The Ubiquitous Mediocre Amps of the ’90s

As the year ends and I move one step closer to the reaper’s creeping scythe, it’s often that I start to get nostalgic for the gear of years past. Most of it wasn’t very good, mind you. The 90’s were kind of a dark time for high-gain amplifiers, for instance. They really shouldn’t have been, since a lot of the current staples like the 5150 and Dual Rectifier were released in that timeframe (fine.. the Recto came out in ’89, but close enough).


But for whatever reason, we played a lot of junk gear back in those days. A lot of it was budgets. If you didn’t have the money for a Mesa or some ultra expensive VHT Pitbull or Bogner Uberschall then pickings were slim. It took a while for everyone to realize that the surprisingly cheap Peavey amp with Van Halen’s name on it actually ruled for metal.

What did you see at shows back in the day? Not the national touring bands, but smaller shows, VFW halls, places your band might actually play? Or in hourly rehearsal rental rooms? A lot of solid-state heads, for the most part. Like I said, dark times.


Ampeg VH140C

To me, nothing says “90s metal and hardcore” like the Ampeg Vh140C. They were inexpensive, power chords sounded heavy through them, and they were scooped as all hell. Still, out of all the solid state amps on this list, this Ampeg is the only one that I occasionally search eBay or Craigslist for, hoping to find one on the cheap. Sometimes you just want to drop D and remember the times you almost got your ass kicked by a bunch of dudes in camouflage pants.

crate excalibur

Crate Excalibur

On the other end of the spectrum is this horror show of an amp. If you saw a band rocking one of these gems you knew you were in for some shitty down-tempo death metal. I almost included Crate’s other ’90s stinker on this list, the Blue Voodoo, but I never knew anyone who actually owned one, enticing Marty Friedman ads notwithstanding.


Digitech processor into some random head or power amp

For the bands that needed all the fuzzy am-radio awesomeness of ’90s multi-effects distortion, but also would settle for no less than the exact Metallica chorus-delay “Sanitarium” clean tone at the touch of a button. Bonus points if the power section was a bass head like in the above picture, because that was my guitar rig for a year back then, except my Digitech was an RP-10 floor board into a Sunn Colosseum bass amp (which actually ruled for bass, but for guitar… not so much).


Marshall Valvestate

The Marshall everyone owned, because it was the only one they could afford. It had a pretty tight, cool sound until you brought in the rest of the band and you realize the absolute lack of midrange. I think it jumps from 400hz straight to 1k. Somehow Meshuggah made these sound good. I saw them in 1998 at Coney Island High (the second Meshuggah show ever in the U.S., and Candiria and Dillinger Escape Plan opened), and they were rocking the slightly less common 8200 version with 20 more watts and built-in chorus. Only God-kings of Swedish metal could get any tone out of such an amp. It’s still unclear if this was the amp used on Destroy Erase Improve, though. Fredrick Thordendal also owned Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and .22 Caliber amps at the time.

marshall jcm 900

Marshall JCM 900

The Mashall JCM 800 is one of the greatest rock and roll amps ever made, or one of the greatest metal amps if you have the right boost pedal or mod. Somewhere along the line, one of Marshall’s engineers decided to make a very similar amp, and then remove all the warmth, punch, and power. And lo, the JCM 900 was created. I think every rehearsal studio in New Jersey had at least five of these, and each one was some kind of busted. You’d get excited for a second that they actually had a couple tube amps, but it would always be this sad box, or Ampeg’s old Lee Jackson amp.

sovtek mig 50

Sovtek Mig 50/60/100

You know what? I’d totally rock one of these guys now. They never sounded amazing, but they killed every other cheapo amp on this list, and at least they had volume and character. I’m surprised more bands in the doom/stoner scene don’t have a Sovtek Mig mixed into their towers of Sunn and Hiwatt heads.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.