I recently published a series of posts detailing my effort to turn a budget Squier Affinity Tele into a respectable travel guitar. I’ve taken that instrument on several trips now, and am happy to say it’s admirably serving the cause. On my first trip, I hauled the instrument sans amplification. While the guitar resonates loudly enough to practice acoustically, I was soon pining for more righteous amplified tones. Thankfully, there are no shortage of affordable headphone amps on the current market, a far cry from the time when your only option was the venerable Tom Scholz Rockman.
As a guitarist, I tend to rely on only a handful of tube amp tones – clean, mildly overdriven, and a little more overdriven. I also occasionally enjoy a mellower clean tone for jazz. This initially led me to the Vox Amplug. The device is delightfully simple – a small analog (!) box that plugs into your guitar’s output jack. It includes a headphone output and an aux-in allowing you to pipe in your iPod or Band-in-a-Box via laptop. The Amplug is offered in multiple flavors, including “Twin” (i.e. Fender), “Classic Rock” (Marshall), and “Lead” (Mesa Boogie). Given that this is Vox, I opted for the AC-30 variant.
Plugged in to my Telecaster and a set of Samson studio monitor headphones, the Amplug AC-30 is a fun little device that fairly convincingly replicates the real tube amp’s vibe. It has three controls for gain, tone, and master volume. With the gain set low and the master up, you get classic chimey Vox clean tones. Crank up the gain, and the sounds goes from mild overdrive to Brian May crunch. Rolling back the guitar’s volume control cleans up the tone, just like a real tube amp. Admittedly, the Amplug is no substitute for a Class-A amp on 10, but it covers the bases for late night hotel room jam sessions.
As fun as I found the Amplug AC-30, it is something of a one-trick pony. It gets the job done for blues, classic rock, and country, but without much in the way of options. The tone control – while suitably Vox inspired – leaves much to be desired. Even at it’s lowest setting, there’s still an excess of treble that can be a little overwhelming – especially with single-coil pickups. This was particularly a detriment in trying to coax a decent jazz tone from the little box. It simply can’t be done without resorting to the guitar’s tone control, resulting in subpar muddiness.
Shortly after picking up the Vox, I came upon a used Line 6 Pocket POD at Music Go Round, the go-to guitar shop in my hometown of Albuquerque. The used price was only a little more than the new Amplug, so I bit the bullet for comparison’s sake.
The Pocket POD is the polar opposite of the Amplug AC-30, a digital little-bit-of-everything processor that models a familiar collection of classic American, British, and boutique amps. It also adds effects like reverb, delay, and chorus, with plenty of tweakability. Like the Amplug, it offers an aux-in, as well as 1/4″ ins and outs. It also has a USB connection allowing the user to adjust settings on their computer. I haven’t tested out this option yet, but I can see the advantage of using an external interface, given the limited controls available on the cramped face of the POD. The controls – particularly the four-way patch selector button – take some getting used to and are not quite as intuitive as those on the Pocket POD’s full-size, fuller-featured brother.
Once I got used to the interface, it was fairly easy to call up a variety of well-modeled tones. The device includes a large number of preset options, including tones supposedly programmed by well-known recording artists. Unfortunately, there isn’t much musical diversity in the artists represented, which skew in the direction of alternative pop rock and nu-metal. That said, there are also a list of song-inspired presets that offer significantly more variety. In particular, I enjoyed the Fender tweed-inspired “Brown Sugar” and mellower vintage jazz “Four on Six” options. Users can also program and save their own unique presets.
It’s difficult to directly compare the Pocket POD and Amplug – they fill very different niches. Not surprisingly, I found that the POD’s realistic amp tones and tweakability make it a far more versatile device, albeit at greater cost in terms of both price tag and complexity. As a practice tool, the one major missing element is rhythm accompaniment, a feature offered most notably in Korg’s (slightly cheaper) Pandora series of effects processors. Devices like the Pocket POD also face stiff competition from cheaper, full-featured apps that can be downloaded onto phones, like Apple’s popular GarageBand. Personally, I like having a separate platform, but I can definitely see the appeal in not having to pack an additional electronic device.
At the end of the day, it’s nice to have options, and there are plenty out there for the traveling guitarist. At this point, the only feeble excuses I now have for not being well-practiced are lost luggage and jet lag (preferably the latter).