Amp Tone Part 1: tube versus solid state
Delving into getting good tone out of your amp…..and if that proves impossible, selling it, and getting a better amp. It’s the guitarist’s way. And as is my custom when I post these ‘a-little-more-on-the-technical-tone-side’ posts, there’s a more humorous one right above for those of you who are already bored just with this intro. And for those of you looking for really in-depth techy stuff, unfortunately, you won’t find it here. I’m a musician (although that’s debatable as well), and tend to describe things in terms of how they make stuff sound, rather than the schematics of things. Not that that’s good or bad, it just is. hehe
Now, there will be a couple parts to this (which is why this one is called part 1); so this first part might be a little redundant to a lot of you who have already gotten passed the whole tube versus solid state issue. But as this issue was my first intro into guitar amps, I’ll start off basic. Because there’s a lot that goes into amps, and it can be overwhelming. A good friend of mine once told me how he chose his first amp. He said he walked into Guitar Center, saw a Crate and thought, ‘I’ve never seen a rock star playing a Crate.’ He saw a Fender and thought, ‘Only blues guys play Fenders.’ Then he saw a Marshall and went, ‘Marshalls! Rock stars play Marshalls!’ And he bought a Marshall.
(Rock Stars use Marshalls. Point in case. Oh, the cheesiness in this picture is seriously astounding. The best part about this picture is that of that whole wall of cabs, you can see that only two speakers are mic’d.)
And it can be really overwhelming. If you don’t like the tone of your amp one day, it’s like, ‘Is my eq wrong? Did a tube go bad? Do I need a new amp? What if I just don’t like this style of tube? What if the tube’s are okay, but a I need a different circuit style? Why do I think about buying something new as the first resort? But what if my amp just sucks and I spend another month trying to dial it in only to realize it sucks? Maybe I need a solid state amp. No! Heresy! Maybe it’s the humidity in the room today. Yep! That’s it.’ I mean seriously, it can be daunting.
My first amp was a Crate 10 inch. I remember wondering why my tone didn’t sound like the tone from my friend’s tube combo and tube half stack. And I thought, ‘Well, obviously. I need a bigger Crate.’ So I bought a Crate 2×12. And my tone still didn’t sound the same. And as I had just gotten into U2, I started to look at their guitarist’s setup of two Vox AC30′s. And I thought, ‘Well, obviously. I need to run stereo.’ So I grabbed my old band’s Fender 2×10 Fender PA system, and ran stereo out of my GT6. Oh…….yes. Are you picturing my rig right now? Wait…….just wait. And to top it all off, U2 still hadn’t pounded out all the punk and glam rock of my high school days yet. So thumping signal into this wonderfully toneful stereo rig was……wait for it…….a BC Rich bronze Series Warlock. With the action and intonation set up by the brilliant skills of the truck ride from the BC Rich Manufacturing plant to Guitar Center.
Now, not every guitarist goes through this. A lot that I’ve seen, but not all. You gotta realize that I have this ‘prodigy’ complex. I always think that I am this undiscovered prodigy, and I would lay awake at night dreaming of the tears forming in people’s eyes as they listened to my beautiful want-to-be metal-jazz? solos, and then were dumbfounded when they saw all that tone and skill coming out of such a cheap rig……but a cheap rig so briliiantly and originally done! What? Stereo through a PA system? That’s amazing! And then some British guy comes up and says how he and every other band on his continent wahave been talking of this new idea of sharing the same guitarist, and the search for said guitarist has just ended…..when he saw me ripping the pentatonic through the Marshall model on my GT6. That British guy? Sting.
(What I thought I looked like.)
(More like what I actually looked like.)
So, ya, I have issues. Anyway, once I finally came to the realization that the tears my tone and playing were bringing to people’s eyes were not tears of wonder or amazement, but rather of something much more frightening, I decided to jump into looking at different amps. And at first, I was extremely overwhelmed.
