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Titanic Tone from Diminutive Amps

During his time with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton plugged his Les Paul into a Marshall amp and began playing at near ear-shattering levels which stunned the engineers who were on hand for the recording sessions. They had never encountered anything quite so outrageous, yet historically speaking, this began a trend that eventually led to many guitarists carting monster stacks into the studio to capture their “in concert” sound. However, Clapton was clearly not the first to produce a dirty, distorted sound from an amplifier. For decades, many legendary blues players like B. B. King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters (to name but a few) played guitars through small amps (sometimes Fender or Gibson brands, but also some that are no longer made like the Supro line) turned up as loud as possible to attain an aggressive tone perfectly befitting the blues genre.

Today, most high-end tube amps have a master volume control that allows the amplifier (or at least the preamp) to overdrive, thus attaining a distorted sound that’s somewhat more natural than what is typically available by using a stompbox. When the purest overdrive is desired using big amps, a special attenuator can be placed between the amp and cabinet. However, an easier approach is to use a smaller, lower power amplifier, like a 22-watt Fender Deluxe Reverb and then close-mic it. Many guitarists are often on the lookout for the small off-brand amps from companies like Premier, which sold through odd places, like the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs in the 1950s. In fact, by the 1960s, Sears started selling its own brand of amplifiers, probably built by Danelectro. Probably the most famous use of a small amp in a major recording was Jimmy Page’s use of a small Supro tube amp and a Telecaster on the first Led Zeppelin album.

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