Steel Guitar Amplifiers
By David J. Stewart

Take someone to the islands today with your music!

I have a limited knowledge of amplifiers, but I want to share with you what amps I like and don't like. If you've never considered playing your music live, why not burn your rhythm tracks to CD and take them with you to the beach, a picnic, church, nursing home, or wherever you go and perform publicly? Buy a Roland MicroCube battery-powered amplifier (the VOX DA5 is very nice too) and then you can play steel guitar anywhere.

Tube, Solid State Or Digital Amps?

The first amplifiers ever built used vacuum tubes. Here's some basic information on tube amps. I like that the tubes glow orange and heat up. I love anything that produces a pure sound. Tube amps are famous for producing a warmth of tone. My Fender Princeton Reverb has 7 tubes and sounds great with my D-10 Pro II ShoBud pedal steel or lap steel for Hawaiian music. However, a mica-covered pedal steel sounds too thin and empty through the Princeton in my opinion. The Princeton doesn't have a middle control, nor shift. I really like the Peavey Nashville 112 for mica/aluminum pedal steels. I don't like that the Fender Princeton doesn't have a middle or shift tone shaping control. The Peavey Nashville 112 does. Peavey makes some great pedal steel guitar amps in my opinion.

A couple reasons why you might NOT want a tube amp is because:

First, they're not as reliable and could go out during a performance.

Second, tubes may need to be replaced at some point. Solid state and digital are reliable. I'd take solid state any day over digital. I really hate digital amps for steel guitar. Digital is either on or off for the signal processing. This means your highs are chopped off. With analog you get a wavy signal and your highs taper off instead (which is why tube amps give you that warmth of tone).

Third, the amps do get physically hot, so they require plenty of space to prevent overheating.

Tube amps were gradually replaced by solid state transistor technology. Fortunately, Fender continues to manufacture reissues of original amplifier models of decades past. My Fender Princeton Reverb is a reissue of the original 1965 model. Great stuff! My favorite amp was a Hot Rod Deville, reissue of a 1959 I believe it was, which was stolen years ago. There's a little button that boosts the highs. If you play pedal steel, take your guitar down to Guitar Center and try one, you'll like it! The only reason I went with the Princeton is because it weighs 35 pounds instead of 55 pounds. I'd get the 2-12 instead of the 4-10, that is, 2 12-inch speakers instead of 4 10-inch speakers.

Digital amps offer MUCH more effects processing and modeling amps, but the purity of the sound is lost in my opinion. The guitar signal is processed (manipulated) differently in a digital amp than a solid state or a tube (analog signal) amp. To me digital amps are like MIDI music, that is, it's not really music; but rather, the sound card is producing the sounds as you input ones and zeros. It's not quite the same, but the principle is still the same. At least with solid state you are still getting a natural signal through the amp. I'm certainly no expert on digital nor solid state technology, but I do know what my ears tell me. I'm against anything that takes away from the natural sound produced by the musician's hands.

I prefer solid state because it sounds great, doesn't have the draw backs of tube amps (like replacing tubes yearly), nor does it lose the quality that I think is lost with digital. Digital is TOO efficient! The Peavey Nashville 112 is a solid state amp, as is the Fender Steel King. I have an old Peavey Session 400 solid state, which sounds very nice (but the speaker buzzes badly when playing through it and I have to take it apart one of these days to see why it's buzzing). I only use the Fender Princeton with my ShoBud wood body/wood neck.

I had a Spider Line 6 digital modeling amp years ago, which was a nice amp, but it just didn't have any feel to it. It's like an Epiphone verses a Gibson Les Paul, where the sound is too thin on the Epiphones in my opinion. The Gibson guitar has a MUCH sweeter, richer, fuller tone. I'm not talking about the earlier American made Epiphones decades ago; but rather, the foreign made Epiphones today. Gibson bought out the Epiphone company years ago and now offer them as their low end line of guitars.

Problems With Amplifier?

I once thought my Nashville 112 was going bad. The speaker would distort when I played certain higher notes. It sounded like a bad recording with the gain set too high. I really thought it was the amp at first, because it had sat idle for a long time. As it turned out, it was the pot going bad in my Goodrich volume pedal. This was one of their new models too. I like the Goodrich pedals because they're comfortable to use, and loose to move, but those darned pots become scratchy within a year.

So I grabbed one of my other Goodrich pedals that I rebuilt last year with a high-life pot and the problem went away. So, be careful about blaming your amp right away. You can easily test the amp by plugging the steel guitar directly into the amplifier. If the problem goes away, then use the process of elimination to identify the cause of the problem.

