A ‘tube amp’ uses valves or vacuum tubes to amplify the sound whereas a ‘solid-state’ amp uses transistor circuits to convert the electrical signal to an audio wave, which is then amplified.
You may have heard guitar players use the word ‘amp’ casually in conversation when they are talking about gear or sound, but have you ever wondered what an amplifier really is and how one works?
An ‘amplifier’ takes the electrical signal from the pickup of an instrument and strengthens it so the sound can be heard louder through speakers. This is why we need one when playing an instrument such as the electric guitar, which does not produce an audible enough sound without any amplification.
Amps can be of different types. Tube amps and solid-state ones are two of the most popular kinds of amps available. So if you want to know more about the differences between the two and which one is better, read on to find out more. Also, read this if you want to know more about modeling amps.
- What Is An Amp?
- Tube Amps
- Solid-State Amps
- Which One Is Better?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Thoughts on Tube Amps VS Solid State Amps
What Is An Amp?
Amplifiers generally house two circuits houses in them. The first one is known as the ‘preamplifier’ or preamp. This boosts the level of the audio signal to drive it to the next stage and also has tone-shaping controls such as treble, mid, and bass. The design and parameters of these controls can vary, depending on the model of the amp.
The next stage is called the ‘power amplifier’. The poweramp is responsible for driving a high voltage signal which can drive a loudspeaker to produce sound.
If you are unfamiliar with what the different components of an amp are, you can read our extensive guide on everything you need to know about them here.
Amps come in various sizes and at different prices. The most common types of amps are ‘tube’, ‘solid-state’, ‘hybrid’, ‘modeling’, and ‘acoustic’. We will now look into the first two in detail.
Also known as ‘valve amps’, tube amps use vacuum tubes to increase the amplitude (power) of an electrical signal. These amps grew in popularity in the 1960s not just for their volume but also for the tone they produced. When turned up to the loudest setting, these amps create a large amount of electrical feedback. This results in distortion in the audio signal and adds an overdrive tone to the sound.
Tube amps have been used by many musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaugh, Jeff Beck, etc, and have had a significant contribution to their signature sound. Although they are significantly more expensive than other types of amps, musicians continue to use them today because of the tonal element tube amps adds to their sound.
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.
Advantages 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. While you can plug effects pedals into solid-state amps to recreate the tone of a tube amp, it will not be as natural sounding. The sound quality of a tube amp is very difficult to surpass.
Disadvantages 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 for plug-and-play.
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. The name ‘solid-state’ comes from the semiconductors used in their circuitry.
Solid-state amps tend to have a more piercing, brighter sound. They are also able to produce clear signals at a large bandwidth. When plugged in, solid-state amps do not pick up signals from any other source but the input sound.
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 favoured 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.
- Orange Crush Pro 120: It is a common misconception that solid-state amplifiers are only good for clean tones. Orange’s Crush series proves this stereotype wrong. From Stevie Wonder to Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser, the iconic Orange amps have been used by many musicians over the decades.
Advantages of Solid-State Amps:
- They are 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. Some brands such as Blackstar, Boss, Line-6, Roland, etc make affordable amps.
- 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 touring bands and musicians.
Disadvantages 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 versatile as tube amps. Because they are not dynamic, solid-state amps are often used by bass and keyboard players more than guitar players.
Which One Is Better?
Here are some factors you should consider before you decide to buy one of them:
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.
However, if you don’t want to spend all your money on just an amp, then there are many solid-state ones you can choose from. These need very basic maintenance and you don’t have to worry about shelling out extra for repairs later on.
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. While they can’t handle a heavy amount of distortion, they work well with time-based effects such as reverb and delay. Many solid-state amps today have a host of in-built effects to choose from as well.
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 need an expensive tube amp.
Professionally, if you tour or travel a lot then you can’t an amp that is not fragile and won’t break easily. For session musicians, you need an amp that doesn’t have too much character and can easily fit into different molds. In such instances, a solid-state amp would be a better fit for you and your music.
For recording artists, a tube amp is ideal. They produce high-quality sound and you don’t have to worry about traveling with your amp and potentially causing breakage to the valves. Also, if you have a signature sound and need your amp to push your tone as much as possible, then invest in a tube amp.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a cabinet?
The ‘cabinet’ simply refers to the speakers of an amp. Some amps have heads and cabinets. While the head is the amp itself, it cannot produce sound on its own and needs to be connected to a cabinet to do so.
Can I mic an amp?
Yes. You can mic an amp by finding a sweet spot on its speakers and send this signal to the PA system/recording board.
What is an amp stack?
An amplifier head placed on top of a speaker or a set of speakers is known as a ‘stack’. A single amp head can be connected to multiple cabinets.
Final Thoughts on Tube Amps VS Solid State Amps
There isn’t a singular answer to the question ‘which one is better, tube or solid-state amp?’. As we have seen, they both have their set of advantages and disadvantages. A good amp can certainly elevate your playing but at the end of the day, being a good guitar player is literally in your hands. So no matter which amp you decide to buy, tube or solid-state, remember to invest in the most important thing: time spent practicing your instrument.