While electric guitar themselves have changed little over the past 70 years — 1950’s designs still rule — guitar amplifiers have continued to evolve, and the pace of evolution has increased greatly over the past several years. Efficient sound systems long ago obviated the need for huge amplifiers, and for most players today a 1×12 is about all they want to haul (few club owners want to see a Marshall half stack roll in). For most situations — especially high gain — solid state has really caught up with tubes, and modelling amps like the Kemper have found homes even with fussy pros and studios.
Besides enabling lightweight powered speakers and bass amps, Class D solid state amplification technology has also enabled a wave of affordable pedal amplifiers. These days it’s pretty easy to have 25-50 watts of usable power at your feet and in some cases ditch the amplifier all together. But why a pedal amplifier?
Output Flexibility – Most solid state pedal amps have a speaker output, direct line out, and a headphone output, and unlike most amplifiers don’t need a speaker load to operate safely. They are perfect for quiet headphone-only practice. Plus some like the Hughes & Kettner Ampman have an AUX input for feeding in a music source to play along with. The direct XLR outputs are typically switchable between full frequency response and some type of speaker emulation, facilitating both live and recording environments.
Multiple Voices – Since these are solid state devices — some with DSP-based effects — most of the pedal amps have more than one core sound. The Quilter Superblock series amps have three different voices to choose from, while the H&K Ampman amps have two completely independent channels to play with. We’ve also sampled the Thermion Zero, and while it does not have multiple voices it does have an effects loop, which is true of most other pedal amps.
Performance Flexibility – If you are jamming with friends you can run it into a speaker cabinet, have fun, and be able to stick your amp in a backpack. For bigger venues you can still use a cabinet for stage volume and the direct out into the PA and monitors. If you want to be super portable you can go direct-out-only and listen through floor monitors or in-ears. Depending on the size of your pedal board you might be able to make space for the pedal amp and your effects for an all-in-package. As we mentioned earlier, the H&K Ampman has two independent channels plus a boost and solo switch making it a true replacement for a two channel amp (although it lacks reverb and full EQ).
Cost – Just starting out and don’t know what you need for an amp? Small inexpensive guitar amps are often less than impressive, and a pedal amp will sound way better through a set of headphones, and allow you to work on your chops in private. You can take it anywhere, and down the road get a cabinet.
Backup – Even if you are total diehard and want to see glowing glass bottles on top of your speaker cabinet, what if it goes down during a gig? One of these babies will save the show and take up very little space in the car.
Can you really gig with it? – It depends on your setup. If you are a rocking blues band with a loud drummer and don’t mic guitars, some pedal amp options are borderline on overall volume (the efficiency of your speaker cabinet will play a role in this). If you normally mic the guitars and use monitors, these will work great with or without a dedicated speaker cab (I get most of my sound through an ear monitor but still like a 1×12 to judge overall tone). In regard to sound quality, while it’s always a matter of opinion and personal taste, overall I’m impressed. Good tone is a function of the amplifier + speaker + cabinet and a pedal amp through a good quality speaker cabinet is going to sound better than a middling combo amp. Sometimes progress really is progress, and if you can get the sound you want while also reducing space and weight is that bad (Your bass player already knows the answer)? Success with a pedal amp is enjoying the experience and convenience while separating yourself from what good sound should look like.