Also, if you have one of the deluxe MicroCubes with more speakers, it behaves differently than the standard MicroCube when the batteries are going dead. A standard MicroCube will just stop working, but a deluxe model will make your guitar sound like the wiring has gone bad. IT KEEPS WORKING but sounds terrible. So change your batteries if your deluxe model MicroCube starts sounding lousy.

Roland MobileCube is Terrible, but MicroCube is Great for Lap Steel!

Please notice that I said the "MobileCube" is terrible, not the MicroCube. I really like the MicroCube. But the MobileCube is a general purpose amplifier, not for guitar, and has terrible reverb! The MicroCube is terrible for pedal steel, but I recommend it highly for lap steel, particularly for Hawaiian music. Hawaiian music sounds best through a loud horn kind of speaker/amp. With an old bakelite Rickenbacher guitar you can't go wrong.

Roland just produced a new model called the mobile cube (the amp cover is sold separately and power adaptor). The amp is intended to be portable and battery-powered. Albeit, DON'T buy it if you are a musician who likes some quality reverb. The MOBILE CUBE has lousy reverb. The reverb on the MICRO CUBE is superb in comparison and you can get plenty of it; but not on the MOBILE CUBE, it is dry at best. You WON'T be able to get a nice amount of reverb on the MOBILE CUBE. I'm really surprised that the MOBILE CUBE costs more and has less features. Why even have reverb if you're not going to do it right? The reverb is terrible on the MOBILE CUBE. I just want to make this clear to everyone. Get the MICRO CUBE, it's awesome!!!

These amps have a great sound for their size and price, but again, don't expect any reverb from the MobileCube. Roland outdid themselves with the MicroCube amp series. Very nice! If you don't use reverb, then the MobileCube sounds just as nice, but you DON'T have a wide selection of modeling amps from which to choose. The MobileCube WASN'T made for the musicians; but rather, as an all-purpose versatile amp. There's NO "REC OUT."

The VOX has a slightly bigger speaker, which makes a slightly noticeable difference in your sound I think; but the MicroCube has a built-in-tuner which the VOX doesn't. The MicroCube and the VOX are both great amps, and both portable run on batteries. The MicroCube uses 6 "AA" size batteries and the VOX uses 6 "C" size batteries. So you can see the power difference. Given a choice, I'd have a tough decision to make; but I'd probably get the MicroCube because I like the reverb quality better. Yet, the VOX has a slightly better quality tone I think because of the bigger speaker. I also like the controls better on the MicroCube. The VOX irritates me with the tap style effects button and knob. The MicroCube simply has knobs to turn, which I like (simplicity).

I'll tell you what I really like about the MicroCube, it has a 'REC OUT' 1/4" jack on the back for recording. I recorded E MAMA E with this 'REC OUT' jack. Listen yourself to the quality of sound of the steel guitar going through the MicroCube 'REC OUT.'

I'm using a 'Lexicon' Alpha computer interface (beware of the Steinberg CUBASE software that comes with it). If you want to learn more about using audio drivers, the Lexicon interface and how I record, please check out my recording page.

Again, you DON'T want either the VOX nor the MicroCube for pedal steel. Pedal steel only sounds good in my opinion with a larger speaker. 15" is preferred for pedal steel, to give you a strong low end. I wouldn't use anything less than a 12 inch speaker for pedal steel.

There's a beautiful simplicity to the old tube amps. I think the world was a much better place back then. I remember all the old radios and televisions and all the testing equipment that was used to repair the old sets. It was a great business to get into during the era and a fun hobby to pursue. Fixing old televisions became a favorite pastime for many men. HeathKit used to sell kits to make your own radio and TV repair equipment, or make your own CB or radio, and if you botched it up, then you just sent it in and they fixed it for you for a small fee. The kits taught you how things worked and allowed you firsthand experience building something that would work when you were done (hopefully). Today, times have changed and everything is mass-produced overseas in China, and nothing is reparable anymore. You just throw things away and buy another one. No wonder people are so dumb these days and incompetent to do even the simplest tasks.

The Roland MicroCube is only about $125, and is very versatile. It really is a nice amp. They also now have a battery-powered MicroCube with 2 or 4-speakers and much more power if you need it. Roland is coming out with some very nice musical equipment. They are listening to what the musicians want. Every guitar player should have a Roland MicroCube amp in my opinion.

