ROCK AMPLIFIERS HAVE EVOLVED TO A HIGH DEGREE SINCE THE DAYS WHEN TONY Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore laid the foundation for heavy rock guitar tone through their Laney and Marshall stacks. These English marques, along with other British and American companies such as Hiwatt, Orange, Mesa/Boogie, Peavey, and Soldano, paved the way for today’s high-gain, multi-channel heads, most of which have features that were unimaginable in the late ’60s, when Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin reigned supreme. As metal became a style unto itself, more and more amplifier companies stepped up to meet the demands of players who wanted heads and combos that could deliver the two essential sonic qualities—searing sustain and massive chunk—that are about as commonplace now as footswitchable channels, independent tone controls, and high-powered output stages of up to 400 watts.
Look around most any music store now and you’ll find plenty of evidence that the quest to improve and refine the tones created by overdriven tubes and transistors continues. In terms of features, sounds, and price, Joe Six Pack never had it better. Fact is, you could probably pick a new half-stack blindfolded, take it straight to the gig, and be reasonably satisfied with its performance. To better understand the state-of-the-art in rock and metal rigs, we selected 13 tube, hybrid, and solid-state multi-channel amps and put them to the test using a Schecter C-1 loaded with EMG 81-X pickups, a PRS Custom 22, a Fender Eric Johnson Signature Strat, and a Gibson ’68 Black Beauty Les Paul reissue. Most of the amps we received came with matching speaker cabinets, and the ones that didn’t were played though a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier 4x12, a cabinet known for its ability to stay tight and focused at punishing volumes.
We gave all of the amps a thorough shake out to evaluate the range and complexity of their tones, the amount of sustain they could generate, and even how loud they could get. For this last test we placed a RadioShack digital sound level meter three feet from the speaker cabinet with its mic aimed straight on at the speakers. Using the dBA setting on the meter, we turned each amp up as far as possible (excessive hiss was often the only limiting factor) on one of the overdrive channels, and banged out power chords until the meter gave its verdict. Testing 13 big amps presents lots of challenges—not the least of which was the potential for hearing damage when exposed to them running at full volume. So for the loudness checks we went so far as to put a video camera on our sound level meter, and played outside the sound lab with the door closed—a method we’d highly recommend should you decide to try this stunt for yourself.