Tube Amps VS Solid State Amps – How To Choose!

In all of guitardom, there are few arguments as polarizing as tube vs. solid state. Some players won’t ever settle for less than the authentic, organic warmth of a tube tone, while others prefer the practicality and reliability of the more modern solid state amp. Like so many other debates surrounding guitars and gear, we find that personal preference is often the deciding factor.

Tube and solid-state amps are two of the most popular kinds of amps available. In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be looking at both kinds, not necessarily to tell you which is best, but mainly to help you figure out which is best for you!

So, if you want to know more about the differences between the two, read on. 

History and Evolution

Interestingly, guitar amplifiers actually predate the electric guitar as we know it today. They were invented in 1931 by George Beauchamp for the purpose of increasing the volume of Hawaiian guitars. This first design used single ended triodes, components we generally refer to as vacuum tubes, or valves.

With time, these tube amplifiers evolved into the fire breathing tube monsters used by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Slash. When pushed hard, these tube amps distorted into an ear pleasing overdrive that made them popular with rock and blues artists throughout the mid 20th century, right through to today.

However, in the 1960s, an upstart technology came to be that almost threatened the very existence of the tube amp – the transistor. Transistors made solid state amplification possible, and solid state amplification required less maintenance, was generally harder wearing, and was way more efficient in terms of power.

How They Work: Tube Amps

6L6 vs 6V6

Tube amps have been used by many musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jeff Beck, and significantly contributed to their sounds. Although they can be more expensive than other types of amps, musicians continue to use them today because of their gorgeous organic tone.

In the most basic terms, a tube amp makes use of vacuum tubes to amplify sound. The tubes contain a cathode, which is heated by a filament. This filament is what causes the glow you get from a warmed up tube amp. The heating of the cathode gives off negative electrons which make their way towards a positively charged anode, and this causes the flow of an electrical current. Making small adjustments to the current can significantly increase the amplitude of the input signal, and can result in huge power.

A crucial aspect of tube amp design and setup is biasing. Proper biasing ensures that the tube operates at its optimal point, balancing both tone and the longevity of the tubes themselves. Improper biasing will lead to a weak sound, and can drastically reduce the lifespan of the vacuum tubes.

How They Work: Solid-State Amps

Fender Champion 20
Fender Champion 20

The popularity of tube amps dwindled in the 1970s as solid-state amplifiers were introduced to the market. Unlike valve-powered tube amps, these use a circuit board for the amplification of sounds.

Solid state amplifiers make use of transistors to amplify the guitar’s signal. Unlike the analog vacuum tube, a transistor is a semiconductor, and offers efficient power, and consistent tone across the life of the amp. 

The transistors convert the electric input signal to an audio wave, which is processed and played through the speaker. They offer clean, clear, and precise tones, with less tendency to distort with increased volume. This makes them a favorite amongst players who use a lot of pedals, or who require tonal accuracy from their guitar.

In contrast to the regular maintenance required on tube amps, solid-state amps require minimal maintenance, which is a testament to their rugged design.

Tube vs. Solid State: Pros and Cons

Regardless of which amp type has been your preference to date you really do need to look at the pros and cons of both tube and solid state technologies before making a decision.

Pros Of Tube Amps:

  • Tube amps are dynamic and they respond to your playing. Although subtle, the vacuum tubes react differently to different types of playing. So if you are plugged into a tube amp, it will add nuances to your playing without relying on effects pedals. It will be on the clean spectrum when you play softly but the louder you get, the more overdrive will be added to your tone.
  • They sound warmer than solid-state amps. Tube amps have a natural richness that is extremely difficult to replicate, even with pedals and modeling technology.

Cons Of Tube Amps:

  • They are expensive. When compared to solid-state or any other kind of amp, tube amps cost a lot more. While $250 can get you a high-quality but low-wattage amp, you will also need to shell out more for maintenance later on. 
  • They need time to warm up. Most tube amps need at least 30 minutes to warm up before you can get your ideal tone. So this means that if you have finished your soundcheck in a hurry and left your amp on, your tone is likely to change when you play your gig a few hours later. While this is not a major disadvantage for most, tube amps are not quite as plug-and-play as solid state models.