One of my tone mentors had been working on me a while with the idea of a tube amp. I had been telling him for about a year that my digital modeling Boss GT6 through two solid state amps was the ‘way of the future’. (I remember, those were my exact words.) But in secret, every time we would play next to each other at church, I would listen to his tone, then go home and try desperately to tweak my solid state/modeling rig to sound like his. And one day I finally had to admit to myself that there was a warmth, and a dynamic, and an overall bigness and sweetness of real sound that his rig had and that I was completely missing, no matter how much I tried.
So I started the journey. Now there are two main types of amps: transistor and tube. Transistor is better known as solid state. Tubes used to be the only way to make amps; then sometime in the ’60′s or ’70′s, all these solid state amps started coming out. And it was a big deal. Because tubes are expensive and unreliable at times. Solid state is a much more stable way to make amps. So you can look at some Fender amps from the ’70′s that proudly boast in big letter marquee’s on their fronts, ‘Solid State!’
And then, somewhere down the road, guitarists started to realize that solid state didn’t sound very good.
Now that’s a huge and gross generalization. Even though the sentiment generally tends to be that tube is way better than solid state, solid state does have it’s advantages.
See, tubes are finicky. Out of the 2-10 tubes that are usually in an amplifier, sometimes you can get a bad sounding one. They’re fragile, and can break quite easily. They have a short lifespan, and have to be changed out. Different manufacturers’ tube sound audibly different. They need to be warm to sound their best; but not too warm, or they can blow. Solid state amps, on the other hand, are (like aforementioned), much more stable. They don’t break down as easily, the sound is much more consistent because you have taken out the variable of the ever-changing and wearing out tubes, and they’re much easier to dial in the sounds you like because their clean and overdrive sounds are not dependent upon misusing tubes. That’s right. That’s the sound we guitarists have come to love……the misuse of tubes. We get them too hot so that they distort, and we dig it. We call it that saturated tube overdrive. And solid state, in general, because it does not have those tubes to misuse, tends to sound more sterile.
Of course there are exceptions, and most of those are due to very clever circuit design by some genius manufacturers. The Roland JC-120 is a solid state amp that is renowned for its cleans. Some of the old Silvertone solid state models from the ’50′s and ’60′s are rumored to sound just like tubes. And one time I heard a jazz guitarist rocking out of a boutique Evans amp, and it sounded fabulous. So there are definitely exceptions……..
(Sweet little Silvertone tube head. On a lot of amps, such as old Silvertones, you can’t tall if they’re tube by looking at the front or even sometimes the model. You gotta flip it around and look to see if there’s tubes. Obviously, they’re there in this one. If you don’t see any, stay away! Just kidding……..not really…..)
…….But on the average, a tube amp will sound warmer and fuller, have more harmonics, be richer in both tone and feel, will better bring out the dynamics in your playing and in your guitar and effects, and have a much better overdriven sound. But it will also be less reliable and less consistent tone wise.
That being said though, once I finally played through a tube amp and sold my Crate and lost (literally) my Fender PA, it’s like my ears were opened up. There is a warmth, weight, and reality to the sound of a good tube amp that I have yet to find in a solid state or transistor amplifier. So my vote is hands down for a tube amp. If you have yet to try one, or if you are looking for a first amp, really try to find a good tube amp. The best tube amp with the best tone/price ratio I can think of is the Fender Blues Junior. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a solid state amp with the warmth, feel, and responsiveness of that Blues Junior.
There is also a little something to be said for both tube rectifiers and solid state rectifiers, but that will be covered in the next part, as this post is already probably years too long for most.
Tubes. And then someone will rock some amazing tone from a solid state amp and put me to shame. But still, as I have yet to hear that consistently, and as the shame of my past rig and metal/glam awesomeness continues to push me further and further away from anything resembling solid state……
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- Pschew! Pschew! (Those are the Sounds of the Bullets)
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- Worship Leading Choose Your Own Ending (Part 7)