Do Backlines Matter Anymore?

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By Marc Johnson

The mighty backline.

It used to be where most kids get inspired to check out new gear. But, times are changing. Used to be that you would go to a show, and you would find one brand of amp stacked across the backline of the entire stage. Whether it was a wall of Marshall or Mesa Boogie, one name is usually all that you saw. Now, backlines are starting to become peppered with a slew of different brands. Engl, Blackstar, Jet City, Orange, Bugera, DIEZEL, Diamond, and Peavey, all seem to be joining the party that used to be exclusive to Marshall or Mesa Boogie. Why the change? Have Marshall and Mesa lost their foothold? Or are players moving beyond the ubiquity of a solid backline into an era of variety?

When I asked a few friends of TTK about the disappearance of the Marshall and Mesa backlines, most pointed out that these companies have lost their way. Some said that Mesa is just too expensive while others said that Marshall never comes up with anything new. While we at TTK love our JCM 900’s and our Dual Rectifiers, there definitely has been new blood out there stirring things up with some cutting-edge quality gear, and you won’t have to sell your first-born to pay for it.

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One place a lot of gigging musicians are moving to is the world of micro-tube amps. We even did a write up letting you know TTK’s top five favorites. http://thetoneking.com/wp/mini-me-thetoneking-com-talks-micro-tube-amps/

Orange Amps has been on the frontlines with micro-tube amps with their Tiny Terror series for years now. With Orange’s unique British tone – It doesn’t sound like a Marshall! – the Tiny Terror packed a ton of tone into a little box. Easy to lug around, and you don’t have to burn the eardrums of everyone in the club just to get your sound. A perfect combination for the gigging musician.

Mesa Boogie released a version of a micro-tube amp called the Mini-Rectifier. And, it’s an amazing amp – In fact, it made our top five! -  But it hasn’t seen the popularity of the Tiny Terror. It’s a bit of a mystery to us as to why. It’s a two-channel head that is comparable in price to the two-channel version of the Tiny Terror. And frankly the Mini-Rectifier has more tone options, but Mesa Boogie’s delineation as an expensive amp manufacturer seems to follow them wherever they go.

Marshall did their own spin on a micro-tube amp for their 50th Anniversary. The JTM, JMP, JCM, DSL, and JVM series are all present and accounted for in 1-Watt all tube heads and combos. What’s cool is that they actually sound like their big brothers. They’re not that pricey, but they don’t seem to be catching on. Granted, they are a limited run, but it seems that these would be a bigger deal.

Now a name that has come up a lot lately is Blackstar amps. At TheToneKing.com, we’ve been familiar with Blackstar amps for years. http://thetoneking.com/wp/blackstar-amps-the-new-marshall/

And, bands seem to be catching on to them, too. Their artist roster will make your head spin with everyone from the four corners of rock from old-school players like Gus G. and Richie Sambora to new blood bands like Bring Me the Horizon and Periphery. That’s a lot of different sounds to squeeze out of one company.

DIEZEL is another amp that’s starting to turn up on a lot of arena stages. Alter Bridge, Mastodon, and Slipknot are just a few of the bands using them. Even James Hetfield of Metallica has been known to use DIEZEL amps, and he used to be exclusively Mesa Boogie. Now, I get that some guys like Hetfield are using both DIEZEL and Mesa Boogie, as well as a whole host of other shit, but the point remains: They’re not exclusively using one brand.

And that brings me to my biggest point.

While Blackstar and Diezel are examples of amp companies that some say are capable of pulling the thrones out from under Marshall or Mesa, the landscape has been peppered with a variety of other brands that, while they will probably never be as ubiquitous as Marshall or Mesa, are still making their mark. Peavey’s been kicking all sorts of ass with the metal market lately with their 6505 series and bands like Black Veil Brides, Trivium, and Bullet For My Valentine. Jet City has been toting bands like Avenged Sevenfold, and Diamond Amps has been able to lure bands like Godsmack and Five Finger Death Punch into their roster.

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One of the reasons that bands are moving away from the one amp backline is because of the simple notion of variety. As players begin to experiment more and more with different tones, they have to turn to different amps to get the sounds that they’re looking for. If you want a vintage bluesy growl, a Dual Rectifier is not going to be your go-to amp.

Then there’s simple economics.

During the glory days of rock guitar heroes, manufacturers would throw extravagant endorsement deals at players, which usually included free gear. Those days are, for the most part, long over. Although players will get a significant discount on gear, only a select few are getting anything for free. So, why would a band compromise their sound for only a few bucks off of the sticker price? And, it’s a lot harder to get exclusivity to that artist without promising them as much free gear as they want. Now, a manufacturer can put an artist on their roster if they give them discounted gear, but don’t be surprised if you see that artist on competitor’s site endorsing another piece of gear. Hell, James uses Mesa Boogie, DIEZEL, Roland, and Blackstar. And, those are just his amps!

