Electric Guitars and on-stage amps

One of those questions I get asked about from time to time is why we can't eliminate the amplifier and cabinet of the electric guitar player on stage. After all, they are often unattractive to the uninitiated, present a second sound source that is not easily controlled and just generally contribute to a cluttered stage.

I have some sympathy with all of those concerns. The only one that I will actively tackle, however, is the uncontrolled sound. There are some guitarists who continually up the volume on their on-stage amp. That does create a problem. Most guitarists are reasonable people and you can work this out.

So why do they want the cabinet? It really has nothing to do with attachment issues, control, or any other imagined psychological dysfunction - at least amongst the musicians I deal with.

It does have to do with the sound that the artist is trying to create. Amps have very distinctive sounds. That sound is changed and modified in an active fashion by the cabinet itself. The cabinet provides a "reactive" load to the amp, thus changing the quality of the sound. Most guitarists push the amp to near distortion - which is created by that active load. Sure you can put a DI in there, but most DI's are not active loads, and thus do not create the same sound quality and variations that you get with a physical cabinet. Many a guitarist can also tell you horror stories about using a DI and having to then repair the amp due to a failure of the DI to adequately handle the load. This can be insanely expensive and frustrating to an artist who performs regularly. After all, they've developed a playing style and sound that is dependent on their favorite gear. It is tantamount to telling that concert pianist that the $250 keyboard you have is just as good as his Steinway Grand. Sure they accomplish the same thing if all you value is a piano-like sound, but they clearly sound - and react - a lot differently.

Audio Engineering firms are trying to address this problem. But the solutions are expensive. Solutions from Palmer and Motherload are frequently mentioned
in the audio blogs, but these are expensive devices ($600 and up).

Some amp manufacturers are providing an output designed specifically to go to a DI. In this case the cabinet is not needed. While I have used one of these and it sounded GREAT, it had a short life span. I suspect that the tubes were not as happy without the full cabinet being present. Another expensive repair was the result.

Another alternative I've used is to hide the cabinet off in some off-stage space. This works in terms of aesthetics, and to some extent stage volume, but there is an important element to remember. Sound obeys the inverse square law. If you remember high school physics, you may remember that gravity is this way too. That is, if you double the distance, you reduce the effect by 1/4th. So, if the amp is twice as far away from the artist, it is 1/4th as powerful. What is the obvious action by the guitar player? He turns it up! So, yes, it is off-stage, but now it's even more of an uncontrolled sound source. In one venue people began to avoid sitting near the stage wing where the cabinet was located. It was radically louder even though it had to pass through an insulated wall!

Is there a perfect solution? So far, no. The electric guitar is a unique instrument in the history of music. There are so many options and so many factors contributing to its sound that it is impossible to enumerate them. A musician with this instrument spends hours juggling all the options to produce the sound he is happy with. Hence they can get testy when asked to change the way they play.

There is a striking difference, of course, between the amp and cabinet of an electric guitar and that of a bass. The wavelength of notes produced on the bass are very long. Therefore, the best sound of a bass cabinet is not directly in front of it. But, the bassist needs to "feel" the notes to know they are right. There is a solution to that problem..... More at another time.