Here’s a question I’ve seen come up again and again: “Which battery-powered amp should I get?”
In my past life as a software engineer, I learned this lesson quickly: asking the wrong question often yields the wrong solution.
In the early days, I’d nervously walk up to a more experienced engineer and start rattling off a hyper-specific question, probably while fingering exact lines of code on the laptop cradled in my arms. My thought process was this: I need to prove that I have been really digging through the weeds and whittle my question down to something unambiguous to save their precious time while saving face. After some confusing back-and-forth I’d usually get the quizzical response, “what exactly is the problem you’re trying to solve?”
That, as it turns out, is the only question that I should have been asking. In the end, the more-experienced engineer would likely just google a term I had never heard of that precisely describes my problem, and present me with a handful open-source libraries (or a stack overflow post) that already solved it. Turns out all my prior digging was unnecessary. I got a better solution from a different angle.
In this case, the problem is perhaps this: I’m playing a rustic wedding ceremony while floating on an artisanal hand-whittled raft in the middle of a frog pond for a small audience of 50 (purely hypothetical–I can’t swim and I’d probably turn down this gig).
In summary: I want to amplify my guitar without access to a power outlet. Now I might think, “clearly I need a battery-powered amp. Now which is the least-crappy sounding battery-powered amp and how much does it cost?” Wrong questions! How about: how do I power the amp I already have?
With the same lithium battery technology used in electric cars and smartphones this is now possible in a package as small as a lunchbox.
We now have these great camping/emergency batteries that include a standard 120V mains outlet. Various models are all over Amazon, but I got the cheapest I could find: a 222-watt hour model by Suaoki for under $150. It has one multi-international outlet with a ground pin, and one 2-prong outlet. It also has some handy USB ports for charging devices. I suppose the other benefit of these is you can use them for, well, camping and emergencies too.
222 watt hour means you can power a 222-watt device for about one hour. So if your amp is 60 watts, you can power it for 3.7 hours. But the real figure is much more, because your amp probably only uses 60 watts at full volume. If you’re like me, playing at full volume, or even anywhere near it, never happens.
I’ve powered my AER Alpha for multiple 2-3 hour gigs without recharging. I’ve also put some 15-watt tube amps through it, like my Fender Princeton Reverb. I’ve even plugged in power strips and powered multiple devices. I’ve loaned it to a buddy who powered a PA with it.
The only issue I’d report is that there can be some noise interference due to the transformer in the power supply. Be sure to move it a few feet away from the amp. Also, single-coil pickups tend to hum more when not touching the strings since there isn’t grounding to speak of. If anyone knows a solution to this, let me know. Although, perhaps I’m asking the wrong question 🙂
If you MUST get a battery-powered amp, I’d recommend something from Roland’s CUBE series. They run on AA batteries for a truly impressive amount of time and volume. Don’t bother with stuff with heavy, proprietary sealed-lead-acid batteries. Guess what, if you forgot to charge it you’re out of luck. If some ubiquitous AA batteries ran out, you can solve that problem much more easily.
“Hey, Bugera… Knock It Off!”
I’ve been curious about the Bugera AC60 for a while. After seeing one picture of it, it was obvious that it is a flagrant knock-off of the AER Compact 60. But the most compelling thing about this little poseur is that comes in at around $250. That’s more than 5x less than the $1300 AER! Now I’m all for supporting quality boutique products, but I’m also a musician that earns a fraction of a real salary and I love a good deal.
Coincidentally, one soon popped up on my local Craigslist for $150. I sat on the decision for a while. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is real and my apartment is not getting any bigger. But curiosity got the better of me and I’m sure I made some flimsy justifications such as: “it can be my backup/travel/loaner/practice/whatever amp!”, “maybe I can use it as a portable PA!”, “I could use it as an extension cabinet!” (editor’s note: these situations have occurred exactly 0 times in several years).
Needless to day, I took the plunge. Here it is tagging along next to it’s fancy cousin:
Luckily for me, it was virtually unused. It still had some of the protective plastic covering on the logos. The fella selling it was definitely a casual player. He even asked me if I wanted to start a light rock/country band before even hearing me play.
After picking it up I took it straight to a gig (no doubt it’s first) where I planned to use it for half the night. I ended up using it for two sets and switched back to the AER for the quick last set.
In short: I didn’t notice a “night and day” difference that would justify the 5x premium. I simply set it up the way I would an AER and I didn’t have a miserable time with tone or trying to dial it in. Now that may sound lukewarm, but in my experience, “not being miserable” equals high marks in the acoustic guitar amplification space. Both my bandmates were also using AER amps and they too were quite surprised by it.
The next day, I set it up as above with an A/B switch. I noodled around while toggling between the two amps and again, didn’t hear any total dealbreakers. They are both sufficiently loud, nice-sounding amps.
But how about an audio taste test with some samples? Read on….
When I first met Lee Jeffriess, he was playing bass in a Hawaiian swing band that I perform with called the Alcatraz Islanders. What I didn’t know at the time is that he was a steel guitar legend and a former member of the fantastic Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys during some of their best years.
Go ahead and put this on while you’re reading this, why don’t you?