There are a few bands that are still brandishing the mighty backlines of yesterday, but they are a dying breed. We saw Slayer recently and they stacked their Marshalls in a brutally demonic display that only Slayer can pull off! Will the backlines return just with different names? Or, will they just disappear altogether to be replaced with a variety of different amps that will satisfy player’s increasing need for more tone? We here at TheToneKing.com will keep our eyes out, and make sure you let us know what you think might’ve happened to the once mighty backline.

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About the Author: Marc published his first novel Becoming in 2010. It’s a kick-ass book with monsters and dreams and stuff, and you should buy it. Since then, he’s written thousands of articles for TheToneKing.com, many of which have been picked up for circulation by manufacturers and other news outlets. His next book, Drugs and Pancakes, should be available early 2014 if his alcoholic editor can find time to work on it in-between destroying his liver and screaming about punctuation. He graduated from Roosevelt University with honors, which means that he’s not as dumb as he looks. He’s been playing guitar for over 25 years, which is almost twice as long as most of his students have been alive.

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  1. m8r says:

    I think the reason Mesa’s Mini-Rectifier hasn’t had the kind of success the Tiny Terror has is largely down to marketing. I see ads for Orange amplifiers EVERYWHERE. Stores like Sweetwater, and Musician’s Friend are always sending me sales fliers for Orange. Mesa seems to be playing hide-and-seek by contrast…

  2. DR KRunk says:

    Massive backlines don’t make any sense today. For one thing there’s no reason to project that much sound from the stage when PA systems are exponentially more powerful and capable than in the past… and for another the goal should be to keep the stage volume as low as possible, not as loud as possible. I like Rush’s approach – replace the backline with chicken cookers, washing machines, and old TV sets.

  3. Joe Stopka says:

    Hey Marc

    What about the great professional tone available from the the very cost effective line of Jet City Amps? There are a lot of pro players out there using JCA100′s and 50′s. And look at the behemoth touring rig Joe Perry lugs with Aerosmith and you see the little JCA20H 20 watt head in the mix. He uses it exclusively on his talk bag.

    Zacky Vengeance with Avenged Sevenfold is using the Jet City JCA100′s (stock – no mods). That is a head that most people can buy for less than $800 and you get the full Soldano tone that tone snobs pay many thousands of dollars to a enjoy. So, my vote and thousands of other Jet Citizens, vote on Jet City Amps.

  4. Javier Barrientos says:

    While back in the day we loved to see stacks of walls nowadays there is only one full stack or a couple of half stacks of different brands… a lot had to do with the fact of digital era, many guys just plug into an Axe Fx, power amp and a 4×12 cab and there is your rig… simple, reliable and versatile… while there is one who brings a 1×12 tube amp with lots of stomps… either way is the easiest way to go… last month i saw Dream Theater and they had an issue with their backline what did they do… easy… put three Mark V for show off and connect the rack of mr John… a couple of guitars and there is your show… and it sound it like heaven…
    also remember the entrance of in-ear monitors… now there is more space for scenography… etc
    my two cents

  5. trushack says:

    I’ve actually been to very few shows that have what might be considered a typical backline, but that’s probably a symptom of the types of shows I go see. Most of the shows I go to are in clubs that hold between 200 and 500+ people where a quad of Marshall stacks just aren’t required; it’s usually a couple of combo amps (mostly Vox and Fender, with a couple of boutique brands thrown in). The last real stadium-size backline I can remember seeing was Brad Paisley’s wall of Dr. Z amps (most of which are dummy cabs). I also saw Isis a couple years back; each guitarist was playing through one Fryette stack (and it sounded unreal!)

    I fully expect that when I see Dinosaur Jr. tomorrow night in D.C., there will be at least two Marshall stacks running (but probably no more than that, the venue stage isn’t that big!), just like the last time I saw them :)

  6. Jackson Lewis says:

    i think it shows that musicians are going towards tone instead of just free stuff or getting money for using a product. its like how even guitar endorsement deals are allowing more flexibility yes i love my jacksons but hey its nice to throw a fender or gibson on for a difference now and then.

  7. In addition to cost there also is set-up time if you are a gigging local band. My band does go play with our backline that we have collected over the years, and while I think it looks impressive it does take some time to set up. On the plus side we are able to split our cabinets to use as stage monitors for the guitars. You never know what kind of sound people you have so we try to controll what we can.

  8. Deneteus says:

    This subject comes up alot when talking about Brand Support. It all boils down to cost these days. Most people would love to have a wall of amps behind them. They do make false fronts ya know!

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