More On Pedal Steel Guitar Amplifiers

The Fender Princeton Reverb amp only weighs 35-lbs and is ideal for a wood body/wood neck pedal steel in my opinion, but not for mica covered bodies with aluminum necks. The Peavey Nashville 112 is a beautiful amp, which I use and prefer for pedal steel due to it's lighter weight and plenty of tone control. The Fender Princeton Reverb has NO adjustment for mids (tone) or shift and that is something I miss at times. I see why Jerry Byrd liked the Fender Twin Reverb a lot, which he used for the last 20 years plus of his career (it has shift and middle tone controls). Interestingly, Lloyd Green played out of a Fender Twin Reverb amp head for most of his studio career. He had two 15" JBL speaker cabinets, but only used one at a time. The other was a backup. He would rotate them in usage to keep them in use.

I read that Lloyd also rotated the usage of his volume pedals frequently to prevent them from becoming scratchy. I have had lots of problems with volume pedal pots becoming scratchy (every brand). Let a pedal sit for 6-months and it will become scratchy. I have at least half dozen volume pedals (Goodrich, Ernie Ball and Fender). I only bought them at local music stores because I couldn't wait for a replacement pot. Now I always keep a few pots on hand. The Fender is a pretty chrome pedal, but too tight to physical move with the foot. The Ernie Ball is a workhorse, but the pots don't last. I really like the new million-cycle high-life potentiometer from Goodrich (a replacement for the old pots). It's a lot more reliable than the old pots, but they're still not perfect.

When I hear Lloyd Green play through the sound system at the International Steel Guitar Convention, I am in awe of the incredible sound and acoustics of the large room and amplification. To me pedal steel sounds much better when played at loud volumes. A whole new world of sound opens up. If you've ever cranked up a powerful amplifier seriously, then you know what I am saying. Lloyd's live recordings sound totally different than his studio recordings and I enjoy them more due to the sound dynamics that are impossible in the studio.

Personally, I never did like the Fender Twin Reverb because it has a dark muddy sound in my opinion. Trust me, you have to try the Fender Hotrod Deville 410 or 212 (i.e., 4 10" speakers or 2 12" speakers... I'd go with the 2 12"). There is a little button that you press that boosts your highs and it will make your pedal steel come alive like never heard before. You should go try one at GuitarCenter. You'll equally love the Fender Hot Rod Deville 212 (i.e., 2 12" speakers), trust me (but they are heavy weighing in at about 50 lbs.). That's the only reason I don't buy another one to replace the one I had stolen, because it's too heavy and at home I'd never turn the volume past 3 or 4. Amps are designed to sound best when cranked up 75% to 85% of their rated volume. I haven't tried the popular Fender Steel King amp yet, simply because it's TOO heavy, weighing over 50 pounds.

When I hear Lloyd Green play through the sound system at the International Steel Guitar Convention, I am in awe of the incredible sound and acoustics of the large room and amplification. To me pedal steel sounds much better when played at loud volumes. A whole new world of sound opens up. If you've ever cranked up a powerful amplifier seriously, then you know what I am saying. Lloyd's live recordings sound totally different than his studio recordings and I enjoy them more due to the sound dynamics that are impossible in the studio.

Peavey Session 500 and the Peavey Nashville 1000 were popular amps in their time, but they're no longer manufactured to my understanding. Webb steel guitar amps are also very nice, high quality; but super expensive, costing upwards of $2,500. There are other builders, but I haven't tried them. I have played through the Session 500 and Nashville 1000 and they're very nice for pedal steel. I'm not sure why they stopped building them, I'm sure the demand wasn't enough to justify continue building them. I've never tried a Webb amp.

Evans SE200

Very nice! The Evans SE200 Amplifier is an awesome amp, which unlike the Peavey Nashville 112 amp that I have, allows me full control over my tonal spectrum of sound. I have the Peavey Nashville 112 and it is a nice amp, but an Evans amp gives you even more tone shaping features. Since tone is everything, the more tone-shaping controls that you have, the closer you'll come to achieving your desired sound. The Evans gives you much more control over your tone. That's what I DON'T like about the Fender Princeton, it lacks enough tone controls. The sound is too bright and thin for a mica covered pedal steel with aluminum necks; but is fine for a wood body/wood neck. The Nashville 112 gives you presence, shift, middle, bass, high, reverb controls. The Princeton is not made for steel guitar; but rather, electric guitar, having tremolo. Still, I really like the Princeton on my wood/wood ShoBud.