Pros of Solid-State Amps:

  • They are comparatively inexpensive. While we explained how expensive tube amps are earlier, you can get several good-quality solid-state amps if you’re on a budget. With less money, you can get more power, so if you’re looking to start gigging as soon as possible and funds are tight, you might want to opt for a solid state model. 
  • They are durable and reliable. Since they use circuitry instead of valves, you don’t have to worry about breakage and eventual replacement when it comes to solid-state amps. This also makes them more ideal for less experienced players who might not recognize the signs of failing tubes.
  • Modeling tech has come a long way. We mentioned above that it’s extremely difficult to replicate tube tone, but we didn’t say it’s impossible. Quality solid state amps often have built in models of famous tube amps, and many are so close, tonally speaking, that the average person couldn’t tell you the difference.

Cons of Solid-State Amps:

  • They lack warmth. While these have more headroom than tube amps, effects such as overdrive and distortion often sound unnatural on a solid-state amp. This is why most musicians who play heavier genres such as rock and metal gravitate toward tube amps.
  • They are not as responsive as tube amps. The touch sensitivity and dynamic response of tube amps makes them incredibly versatile in the hands of an experienced player. Solid state amps can’t come close to matching these dynamics, so even advanced players may struggle to achieve their full potential.

Price and Experimentation

No matter where you sit on tone and features, one thing you won’t get away from is price. At the entry level, solid state amps tend to be more affordable, although by time you hit the $250 to $300 price point, you can start getting into some giggable tube amps.

It’s worth noting that as technology gets better, the price of modeling amps is sharply dropping. The Boss Katana series has become one of the most popular in the world, thanks to the incredible features to price ratio. 

As mentioned earlier, solid state amps do tend to offer more power per dollar, but there’s no escaping the beautiful organic sound quality of a tube amp. For some this may justify the additional cost. The other thing to consider is that a 50 watt tube amp offers equivalent volume performance to a 100-120 watt solid state amp.

Resale value is a factor to consider, too. Most tube amps tend to hold value better than solid state, so if you’re someone who regularly buys and sells gear, you might lose less to depreciation if you go with tube amps. In terms of long term value, it is still important to consider the fact that tube amps require ongoing maintenance, including new tubes, which depending on how many you need (and what kind) can be both expensive, and difficult to find.

Preamp vs. Power Amp

The majority of guitar amplifiers actually contain 2 amplifiers, a preamp, and a power amp. Understanding the difference is important as the technology used on any given amp in either section plays a big role in the overall sound. 

It all starts at the preamp – this is the point at which the low voltage electrical signal leaves your instrument cable and enters the amp. On tube amps you’ll find the smaller tubes in this section – this is where the warmth and richness comes from. The preamp is also where the sound shaping controls are found, including the bass, middle and treble EQ controls, as well as the gain.

Solid state amps are also equipped with preamps, again containing EQ and gain. The electronic aspect of a solid state preamp is what ultimately dictates the type of sound it produces. A Fender solid state amp will usually be designed with a cleaner preamp, whereas a Marshall solid state will be tweaked to try and replicate their signature British tone. Many modern solid state amps actually have preamps designed to mimic the tone and performance of a tube amp.

The other part of the equation is the power amp. The power amp’s job is to take the already shaped signal from the preamp stage, and amplify it to a level at which it can drive the speaker(s). The power stage is where an amp’s dynamic response is most evident. For example, nearly all tube amps have an incredibly varied touch sensitivity response, typically resulting in a nice clean tone when picked or played softly, even with tons of gain in the mix, and gritty overdrive when the amp is pushed with heavy strumming. 

Solid state power amps are getting much better at replicating tube dynamics, but many still struggle. This means that the overall response to input dynamics is much more linear, and subsequently, tonally consistent.

Sound Differences

The sound differences between tube amps and solid state amps are much more complex than “one is warm and organic, the other is clean and detailed”. For example, tube amps have a natural compression, a phenomenon whereby they don’t just get louder with more volume, but also start to compress the sound, resulting in a smoother saturated tone. It’s this organic character that makes tube amps so popular for rock and blues.

