Is Your Amp Loud Enough?

July 26, 2016

Thorpy FX - Warthog

Written by PGS staff 

There are some common misconceptions out there in guitarland about amps—specifically about wattage, volume, headroom, decibels and whatever else. Sometimes you think you need two full stacks to get the stage volume you think you want, but in reality, you need a 40-watt combo. Sometimes you think you want a low-watt amp that will break up and provide the perfect tone, but you’re not going to hear it over your drummer and his Neil-Peart-tribute-kit with three bass drums and a gong. Today, we’re looking at your amp to learn a little about the overall “volume” and its contributing factors so you can make sure your rig is truly right for you.

How Loud is Loud?

We’re all musicians. Hopefully we’re all aware of decibels—specifically in protecting our ears from high levels of them! Decibels, or dB, are the measurement used to identify the volume or intensity of a sound. Like the Richter scale, each increase in dBs is not a linear increase but rather a logarithmic increase. 10dB is considered ten times more powerful than 0dB, and to the human ear, a 10dB difference is heard as “twice as loud.” This means if you’ve got one amp pumping out 100dB and another pumping out 110dB (which is close to being 1,000,000,000,000 times as powerful as the smallest audible sound!), the first amp is going to sound like it has half the volume of the second. (Public Service Announcement: we would like to remind you that exposure to levels above 85dB can cause hearing loss, so take it seriously!)

Watt Do You Mean?!

Part of the equation that helps create an amp’s volume capability is its wattage. We all throw around the terminology: things like, “that dude has a 100- watt half stack!” and “I bought a little five-watt combo for the house—my wife was complaining about my Rockerverb!” So what IS wattage? While decibels are a measurement of volume, watts are a measurement of energy or in this case, electrical power. Like decibels, watts are not linearly comparable from a volume perspective—a 100-watt Rockerverb has twice the power of a 50-watt Rockerverb, but not twice the volume. There’s only about a 3dB difference between the 50- and 100-watt amps (assuming the speakers are identical; more on that in a bit), which means you may notice a difference in their volume capability, but an amp that’s twice as powerful will not be heard, nor perceived, as “twice as loud,’” and as we all know—perception is reality.


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Speakers of the House

Your amp’s speaker (or speakers) is another crucial piece in how loud your amp will be heard or perceived. Speakers have a decibel sensitivity specification, which is a measure of the combination of power input and sound output. Most manufacturers provide this spec in “dB at 1w/1m,” which is decibels produced per watt measured at one meter from the speaker on its axis. For speakers, the required power level doubles for each 3dB difference, meaning to get a 97dB speaker as loud as a100dB speaker, the 97dB speaker will need double the power. Essentially, the higher the sensitivity rating, the more efficient the speaker is at converting power input to sound output. A higher-efficiency speaker, when used in a lower-wattage amp can be a very, very powerful thing—and a higher wattage amp with a low-efficiency speaker can be, well, underwhelming. 


Getting It Just Right

The most important question to ask in terms of finding the right amp is: What are you going to be using it for?!” The amp market has been recently flooded with a ton of low-wattage amps that are perfect for home use or small, intimate club gigs; in the right situations (and with the right mics), these amps can work for a slightly larger gig, but once there’s a drummer involved, you likely want to move into the 20–40-watt range, especially if you’re hoping to retain any clean headroom. For full-on club gigs or outdoor gigs, you’ll likely want to clear the 40-watt bar and have an amp or two that is in the 40–50-watt range, just to make sure you don’t lose any punch (everything sounds different outdoors, where there are fewer if any reflective surfaces like walls to retain/reflect the soundwaves). When you’re playing Coachella, go ahead and get that wall of 100-watt Rockerverbs. Remember to consider the amp’s wattage along with the speaker’s efficiency rating in terms of figuring out what is going to provide the proper volume to you in whatever application you’ll be running it in. We all want to be able to hear you, but not be overwhelmed with you (I’m talking to you over there on stage right—they guy who always sneaks over and bumps up your master volume after the sound engineer has everyone’s levels set; you know who you are). 

As always, happy hunting! 

DOD- Carcosa



  1. Bill Jones says:

    1st and second paragraphs are the same

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 9:11 am
  2. diseedant says:

    +3db is twice as loud :

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 9:11 am
  3. Gaylan says:

    I love my Fender DeVille amp, but it is honestly too loud for practice and small venues.  I’ve heard of attenuators.  Can you discuss those, and mention any that might be good.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 9:43 am
  4. M says:

    @diseedant: +3dB is twice the power, not twice the loudness.  This is from the source you linked to.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 9:51 am
  5. itchy235 says:

    The ~2 rating is for power, the amplitude column (volume) shows that +3dB is 1.41, or about 40% louder.  +6dB would be twice as loud, but requires 4x power.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 9:53 am
  6. Mike says:

    I’ve seen loudness perception tests done at university and it was around 10dB that was perceived as twice or half the volume.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 10:02 am
  7. Gary says:

    @diseedant ...” At the half power point an audio circuit or an antenna exhibits an attenuation of approximately 3 dB.” <—-that is NOT saying +3db is “twice as loud”’s saying it requires twice as much power. “Loud” is a perception, “twice as loud” even moreso. As a matter of fact, the chart on wiki shows while 3db requires twice as much power, the amplitude ratio (which would actually be the better indication of “loudness”) is only 1.413…or about 41% “louder”...