As I got into steel guitar playing myself and combed through the Steel Guitar Forum for tips on this unforgiving instrument, it soon became clear that not only was Lee a monster player, he was the authority on all things vintage steel. That included history, technique, gear, recordings, and more. Many informative threads ended with something to the effect of, “That’s what I think anyway, but Lee Jeffriess would know for sure.”
So when Mr. Jeffriess, knowing I’ve been getting into this 3D design thing, asked if I could make a pickup cover for Fender Stringmaster T8 pickups, I knew that there was absolutely no other way to get them. A quick googling pointed me to aforementioned Steel Guitar Forums, which confirmed this. Ironically, you can still get modern reproductions the pickups themselves… just not the covers!
A banjo-playing colleague came across one of my AT bridge mounts and liked it, but found that the fit was quite loose on thin-string gauges, which are common on banjos. We went back and forth a bit trying to adjust the clearance gap, but at such tight tolerances, results were mixed.
It then occurred to me to make a more universal adjustable model. I had some M3 threaded inserts left over from a previous project so I simply separated the halves of the string clamp sections and made it so they attach to each other and tighten down with a thumbscrew. Now any gauge of string should work, including bass strings if you’re feeling lucky!
Update! I now sell these at my online store.
First, a digression: one of the first things you notice while getting into 3D printing is that it is far from the magic “replicator” of Star Trek, capable of spitting out molecularly-correct cups-of-joe every time. It takes a lot of research, tweaking, and stalking nerdy fellows on YouTube to figure out how to get acceptable quality prints, and even then your stuff will look pretty rough. It’s the nature of the medium… this machine is essentially a hot-glue gun on motors.
As such, I roll my eyes a bit at people who use their 3D printer primarily for making infantile decorative figurines or props. Do you really want to use up all that material, time, electricity, and post-processing hours to produce more useless plastic crap around your house? If this is the trend, future civilizations will no doubt stare in complete bewilderment at landfills full of multi-colored Baby Groots long after we’re gone.
Aww, I know, that’s mean.
Good for you if that’s your bag, but I keep my designs functional and fully understand this stuff is not “production-ready”. They just can’t have the polish necessary to survive the scrutiny of an Amazon review. So 3D printing, to me, is good for small-run niche problem-solving where looks don’t matter.
Once in a while, though, I cook up some design and when I’ve put it all together, I’m surprised that it actually looks good and is functional beyond my expectations.
In this case, it was yet another mounting project for Audio Technica instrument microphones, which I use a lot for acoustic guitar (specifically, the Pro 70 or 831b lavalier models). I found myself wanting something that would point the mic to a sound hole or neck position with a gooseneck arm, “DPA-style“. I’ve heard some bad things about the clamping mechanisms on the DPA mounting hardware, so I thought about other ways to attach to a guitar. Why not suction cups? It worked for Nerf!
Update: These are on sale now at my store!
Being a working musician, city-slicker, and general disliker of ridiculously loud music, big heavy amps are not my thing. While it would be a great honor to someday be featured on the venerable Rigs of Dad, for now I’ll save my back. My chosen tube amp to date is the classic 10″ Fender Princeton Reverb. Light enough to carry with one arm, and enough power to get me to the Tone-Zone®.
However, one problem I have with smaller combo amps is that they can be difficult to hear in live situations. Amps placed on the floor simply aren’t pointing in the right direction to be heard by someone standing on stage. Sometimes I’ll hike my amp up on a chair, but that also takes up a lot of space and is unsightly. What I need is some tilt-back assembly, which would allow an amp to point upward at an angle.
I love DeArmond archtop pickups! DeArmond “Monkey-on-a-stick” pressure rod mounting brackets are my preferred removable way to mount them, but nobody reissues them. So I made one from scratch using some swell modern tech. Available at my online store.
Update 6/3/2018: Due to popular demand, I now offer these with a polished aluminum top. The bottom baseplate is still 3D printed silver-colored PLA, but the metal top plate results in a more all-chrome look for you purists 🙂
Unlike the drill-happy current day, back in the good old ’30s and ’40s it was unthinkable to put holes in that pretty handmade archtop of yours. After all, who knew if this silly fad of guitar “electrification” was going to last? And what if you wanted to pass that pristine acoustic archtop on to your grandchildren? Trad jazz and swing was surely due to make a comeback in about 75 years.
Audio Technica Microphones are great! But..
Audio Technica lavaliere condenser microphones like the PRO 70 and AT831B are good choices for amplifying acoustic guitars and reproducing the tone of the instrument more accurately than pickups. The soundhole mount that comes with is also quite nice, but after a few months of use I lost the screw and clip attachment on a gig. This made the microphone essentially unusable. I was quite annoyed to find that a replacement mount would cost around 40 bucks! That’s nuts! I mean, sure that’s some fine machining and precision metalwork there, but c’mon… we’re starving musicians here.
I really couldn’t stomach spending that kind of dough so I decided to take the much more sensible approach of dropping $300 on a 3D printer, learning CAD off YouTube tutorials, and designing my own replacement.
But in all seriousness, I didn’t want anyone else to have to deal with this. Having someone else design the replacement and put the model up for free is something I would have greatly appreciated, so I gave it a shot.