The amount of clean headroom is another big difference between tube and solid state amps. Clean headroom is the measure of how loud an amp can get before it starts breaking up and distorting. The configuration of tubes in any given amp dictates its ability to retain clean headroom. Solid state amps typically have far greater clean headroom than any tube amp.

Advanced Features

One of the main draws to tube amps for many players is the ear pleasing break up they achieve with overdriven tubes. The downside is that these amps need to be pushed hard with gain and volume to achieve this, and tube amps, even those with modest wattage ratings, can be extremely loud.

To remedy this, there are now tube amps with built in attenuators, sometimes known as power scaling features, that allow players to reduce the output power from whatever the max rating is, to as little as 0.1 watts in many cases, allowing you to get authentic tube overdrive from saturated vacuum tubes at practical bedroom volume levels.

Price and Experimentation

No matter where you sit on tone and features, one thing you won’t get away from is price. At the entry level, solid state amps are more affordable, although by time you hit the $250 to $300 price point, you can start getting into some giggable tube amps.

As mentioned earlier, solid state amps do tend to offer more power per dollar, but there’s no escaping the beautiful organic sound quality of a tube amp. For some this may justify the additional cost. The other thing to consider is that a 50 watt tube amp offers equivalent volume performance to a 100-120 watt solid state amp.

In terms of long term value, it is important to consider the fact that tube amps require ongoing maintenance, including new tubes, which depending on how many you need (and what kind) can be both expensive, and difficult to find.

Applications and Use Cases

Different amplifiers will do best in different scenarios, and learning what the best applications for each type will definitely help you in your decision.

Studio Recording

The warm, organic tones of tube amps make them incredibly popular in studio settings, especially in low to moderate wattages. This allows them to capture the nuances of both the guitar and the player.

Live Performances

Tube amps are still popular with live players, but digital rigs and modeling amps are rapidly becoming the most popular option due to reduced size and weight, improved tone, and their excellent consistency and reliability. 

Practice Sessions

For at home practice, nothing beats a small solid state amp. They’re affordable, lightweight, compact, and some of these basic amps sound incredible. If you insist on a tube amp for practice, be sure to look for one with attenuation or power scaling. 

Examples of Tube Amps:

  • Marshall JCM800 Series: These were first manufactured in 1965 and featured EL34 valves which gave it more gain stages. From Buddy Guy to Tom Morello, many famous guitar players have sworn by the JCM series, which remains one of Marshall’s most popular products.
  • Vox AC30: Developed in 1958, the Vox AC30 was used by British musicians such as Brian May, George Harrison, Noel Gallagher, and The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman. Unlike the overdriven sound of the Marshall, these have a “jangly” sound that emphasizes the high-end.
  • Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier: Known for its high gain and distortion, the Dual Rectifier has been a constant in the rigs of bands such as System Of A Down, Dream Theater, and Metallica. Many musicians such as Dave Grohl prefer using a combination of the Dual Rectifier for his overdrive/distortion tones with an amp such as the Vox AC30 for clean tones.

Examples of Solid-State Amps:

  • Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb: Fender amps have been known for their iconic reverb and vibrato, as seen in the likes of their tube amps. While the Deluxe Reverb was used extensively by the Beatles in the 1960s, the Tone Master Deluxe Reverb is favored by many blues and country musicians today because it features the same tonal qualities. It is lightweight and great for practice as well as gigs. 
  • Roland Jazz Chorus JC120: One of the most popular amps in the 1970s and 80s, the Jazz Chorus is known for its built-in effects such as chorus, reverb, and vibrato. Andy Summers, Albert King, Genesis’ Steve Hackett, and Johnny Marr are some prominent users of this amp. 
  • Randall RG100ES: It is a common misconception that solid-state amplifiers are only good for clean tones. As proven by one of the heaviest guitarists in history, Dimebag Darrell and his iconic solid State Randall RG100ES.

Technological Advancements

While tube tech hasn’t advanced a great deal, solid state tech has drastically improved over the last 5 decades. Right now we’re seeing the age of digital modeling, technology that was once restricted to high end units like Kempers and Fractals, but now is being incorporated into even the most basic budget solid state amp models.

