Like many of you who use social media, and specifically Facebook, I think I’m like most people in that I spend the majority of my FB reading dealing with topics that interest me. FB has thousands of groups and topics to suit any interest, hobby or fascination. For me, I’ve joined a couple of groups dealing with Vacuum Tubes, Taylor & Fender Guitar products, Pro Sound, Antique Radios and several others. As I read the posts from experts and rookies, I’m amazed at the attitudes and strong opinions concerning guitar amplifiers and the various designs that are available today. For now, I’m not going to discuss the huge market for Boutique amplifiers as they deserve their own blog. However, I will be offering some thoughts on tube, solid-state, hybrid, and modeling amps and their pros and cons. Each type has its strong points and weaknesses, so I’ve listed some of those below.
This design type is arguably the most used and sought after amplifier type and has been since dinosaurs roamed the earth in search of the ultimate guitar amp sound. Most players will agree that the tonal characteristics, breakup and distortion, and the vintage appeal they can provide are the go-to choice. Prices range from several hundred to several thousand dollars and there are many players that search high and low for that old Fender, Vox or Marshall retro tube amp. Lastly, a tube amp’s sound is directly affected by the brand, type and design of the tubes plugged into the amp. All tubes sound slightly different from others. Even the same type tube from a single manufacturer can sound different. For some players this is a cool thing, but for others it’s frustrating because of the lack of sonic consistency. The old tubes from the 1950’s and 60’s made by GE, RCA, Telefunken and Mulard are long gone. But the same designs are utilized by today’s Russian & Asian tube makers. There’s even a large group of players who seek out N.I.B or N.O.S tubes in hopes of finding that perfect 12ax7 preamp tube from RCA.
Pros: Great sound, warm present tone, sought-after breakup
Cons: Expensive (new or used), failure rate (they get hot and tubes blow up) and heavy
Mfgs: Vox, Fender, Supro, Peavey, Marshall, Orange, Mesa Boogie, Randall, Laney, Blackstar, Bogner & many others
While technology has allowed this type of amp design to have many advantages on paper, the audible output is often a bit questionable. Jazz guitarists or players who utilize a “clean” output feel that Solid State is the way to go. Furthermore, these amps are often budget friendly, and can offer a better variety of tones from that of tube amps. But if you are seeking that ultimate heavy metal overdrive sound, look elsewhere.
Pros: Budget friendly, light weight, reliability, increased tone options
Cons: Odd sounding at loud volumes, questionable overdrive (distortion)
Mfgs: Peavey, Roland, Fender, Ibanez, Orange, Marshall, Acoustic, Line 6, Blackstar & more
These amps combine both solid state and tube elements and can vary drastically in their design. Years ago, as tubes were thought to be falling out of favor, designers were using tubes in the amp’s power amplifier stage in hopes of obtaining smoother distortion at high volumes and figuring the front end or pre-amp section would be better sounding with solid state technology employed. Frankly, this configuration sucked (I had a Peavey 212 classic and hated it.) In recent years, developers have applied the opposite thought process, having tubes drive the pre-amp (front end) and solid state technology being used to drive the output section. While this reverse design practice has provided better results, there are still many of the same limitations as with pure solid state products.
Mfgs: Vox, Bugera, Fender, Line 6, Hughes & Ketner, Marshall & more
These design types are the newest choice for players and combine the later hybrid technology with advanced digital processing concepts that allow users an almost limitless choice of sounds. Most brands include usb (and even Bluetooth) computer connectivity giving the modern player an in-depth, hands on interface to create and build their own custom sound. These amps have the ability to convincingly mimic both tube and solid state amp sounds and are often the go-to choice for younger players who have grown up with digital, computer control as a way of life. These amps are also great for recording projects as they offer so much variety.
Mfgs: Peavey, Vox, Fender, Line 6 & others
There are many other factors to consider when thinking about which type of amp to buy. Cabinet design, speaker size, built-in FX, channel switching, effects loops, reverb and tremolo all either directly affect the sound or are added features to help you tailor the sound to your liking. There is no right or wrong design when choosing, because trying them all is key. Keeping an open mind will help sort out the many choices that are available.
So how do they sound and compare to each other sonically? Well, that’s a question that should be answered by you, the user. What sounds great to me may sound terrible to you, but our differing opinions don’t mean any brand is bad or should be tagged as a “don’t buy”. But here are my thoughts….. For me, I love the sound of solid state amps at lower volumes. The breakup or distortion is typically smooth and almost creamy sounding. I also like the reliability of these types. I have a 1994 Peavey Transtube 112 that has been through countless gigs and performed reliably. It’s light weight and looks good, but if I’m playing a larger stage or have to crank it up, it suffers from poor sound. I have found that most solid state amps (along with hybrid and modeling amps) don’t sound very good at higher volumes, especially if you are looking for a smooth overdrive sound. I like to say that these amps, when cranked, sound like a “box of bees”. But for clean, non-distorted sound, they can be a go-to choice. For tube amps, the opposite seems true. At lower volumes, the sound can be considered somewhat thin. But when cranked, the overdrive and distortion are fantastic. There’s nothing better than a Vox or Marshall cranked up giving you those creamy and chimey sounds. But again, sound is subjective. I think a cranked Fender tube amp sounds like it’s going to explode. They often sound as though there’s something wrong and sorta gritty. I once heard a studio producer say that a Fender amp should never be set to anything higher than a volume of 4. But I’m not sure this is very realistic.
In conclusion, try’em all. Try starting with the many videos and amp reviews from players that are available on YouTube. But keep in mind these videos are a starting point, and they shouldn’t be used to make a final purchasing decision. Why..? Because using your ear buds or computer speakers to truly hear what an amp will do is silly. Bring your favorite guitar to a local music dealer and try every amplifier in your budget. Let your ears (and wallet) make the choice. Don’t be biased because of player perceptions of a given technology or brand. If the choices for you of local music stores are limited, try purchasing an amp online from the many retailers like American Musical Supply who offer great pricing, flexible return policies and have a vast selection of brands and models. Don’t get frustrated, have fun and crank it to 11 (it’s one more).