In the quest of achieving your signature tone, you will find the largest selection of sounds available to you is in the amplifier category. From tube guitar amps (or Valve amps) to solid state guitar amps and the hybrids in between, you’ll find hundreds of options. But what factors should you consider when shopping for the guitar amplifiers that will someday help rocket you to stardom? What separates a good guitar amp from a great guitar amp? The debate will always rage on over the better guitar amp signal path: Tube or Solid State? Both have advantages over the other, and I hope to summarize as much as possible here.
I tend to lean toward tube amps because of the more “natural” and “warm” guitar sounds they produce.Tube guitar amps have a long standing reputation for being the definitive guitar sound. The first amplifiers built specifically for guitar were all tube and are still highly sought after today. Most of what makes the classic tube guitar amp sound is hard to define in simple terms. Many describe the overall sound as “warm” because of the softer highs & mids mixed with solid bass response. They also have a tendency to clip fairly easily, which became known as “overdrive”, and in today’s case, the almighty distortion. This occurs when the preamp or power amp stages are pushed beyond the normal signal level they are set to handle, thus overdriving the audio signal sent to the speakers and causing audio distortion in the speakers. As guitar amplifier building techniques improved over the years, so did the ability to utilize the speaker break up and distortion to create the signature electric guitar sound we know today. The tube amps being built today still use the same basic ideas, with much more technology incorporated to create massive amounts of overdrive capable of complete saturation (coloring the entire guitar tone with distortion at a steady level). Many companies make a wide variety of tube amps today for all applications, blues to metal, jazz to hard rock. In standard tube guitar amp discussion, two serious drawbacks commonly come up about all-tube amps:
- Tube amps are costly to maintain and to purchase compared to solid state amps.
- Tube amps aren’t as reliable as solid state amps under road conditions
Most of this is directly related to the tubes themselves. High manufacturing costs of tubes and their associated parts today keep the prices fairly high, but in most cases they’re not unobtainable. Mass production companies such as Carvin, Marshall, Krank, Peavey and Mesa/Boogie can keep prices between $850 and $2,000 on average. The higher end amplifiers such as Bogner, Diezel, VHT, Orange and Soldano can range from $2,500 to $10,000 depending on the model. But with tube guitar amps, I’ve never seen a case of not getting tone worthy of the price you pay for the amp.
Reliability complaints usually arise from first-hand experiences. I personally have yet to experience a massive tube amp failure (knock on wood) and I have owned several in my years of playing. They usually originate from over-heating issues, lack of general maintenance, or prematurely wearing out the tubes. Heat is going to occur in any tube amp because of the nature of the vacuum technology. But having your amp properly biased with each retubing (most recommend retubing at least once every 6-8 months under normal use, sometimes more) will help prevent overheating by ensuring the correct levels of voltage are being sent through the tubes. Under road or touring conditions, any amp can subject to pretty rough treatment. It is especially hard on tube amps because of the fragile materials used in the tubes construction (come on, even the tube’s casing is glass!) But because of the amount of effort put into building a tube amp, today’s amps are quite sturdy and can handle the usual bumps and knocks within reason. No guitar amp will survive your working-for-beer friend/roadie dropping the amp from the back of the van as you speed down a freeway.
If you are considering a guitar amp for simple at-home practicing or any low volume applications, a solid-state amplifier may be a better fit for you. One of the major conveniences of solid-state amplifiers is their ability to produce distorted sounds at very low volumes. Because the sound path does not require a tube to clip in order to create amp distortion, most solid-state amps can put large amounts of distortion in the preamp circuit regardless of the level on the power amp section. The distortion may still sound different at higher volumes because of speaker breakup, but this generally a far cry to the distortion tones created by a tube guitar amp.
The most important factor when selecting any guitar amplifier will always be SOUND. If you like the tone an amp produces, use it. Your personal taste shouldn’t sway because the kid showing you guitar amps at Guitar Center likes them better, or because you think everyone else is using a particular type of amp. It’s the wide variety of tone tastes that keeps rock music interesting, so always be willing to forge your own path.