I prefer the Evans, but the price is $1,478 for the JE200 (12" speaker) and $1,538 for the SE200 (15" speaker). Now compare that to $599 from Musician's Friend for the Peavey Nashville 112. The Evan's cost 250% more! The Evans SE200 (15" speaker) only weights 38 pounds. Mine has held up over the years, with a 15" speaker, but weighs over 50 pounds with the older speaker material (the old one's were indeed heavy). My Evan's needs repair, as it was left in a humid place by someone I trusted with it. Lord willing, eventually I'd like to have the speaker replaced with the new lighter one and get it repaired.

Here's Evan's website:

Don't get me wrong, the Peavey Nashville 112 is a great amp. It sounds kick-butt with my Rittenburg steel (Jerry Wallace pickup), but doesn't give me the sound I want with my Pro II ShoBud (stock pickups). Evan's are better amps in my opinion, but for the price you'll likely be happy with the Nashville 112.

More On Amps

I've not played the Fender Steel King, but have heard only good things (but they are HEAVY). If you are a good steel guitar player, almost any amp will sound good. You DON'T want distortion. A steel amp should have a CLEAN CHANNEL.

I've never played a Webb, but Tommy White loves his, and so did Jimmy Day. They're upwards of $2,000, but I'm sure they're worth it. I really don't know. Tom Bradshaw has some information online about them.

The question is really what are your needs. Why buy a 300 watt Nashville 1000 amp when you're only going to play at home? Amps are designed to operate best closer to their rated wattage. So you're short-changing yourself to buy a mega-watt steel king if you're only going to play in your room. Although a lot of players are going to 12" and 10" speakers and even 8" speakers, the best sound for a steel guitar I think is through a 15" speaker. So to me it's a paradox, that is, you want the 15" speaker, but all those amps come at higher wattages. I have to admit, I've gone to a 10" Fender Princeton Reverb myself, but only due to my health. I needed a lighter amp.

I have an old Peavey Session 400 that I like a lot (which weighs over 50 pounds), with a 15" speaker (solid state). I've never played the Peavey Session 500. I think the Peavey Nashville 1000 is a good investment if you are going to play for a larger audience at times. I've heard that Peavey has discontinued making them at this time (likely because of competition from the Fender Steel King I'd imagine). Musicians Friend's website says they're not available anymore. It is a very nice amplifier made FOR steel guitar. The Peavey Nashville 112 is made FOR steel guitar, but as I mentioned, lacks the ability to adjust the tonal characterizes like the Evans. The Evans amps were master-minded for controls, allowing you to shape your tone much more than most amps.

Ultimately, tone is in the ears of the beholder, listener. If YOU like what you are hearing come out of your amplifier, that's all that matters. My advice to you is to TRY several different amplifiers. For pedal steel you want at least a 12 to 15 inch speaker for low end, otherwise it will sound too trebly and thin. I get frustrated playing pedal steel through a smaller amplifier or a Fender Princeton amp which lacks the quality of tone. The Fender Princeton only has an 8-inch speaker, which is too small. It sounds warm when I play my ShoBud through it, but sounds terrible for a mica/aluminum guitar.

However, for lap steel, Hawaiian music in particular, a smaller speaker can actually be more desirable. It depends on the amplifier and the setting. For the beach a MicroCube is perfect. At this point in my personal experience with amps, I'd recommend a Peavey Nashville 112 for pedal steel (but not for large performances). If you can afford an Evans, then I'd go with the Evans 15 inch speaker.

Gretsch G5222 Electromatic Compact Amplifier

Gretsch makes a very nice compact tube amp (model G5222) with 2-tubes inside for small gatherings or at home (but there are NO EFFECTS). So you need an external reverb pedal, like the BOSS Fender 1963 Reverb, et cetera. I prefer BOSS stomp pedals, like the DD-3 digital delay for pedal steel. Every pedal steel player should have a BOSS DD-3 delay pedal.

My preamp tube just went bad in my Gretsch unit and I bought a replacement set. My tubes are a 6V6GT (power tube) and a 12AX7WA (preamp tube). I only had the amp for a couple years. I've read that tubes go bad after a year of frequent use. So keep this in mind if you buy a tube amp, you'll likely have to replace the tubes over time. It is recommended that you ALWAYS replace the tubes as a set, to insure optimum sound. I think the tubes in my Fender Princeton Reverb are starting to go bad, because the amp makes strange crackling sounds.