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 11:32 am
  8. j honker says:

    I have 13w and 40w Fender amps, enough range to take me thru small clubs to theatres

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 3:02 pm
  9. Matt says:

    I’m sure the folks at 65 Amps would be happy to introduce the PGS staff to a fleet of artists that play large gigs (and even have drummers!) with sub-20 watt amps. The whole reason the brand exists is because of touring artists that were sick of dealing with 50-100 watts amps. Co-founder Peter Stroud (of Sheryl Crow’s band) has even used an attenuator to bring down the volume of his 18 watt London amp.

    The only real reason to get an amp with more than about 20 watts is tone. Do you need a crystal clean tone above all else? Do you play in a metal or punk band at mostly dive bars with a garbage PA? Do you simply prefer the sound of higher wattage amps? If you answered no to those three questions, you don’t need more power, you just need a decent sound guy to mic up your amp.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm
  10. Rob Fawcett says:

    Another factor worth mention is valve vs solid state.
    20W is 20W, irrespective of the amplifier circuitry.
    However the power rating is based on clean(ish) output.
    A solid state amp will get ugly very quickly as it reaches its power limit, and will output very little more than its rated power under any circumstances.
    A good tube amp (with conservatively rated transformers) may well be able to output a fair bit above its rated power, although with ever greater filth and compression. Though those transformers will be literally as well as figuratively heavy.
    Incidentally, by force of circumstance I played a gig with a seven-piece band (full drumkit) using an Orange Micro Terror, unmic’d. Luckily I could pair it with an Eminence Wizard, and I was astonished at the bang for your buck from such a super-efficient speaker: that point is well made above. These days I rock an Egnater Rebel 30 combo: I can imagine adding another cab, but can’t imagine needing more power other than in a large gig with a terrible PA and lousy monitors… which is really not the kind of gig I ever want to play, nor have most folks ever needed to since about 1970 (the Golden Age of the Full-Stack)

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 7:32 pm
  11. Gary says:

    I play everything from small clubs to large stages with a 13 Watt Fender and I’ve never had a volume issue. We have a heavy hitting drummer with a nice set of Gretsch Catalina Maples and a pile of Sabian cymbals. We have a 400 watt bass amp on stage, and our second guitar player is constantly being asked to turn his 22 watt Fender Deluxe down. If you’re playing anything larger than a very small club, you should be miking everything anyway, and if the soundstage is very big, you need good monitors so vocals can be heard, so fold some guitar back through if your amp can’t be heard on the far side of the stage. That’s what the big boys do, regardless of the size of their rigs. Unless you’re either always playing arenas or have some SERIOUSLY deficient PA gear, the only reason for a big amp is the same as the only reason for wearing a third sock…to compensate for the size of your penis.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 9:57 pm
  12. Rob Price says:

    I have gone to the method of getting my overdrive sounds with pedals, and using a 50 watt amp set to get a good Blackface Style Clean Sound. I can switch out Overdrive Pedals according to the Gig Requirements. Tube Amp Overdrive for most amps has a “Sweet Spot” even with a lot of Master Volume equipped Amps while OD Pedals are a little bit more flexible volume wise.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 10:02 pm
  13. Steve says:

    Been using a “boutique” 12 watt combo amp for everything for the past 3 years. Only 12 watts, but 12 watts of very well designed class A tube power, running into a Greenback, which for me is an excellent match for this amp. I have never had any issues with not having enough power or “loudness” on stage, even with heavy handed drummers. No, it is not the same “feeling” as having a half stack with 50+ watts, which I love! But unless you are a touring pro, the half stack is probably not needed or practical. 95% of the time I am mic’d and using in ear monitors. The house mix is determined by the engineer at the board, not by how loud we can get on stage. My advice is to get an amp you love, and let the house do the job of getting things loud enough.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 11:47 pm
  14. Burt says:

    I actually have been gigging for the past 8 years in a ten piece band - [drums, bass, keys, guitar (me) alto sax, tenor sax, bari sax, trumpet, trombone….]  []  running a BOSS GT-8 floor based multi-fx’s two outputs to an on stage Behringer 30 watt amp, [using the effects loop return, bypassing the pre-amp] and through a cab simulator box [Cabtone by DMC, about the size of a stompbox] to the PA.    I continuously adjust my own volume using the footpedal on the GT-8. What’s interesting is that I make it so that the volume coming off the little Behringer amp and the volume coming out of the PA are about the same. ( I soundcheck it with a pan effect so that I hear the left and right channels “ping pong and make them the same level.)  I’m still impressed at the fact that even at full dynamics, it’s “enough.”  I’ll admit, there have been a few times when I thought to myself that a more robust stage amp might be a good idea, but I’ve been getting by quite well with just the little Behringer that I think I paid like $140 for in a Guitar Center ten years ago.

