sound. The treble control becomes a knob that you can actually use, instead of one that you always have fully counter clockwise. You still have more treble than most people will ever use.
I will perhaps eliminate any drama by telling you right from the start that there is enough difference between the Vox and the Greta to warrant keeping both of them. I don’t play metal, but I do sometimes use higher gain than my usual root’s rock/blues tone. And I think the Vox has the edge over the Fender in that area. The Greta doesn’t like high input levels and can be a bit buzzy when you slam the front end of it with a pedal. The Vox blends in with my overdrive pedals in a little more organic fashion, so the tone sounds more integrated, less amp-and-a-pedal. The Joyo “Ultimate Drive” seems to be my favorite, but I also like the sound with a Vox Ice 9 overdrive.
I sometimes enjoy using effects and pedals in a way that I’d never do with my current band. As I’m doing this for my own enjoyment, I sometimes will produce tones in the vein of David Gilmour or once in a while indulge my Hendrix fantasies by playing something like Foxy Lady. (which calls for my Akiai Fuzz) To be able to make fairly natural sounding tones that both sound and feel good to me is justification enough for buying this little amp. I’d never spend the money it would take for a stage worthy rig to make these kinds of sounds, (although TWO 5E3’s actually do a fair job, albeit without the impact that a 50 or 100 watt amp would have).
Mind you, I’m still doing my own take on any sound I’m trying to make, I’m not trying to “nail” an exact tone. I’m not thinking to myself “That sounds like a Marshall stack.”, but trying to get enough of that flavor that it sounds right to me.
The little Vox does work well for trying to add some “Beatle-ish” jangle to chords and certainly evokes a British Invasion atmosphere, I’d be curious to hear it with a 12 string. It’s especially nice to add just a little chime to chords with a little more picking attack. I think I prefer the Greta for clean tones, but I don’t want to give the impression that the Vox doesn’t clean up nice when you turn down the gain. The Vox also has the advantage of having a separate gain control as well as separate bass and treble control. Not only does this offer more adjust-ability of clean tones, but is a great help when trying to integrate pedals into the equation.
I can’t decide which speaker I like better with the little Vox: a Celestion Blue or a Mojo BV30H; I’m driving myself nuts switching between the two as it means swapping speakers, as I only have one spare cab to use. The amp sounds better with these two than it does with any of my Jensen speakers, either Neodymium or AlNico.
All of this is happening at volumes that hover around 80 to 90 Db. The little amps WILL play louder, but they both start to add harmonics, compress and sustain a little at these volumes. The reason this is significant, even when using pedals, is because the output stage is still a major part of the overall sound; even a Champ or a 5E3 will have to be turned up considerably louder before you hear the sound of the amp at all. Running an overdrive into an otherwise clean sounding amp just doesn’t work for me in the same manner.
In terms of tubes, at this moment I’m using two Sovtech 12Ax7’s in the pre-amp and phase inverter positions and the original Chinese 12AU7 as the output tube. I have a NOS GE 12AU7 that I plan to try as soon as I can find it. So far the Chinese tube has sounded better to my ear than any of the other tubes I’ve tried in that position, although none of them were of the AU variety. I’m not certain this combination will be the final one. I’m still having too much fun playing with the amp to spend the time needed to explore all the tubes I have laying around. I’ll report any further sonic improvement. I have removed the tube retainers though, so swapping tubes isn’t so time consuming. The amp is just sitting on an end table, so I’m not worried about them jostling loose.
Whether a little amp like this makes sense to is is mainly a question of how important output stage distortion is to you in terms of either feel, sound or both. If you’re a died-in-the-wool tube guy, you probably know who you are. If you’ve tried digital amp simulators and amp modelers and found them artificial sounding, or tried using pedals with a more powerful amps and not been happy with the result: you might be a candidate for one, or both.
In closing, I find the two little amps in the corner of the room to be a distraction when I’m doing anything else: watching TV, reading or even typing this blog. It’s taken me several days to finish it, as I keep getting sucked over to the corner and plugging in. I had to do much of this entry at work where the siren song of the the guitar wasn’t as intense. There are worse problems in life to have.