Most Steel Players Don't Know How to Use Their Amplifier

Amps have an affect on tone, without a doubt; BUT the biggest setback that I've noticed is that most players don't know how to use an amplifier and don't get the tone from it that they could. In short, you'll get a better tone if you play louder and lay into your volume pedal. Don't be afraid to push the amp to its upper limit. It's just like a car. There's nothing worse for a car than to always drive it at 25 miles per hour and never take it out on the highway to push it to the limits that it was designed to operate. Cranking up the power burns the carbon build-up off your pistons and keeps an engine healthy. Letting your car sit at idle for extended periods of time will cause carbon to build-up in your engine's cylinders, leading to premature wear and a shortened engine life. I hate to see a 100 watt amp and someone never pushing it above 2 or 3 in volume. DON'T buy a big amp unless you are going to play for large crowds in noisy places.

At the same time, don't but too small an amp that won't give you the power you need to really get some nice low-end. For pedal steel guitar, you need at least a 10-inch speaker, no smaller. The Roland MicroCube is great for Hawaiian at the beach; but it sounds terrible for pedal steel anywhere (because there's no mids or low-end). For pedal steel guitar you need a larger wattage amp (between 15 and 35 is fine for at home), and I'd go with at least a 12-inch, preferably a 15-inch speaker for warmth and low-end.

Both Lloyd Green and Jerry Byrd used a Fender Twin Reverb tube amp for professional work, with a 15" speaker. Personally, I like the Twin Reverb for Hawaiian, which I like more on the mellow side as did Jerry Byrd. I set my guitar's tone knob at about 3 all the time. However, for pedal steel guitar I did not like the Fender Twin Reverb at all because it was too dark, too muddy. Instead, I really like the brighter Fender Hot Rod Deville tube amp. Either the 410 or 212 amp is fine (that is, either four 10-inch speakers or two 12-inch speakers). I'd go with the two 12-inch speakers for low-end. There's a little button on the Fender Hot Rod Deville that says "HIGH," which if you press down while playing pedal steel guitar, you will thank me I guarantee you. Go down to your nearest GUITAR CENTER and try one out.

I hear a lot of hype about cables and signal loss, prompting many players to buy impedance-matching devices like the GOODRICH Match Box and the Sarno STEEL GUITAR BLACK BOX. My opinion is that they are a waste of money. As the late great Jeff Newman used to say, "You can't replace 5-years of experience on the steel guitar with a gimmick!" And as Jerry Byrd used to say, "There are no shortcuts!" The only way to learn to play the steel guitar is by determination and hard work.

Remember, Jerry Byrd said that talent is highly overrated because all the talent in the world means nothing if you have not desire. That is so true! Talent is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. So work hard and keep steeling!  

A 1950's advertisement for the Oahu Tonemaster. 
Like most of the Oahu amps it was also sold as Supro and National.

The best thing that you can do to enhance your tone is to record yourself playing and then listen to it. What do you hear? I won't mention his name, but a famous steel guitar player was performing in public and he was sold on "his setup," which he was marketing of course to make profits. He sounded terrible. His playing was fantastic, but he sounded like he was playing under a pile of leaves. His sound was so muddy and drowned out with special effects that I couldn't enjoy his music. It was a shame that such beautiful music was buried under all sorts of signal-processing garbage. He would have been much, much better off to simply plug directly into any plain amplifier.

I'd like to warn every steel player reading this... BEWARE OF OVER-PROCESSING YOUR GUITAR'S SIGNAL. A brighter tone is preferred over muddled, especially for Country music which is supposed to be cherry and bright. Guitar pickup are also varied and will sound different played through different amps and settings. The C6th neck is known for being more mellow and the pickups often have more windings, say 18K or 19K instead of 16K or 17K for the E9th neck. Some amateur players deliberately play with a lot of reverb and delay to hide their mistakes. Then again, Buck Grantham loves tons of reverb and he sounds GREAT! If you set your reverb high to sound like you're playing way in the background in a coliseum, then your mistakes won't be as obvious. But if you use little or no reverb and no delay, then every note that you play will be upfront and right in the ears of the listener.

Like cooking, making music is an art. There are so many factors and ingredients that go into a good recipe, and likewise into a good performance.

1947 single ended lap steel amp. 

If all you have is music, you have nothing! You need Jesus Christ as your personal Savior to truly be prosperous in life. You may be the poorest man in the world materialistically, but if you have received Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God; believing on His name to forgive your sins, then you are a rich soul indeed!

John 20:31, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”