Why Do So Many Touring Guitarists Use Two Amps?

When you go see touring acts perform, you may notice that many pro players use two or more amps live. But more amps means more gear to haul, more time spent setting up and tearing down, and more open mics, which can cause feedback and phase issues. There must be a good reason then, right?

In fact, there are five good reasons. Three apply to both stage and studio, and two are more applicable to live performance. And they might just make perfect sense for your rig, too.

More Amps Mean More Variety

As many recording artists and studio engineers know, your amp is often a more important factor in your overall tone than your guitar, and different amps have vastly different characters. Many players consider a vintage Fender combo to be ideal for clean tones and an iconic Marshall to be the classic dirty sound.

Since many vintage amp designs (and reissues of these classics) are single-channel, using both a high-gain and a clean amp lets you switch off as needed. As an example, the legendary Eric Johnson – well known for his obsession with great tone – famously uses a pair of CBS-era Fender Deluxes for cleans, and a pair of 1959 Handwired Marshall Plexi Reissues for dirt with an A/B pedal to switch between them.

Blending Amps for Balance

Whether you’re in the studio or on stage, multiple amps blended together can complement each other. Some amps – such as the Marshall JCM800 or Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier – have massive low end and plenty of gain, but lack clarity and upper mid-range punch for cutting through a mix.

Other amps – like the airy open-backed Fender combos or the crystal-clear Roland JC120 – have plenty of high-end sparkle with excellent attack and articulation on chords, but are too clean to generate much sustain. They also lack the crunch needed for heavier rhythms.

By blending these two tones, you can achieve the best of both worlds.

Blues virtuoso Joe Bonamassa, for example, has recently been touring with a pair of Fender Twin Reverbs, known for their high headroom and bright tone, and a pair of Fender Bassmans, known for their grit and meatier low end.

Joe Bonamassa's rig for a show at Red Rocks (Image from Twitter)

For Stereo Effects

Many players use two amps for stereo techniques that require multiple loudspeakers. For example, many delay pedals have stereo outputs for “ping-pong” effects, in which repeats bounce back and forth between a pair of speakers.

Other stereo modulation effects, such as flangers and choruses, also make use of multiple speakers in a similar fashion. Another type of setup uses three cabinets in a “wet/dry/wet” arrangement, with the center amp running your dry (unaffected) guitar signal, and the outer two speakers running a 100% affected signal panned to each side.

The experience of playing on a proper w/d/w setup can be mind-blowing, and hearing one in person may well convince you that running 3 amps is worth the trouble. This type of setup has been used by everyone from guitar hero Eddie Van Halen to jazz/fusion legend Larry “Mr. 335” Carlton.

The Rockstar Factor

Quite simply, multiple amps can look cool on stage. Harkening back to earlier days of rock excess (and underpowered PA systems), many big touring acts – especially in the metal genres – liked the look of a “wall of amps” behind them as part of the show.

Usually, only a few of these cabinets are actually mic’d. In some cases, the extra cabs are purely set dressing and are unloaded (no speakers installed) to save on weight. Sometimes they’re custom-made replicas that fold up for easier transport.

Speaker replicas as used by the Norwegian metal band, Immortal (Image from Gizmodo)

In other cases, you’re J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and you utilize your multiple Marshall stacks to their fullest potential.

In Case of Amp Failure

There’s also a purely practical reason to tour with multiple amps: failure.

The rigors of the road can be rough on amps, and when your main amp dies onstage, a backup can be a worth its weight in gold. Gigging without a backup guitar can be risky in case you break a string, but a broken string is easily diagnosed and uncomplicated to fix. On the other hand, an amp dying on stage mid-song without a backup will mean the end of your show.

A backup amp should ideally match your primary amp as closely as possible, and many guitarists do use a matching pair in this way. Slash, for example, tours with matching pairs of his signature Marshall AFD100 heads and 4x12 cabs. If it’s in your budget and you have room onstage, this is a great approach.

But for the working player who may not be able to afford – nor desire to haul – an exact duplicate, there are many alternatives.

What to Use on a Budget

The simplest and lowest cost solution is a preamp pedal. The Tech 21 Character Series amp-in-a-box units with cab simulation replaces the need for another cab on stage and the microphone on that cab and is a solid option.

Another option is the classic Line 6 POD (or the XT or HD series floorboards), which can model several dozen different kinds of amps, cabs, and mics, in addition to effects modeling. Some higher-end modelers, such as the Line 6 Helix, can model multiple amps, cabs, and mics at once for blending tones, too.

If you prefer live backline for monitoring but still want something small and affordable, one great choice is a Roland Cube, such as the Cube 40GX. These are reliable, lightweight, surprisingly loud, have a small footprint, and are low cost. They’re also packed with features – amp modeling, a cab-simulated direct out, built-in effects with a tap tempo, a tuner, and 3 footswitchable channels. Similar small modeler combos worth checking out are the Fender Mustang II and the Blackstar ID:15.

A Note on ABY Pedals

Despite their basic functionality, a good ABY unit can cost as much as any other decent effects pedal. Signal routing may be a simple task, but lower cost A/B boxes can have problems with silent switching. An audible “pop” is not only distracting musically, but can damage sound equipment. Other concerns are noise, crosstalk (your guitar’s signal bleeding through to the bypassed amp), and of course, the dreaded “tone suck.” It’s important not to skimp on quality here.

Some popular, well-made and readily available ABY pedals are the Morley ABY or Morley ABY “Mix” (with separate volume controls for blending both amps) and the Radial BigShot. A similar device is the Radial Headbone, which lets you switch between two amp heads running into a single cabinet.

If you’re tight on pedalboard space, the Fender Micro ABY is a single-footswitch, fully functional mini pedal with a slider switch for A/B or Y mode. Another great option is the Line 6 Relay G70 wireless unit, which combines an ABY switcher, a stage tuner, a boost pedal, and a DI box all within a pedal-format wireless receiver.

Whether you record at home, gig at local venues, or tour the globe, using multiple amps is not only smart in case something goes wrong, but opens the door to a whole world of dynamic tonality, too.

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