Choosing The Right One For You
In the 1950s and 60s, pretty much everything ran on vacuum tubes. I remember as a kid when the tube inside the family TV set blew, and a week later we had a new one with a remote control. No more getting up to twist the knob around to find your channel. Or fighting with my sisters over *whose* job that was.
As technology moved from vacuum tubes to circuit boards, guitar amplifier construction followed. There were a lot of benefits to solid state construction, but many purists rejected them. If you're in the market for a new guitar amplifier, you're probably debating whether to go with a tube amp or a solid state one. There's pros and cons to both types, let's check out what they are.
Tube amps create the holy grail of guitar tones. Every classic guitar song, riff, or solo was more likely than not played through a tube amp. They also sound amazing. I can't explain the physics of how running the signal through a vacuum tube is different than sending it through a circuit board with microchips on it, but there is a marked difference in tone. In a blind 'taste test', 9 out of 10 listeners would choose the tube amp.
They are more warm and organic sounding, like how you can tell the difference between a photo taken with film vs a photo taken with a digital camera.
I'm thinking of listing examples of classic tube amp tones but it would be an exercise in futility. Every guitar tone you've heard on the radio or on your listening device was recorded on a tube amp, whereas I would have to do a Google search on memorable solid state tones.
Now, don't let my preference for tube amps sway you, because these tones do come at a cost, literally and figuratively.
They are more expensive. One would think the antiquated technology would be cheaper but in the case of guitar amplification that's not how it is. On top of of the initial cost, there's the cost of maintenance as well. As a working musician playing 3 nights a week, I would replace my power tubes every 6 months or so. You have to get to know the character of your amp and learn to hear when the tubes start to go. My Fender Deluxe Reverb has 6 other tubes which don't need to be replaced quite as often, but can cause similar symptoms to dying power tubes.
I carry fuses for both my amps in my gig bag at all times, because a blown fuse will put a show to an end. And good luck finding a hardware store that's open at 11pm on a Friday night. And if you're blowing tubes and fuses like crazy, that means it's going to be back in the shop again which means more cost.
You also have to baby these things. They need to be picked up, and put down, *gently*. They will get hot after being on for a while, and they need to cool down before being moved. On top of that, they're heavy, 50 pounds is light for a tube amp. Major moves in my life (Florida to Boston and then Boston to New York City) have resulted in my amps being in the shop for major repairs. Even in the front of the uhaul where it's less bumpy is still too bumpy for a tube amp.
The nature of the vacuum tube technology is that these things sound better when they're cranked louder. The technology has improved where you don't need to put every knob on 10 like Hendrix did, but there is a delicate balancing act. You want to sound good, but you don't want to piss off your bandmates, the audience, and the club owner. And that balance is effected by the room and how many people are in it (so, it's different not only in every club, but at various points through the night as well).
Cranking up a tube amp and leaving it on for a while does give off a distinct smell. The smell of a hot tube amp is magical though, which reminds me how knowing the 'good smell' vs the 'bad smell' is important for troubleshooting problems.
As a working musician in NYC, the majority of clubs have backline amplifiers, meaning I don't have to schlep 100lbs of gear on the subway! The amps are typically poorly maintained tube amps (keep in mind they're on at least 4 hours a night, 7 nights a week) or solid state.
Solid state is a great option to have, for a lot of reasons.
Solid State Amps
Solid state amps are cheaper, much cheaper. The Fender Twin Reverb retails at just around a grand, whereas the Mustang 4-- a similar 2x12 150 watt (the Twin is 100 watts) solid state amp by Fender-- retails at about $350 brand new.
The modern solid state amps also have modeling channels where you can dial in (nowadays often by downloading presets and importing them into the amp by a USB cable) classic tones and also manipulate them, and then save them for future use. If you are looking for a specific tone you never have to look again, press a button and now you always have it. The only limits are really how much storage you plan on using.
As far as long term costs, there are little to none. They don't have parts that wear out and need replacement, they were designed to compete with tube amps in this exact way. They're heartier too, they can take a beating, they don't need to cool down before you move them. Throw em down the stairs so you don't have to carry it.
Don't do that.
But you wouldn't need to because they're so light. The Twin Reverb weighs 75 pounds, the Mustang 47. Other 2x12 tube amp combos can weigh up to and more than 100.
Sure, they're lighter. You can get tons of sounds nowadays too. They sound like garbage. Plastic-y. Imagine pouring your favorite beer into a frosty mug, or dumping it lukewarm into a plastic cup. Remember the digital vs analog camera reference I made earlier? There are some very high end digital cameras where a trained eye can't tell the difference between the digital vs analog photos. A company called Quilter is making very light amps (20lbs, 100 watts) that supposedly sound just as good as a tube amp, which i will believe when I do A-B comparisons with them and my amps. I can immediately hear if a player is using a solid state amp, because in all reality it's fairly uncommon.
For beginner, intermediate, and even advanced players, they're fine. I own 2 solid state practice amps so I'm not always putting wear and tear on my tube amps. I think it's one of those things that boils down to personal preference, but once you're really listening closely, and are willing to make the investment; your ears tell you what sounds better. Tubes.
As guitarists move into the professional level, the transition to tube amps is typically made. Solid state amps have been around since the 70s, and although the technology has improved drastically since then, there's a reason most people who play even on a semi-professional level ('my band with my buddies rehearses once a week and does a show once a month') by and large use tube amps.
Adam Douglass has been playing guitar for 25 years and teaching for a good 20. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he is an instructor; and plays with his band doing his original music, jazz standards, or whatever other gigs might come his way. His guitar of choice is the Fender Stratocaster, though if money were no object he'd have 3 or 4 of everything. He prefers tube screamer-like overdrives and clean boosts, with touch of analog delay. Hit him up at firstname.lastname@example.org, as he is always happy to discuss interesting topics.