Not only that, but the responsiveness of solid state amps is getting far better in terms of reaction of playing dynamics – although they still don’t match genuine tube amps.

Tube amps haven’t been completely left out of the technological advancements, though. Innovations in amp designs have increased their reliability by improving the biasing, which drastically improves reliability and tube lifespan.

Which One Is Better?

Tube Amp vs Solid State – What's the Difference?

Here are some factors you should consider before you decide:


As with any other purchase, one of the first things to look at is your budget. If money is not a problem, then it would be a good idea to invest in a tube amp. The sound of a tube amp is unparalleled and although they require maintenance, they are definitely worth the price.

If you’re trying to save some money, though, there are some great solid state amps out there that cost a fraction of tube amps. 


For those who enjoy playing heavier genres such as rock, metal, and punk, a tube amp is more likely to help you achieve your desired tone. You don’t have to worry about the amp not being able to handle the fuzz or distortion and you can easily plug in many effect pedals to your amp. 

If you are a jazz musician or prefer clean tones, then invest in a good solid-state amp. These amps work very well with time-based effects such as reverb and delay, and many have a host of in-built effects to choose from. 


There is a huge difference between playing music as a hobby and professionally. If you want an amp to practice on, or when you want to play for your friends and family, you don’t really need a tube amp.

If you’re a working musician, you may want to think about the weight of your amp. Tube amps are much heavier, and therefore harder to lug around, solid state amps are much lighter, and far easier to carry.

For recording artists, there’s no right option, it’s a good idea to have amps of different styles so that you can get a full spectrum of tones.

Environmental Impact

In an age where we’re all expected to be more cognizant of our environmental impact, it makes sense to consider this as a factor when choosing our gear. Here are a few points to think about when it comes to the sustainability of tube and solid state amps.

Tube amps are generally more power hungry because of the heating elements in the tubes themselves. This also makes them more costly to run. The vacuum tubes also need to be properly disposed of after you replace them, too, as many contain mercury and other toxic elements.

Solid state amps trump tube amps in terms of energy efficiency, resulting in a smaller overall carbon footprint. They have few, if any, consumable parts, too, meaning less waste is generated over the life of the amp – although, when solid state amps break down, they’re harder to fix, and the whole thing may end up in landfill rather than a few small parts.

Hybrid Amps

If you’re really stuck on choosing between solid state and tube amps, we may have a solution for you – hybrid amps. Hybrid amps are a true middle ground that bring users the best of both worlds. 

Hybrid amps tend to be built with a tube powered preamp, and a solid state power amp. This provides the richness and warmth normally associated with tube amps, while still remaining energy efficient and reliable.

Hybrid amps also often cost less than full tube amps, and fortunately need less maintenance, as the preamp tubes last much longer than power tubes. They offer excellent versatility and weigh far less than all tube models, making them much more practical for anybody who needs to lug their amp around. 
While hybrid amps offer many benefits, purists will often argue that they don’t really capture the same sound or feel as an all-tube amp, and solid-state fans will bemoan the reduced clarity.

Final Thoughts

As we’ve discussed at length, whether solid-state or tube amps are best really does depend on your personal preferences and needs. Both have distinct advantages and disadvantages, all of which must be carefully weighed before making a choice.

If you’re looking for a warm, rich, and organic tone, we’d recommend you look towards tube amps. They are more expensive, but they offer unparalleled touch response and dynamics.

For anybody looking for a lightweight, reliable amp with excellent clarity and consistent tone, check out some solid state amp options. There are models to suit literally every budget, and they are extremely user friendly.

Finally, if you’re sitting on the fence, consider a hybrid amp. These amps feature tube-driven preamps and solid-state power amps, resulting in a blend of warm tone with consistent response and improved reliability over all tube models.

  • Suyasha Sengupta

    Suyasha Sengupta is a writer, singer, songwriter, and music producer from India. Following the break up of her band The Ganesh Talkies, she currently makes music under the moniker 'Plastic Parvati' and uses her platform to discuss issues such as politics, rights, and gender in India. Her articles have appeared in, among other outlets, Rolling Stone India.