    posted on July 26, 2016 at 11:59 pm
  15. Russ says:

    agreed outdoor venues, you can use 40 watts of swat, but I’ve done hundreds big and small, even outdoor ones,  with a modded up 15 watt fender amp,  ( Hell I opened for Johnny Winter with a 15 watt that i plugged into the 4x12 they had just for some sound dispersion on stage,, but they are mic’ing up cabs at any stage show so why lug more around if the little guy is giving you the right tone )  Stage volume sometimes, is better achieved with the smaller amp, ( the sound engineer is gonna love you if you bring a combo, every time, trust me)

    unless I need the “look” of a bigger amp at a “bigger amp kind of show” , my mesa head and cab basically stay in mothballs

    i can think of maybe two times in the last year I said ......maybe I should have bought the 40 watter…... but never had any real problem volume/tone wise when I was done with the show.

    posted on July 27, 2016 at 12:58 am
  16. Jan says:

    I run a 100 W Laney full stack with a master volume, using the pre-amp gain for crunch and distortion, and beside it being a bitch to lug around,it also looks bitchin’, and I have no problem getting a lovely sound for whatever venue I’m in.

    For smaller places I go with a single cab. Recently did an outdoor gig on a large stage with a big line array PA which gave me a chance to crank it a bit.  I’ve never been far past 12 oclock on the master though. 

    For many people a full stack is overkill (and impractical) and I admit that very often it is. I could just as easily get away with a 50W combo.. It would sound a bit different though, and for what I do the “stack tone” does something real.  Also, getting a cab elevated almost up to ear level, not only makes it easier to hear yourself - you also get a more neutral tone.

    I hear many players who’s tone is so bright and trebly, its like crunching glass in your ear.  Traditional backlining (for rock n roll at least) often dictates that you have your back squarely to your amp, which is kind of silly, all things considered.  A leftover habit from the 60’ies when the backline and front of house was one and the same. 

    Anyway it looks cool. To me it’s important that my amp sounds right when I’m facing it - not when I’m facing away.  If I do it the other way around, the treble will melt my face when I turn my back on the venue, which in turn means, its been melting the faces off the punters all night.

    It might sound a little bit too dark that way, with my back to it, and so that’s where the wedge comes in.  With a nice and neutral signal in the wedge, at just the right level, I can usually find a nice balance, where I get the warmth and the punch from the amp, and the definition from the wedge. 

    To me, the problem is not so much the volume - it the width of coverage.  Guitar speaker are extremely directional, so a couple of steps off to the side and you lose half the volume.  Using 2 cabs side by side helps. 

    You can always ask for “More Myself please” in your wedge, but now you’re listening to a mic recording your signal and feeding it back through a box with a tweeter..  That’s not really why you bought that expensive amp with those nice greenbackers.

    To me the axe AND the amp is THE instrument.  One dont work without the other, and in conjunction they make the tone.  To control that, is to control the actual air that your speaker is moving. A wedge may give you a nice representation of that, but it just isnt the same thing.

    Those tubes are running red hot, your amp is sizzling.  Speakers push and heave - causing your strings to vibrate in return, producing lovely and controlable feedbacks asf. Hearing all that back from a wedge can be ok, if the wedge sounds really good, but it just doesnt give you the same feeling.

    Even worse if the soundman does not respect your sound and has eq’d it unto something he wants to hear.

    On larger stages, hearing a miked drumkit thru sidefills asf I find myself wishing for a couple of extra stacks. Not for volume but for coverage.  A guy like Tony Iommi uses 4 full stacks awa 8 2x12 wedges with only guitar in them.  Again not for volume - just so that it sound and feels more or less the same, no matter where he’s standing.

    Anyway - just a couple of thoughts that probably went wildly off topic.  RocknRoll guys!

    posted on July 27, 2016 at 2:49 am
  17. Joe Reddy says:

    Nice read thanks!
    I have two main amplifiers, both rated at 30W. First is a Jack Daniel’s edition
    Peavey Classic 30. This amp was fitted with a Vintage 30 speaker and a better
    set of preamp tubes, Second is a JTM 45 RI (circa ‘97). T his amp was fitted with a
    Ceriatone turret board, KT-66 tubes, Mullard rectifier and Tung-Sol 12 AX7’s,
    and is paired with a custom cab (Jim Kreuger) 13 ply Baltic Birch loadeed with
    a pair of Greenbacks.
    Although both are rated at 30W, there’s a huge difference, but in both cases,
    I am able to dig deep into the tubes and still retain dynamics and in a decent headroom.
    Peavey gets used for smaller gigs…. The Marshall, is monstrous…. but delicious…
    If I can’t get it done with these amps, well…..

    posted on July 29, 2016 at 6:37 am
  18. chris says:

    I use a ‘66 BF deluxe reverb, a dr z maz 18 2-10 and a custom built tweed deluxe.  22 watts, 18n watts, and 12 respectively.  Ive done everythng from living rooms to small theaters with either of those two amps.  For the bigger shows, we just mike the speaker.  For us, keeping the onstage volume down is crucial as we have 5 people singing harmonies in the group.  Ive never seent he need for a high power amp.  Even the lead guitar player from the Tom petty band just uses a princeton i think.

    posted on August 4, 2016 at 4:25 am
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