Nine volts, nuts and bolts
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Product: Battery-powered amplifier
Price Tag: $20-$400
Use: Playing in the street or when quality isn’t a primary concern
Every musician comes to a point in his or her career where something terrible happens.
Your gear gets busted.
If you’ve never suffered more than a few broken strings, let me tell you:you’re one of the lucky ones.
It may not be your fault; it may not even be gravity’s fault. But when you show up to a practice or a gig and realize the guitar gods have disowned you in a public desecration of your rig, you need a plan B – something to give you that, “Shhh, daddy’s got’cha” feeling that will make everything all right.
If the venue you’re playing at erupts into a heinous electrical fire that engulfs your drummer and thrusts the crowd into hysteria, a battery-powered amp will make sure you’ll still be heard. You can go down like the Titanic, Jimi Hendrix flaming-guitar style.
Dramatized exaggerations aside, battery-powered amps are actually good to have around for realistic possibilities, such as performing outdoors, because finding a place to play on campus can be a hassle.
When I lived in Wilkeson Quad, I had trouble playing my bass outside in the green without hugging a building – which actually got me into a bit of trouble with the anthropology department.
Even with an extension cord, the outlets are just too sparse to get out far enough. Perhaps this was the purpose of Ellicott’s prison-like design. I’m not quite sure.
At any rate, with a Roland CUBE or Vox AC1, you can get out there where the action is and where noise-sensitive office personnel are not. This also gives any guitarist with some charisma the possibility of making a few extra bones by busking (playing for gratuities) even if they don’t have an acoustic instrument. Just leave a pitiful note etched onto cardboard next to your guitar case.
Something like, “My drummer lost his arms. Going solo.”
You’ll be making back the $40 you spent on the amp in no time.
If distortion is your go-to effect, there’s good news: it doesn’t take much to distort a 10-watt amp. Chances are if you want to play at a reasonably loud volume, your guitar is already distorted beyond belief. Some of these amps, like the Rocktron VG05, even come with a distortion switch in case you want to remove any hint of a guitar in your sound.
These amps typically run with a single 9-volt battery. Speaker size and battery life vary, but the volume is surprisingly loud for such a small power source and loud enough to still annoy your roommates. The greatest part is convenience, as most guitarists have a bunch of 9-volts lying around anyway. There are a surprising amount of high quality battery-powered amps that run for about $300. But unless you’re a professional street performer, I wouldn’t recommend dropping quite that much on a backup amp.
In the end, true money savers with a little bit of bravery can try making their own battery-powered amplifier. Because telling you how to do this in writing would be ridiculous and unnecessarily confusing, I’ll tell you simply that YouTube is your friend.
The technique of hardware hacking, or modifying electronic devices, can even allow you to add effects to your cheap $20 battery amp. Nicolas Collins wrote an excellent book on this art entitled Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. It’s more time consuming than running to Guitar Center, but because the components in these amps are so cheap, you could build yourself an amp for about $5. All you really need is a soldering iron and basic knowledge of circuitry.
When you want to be portable, economic and safe, pick up a battery-powered amp.