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.

RockStar-1.jpg picture by rypdal95
(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.

MyDreamat19-1.jpg picture by rypdal95
(What I thought I looked like.)

fail9.jpg picture by rypdal95
(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……..

SilvertoneHead_no_2_collage.jpg picture by rypdal95
(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……

Tubes.

Splendid tubes.
Karl.

24 thoughts on “Amp Tone Part 1: tube versus solid state

  1. LOL @ FAIL! They’re certainly rocking. I had a solid state 15W Crate when I was a kid, then a fender solid state with DSP!! Then a Marshal solid state with a tube preamp. It’s worth mentioning that a tube preamp is useless. Preamp overdrive sounds buzzy, power tube overdrive is where the money’s at. And finally I landed on my handwired vintage marshall.

    I think the best thing about tube amps is the tone changes as your dynamics change. It’s more natural and vocal. They can scream or whisper, solid state can just be louder or softer.

  2. That pretty funny. Love it. Great sounds are very important, but mostly because of how they make us feel and therefore play (and sing).
    If my sound is bad, I tend to play strange and unmusical things in an uncionscious effort to make things sound “nicer”.
    The same can be said for the monitor speakers too. A dull sounding monitor can cause you to sing with an edgy sound or sing crazy things to make the vocal sit.
    Maybe no one in the crowd will hear the subtle changes in your tone, but the will hear the confident simple musicality that great sounds bring.
    Long live the search.

  3. Reynard–great to have you here! And excellent comment!! I don’t know how long it took me to realize that very thing. You subconsciously want to sound good, and you’ll change the way you play or sing to do so. So if you sound bad to yourself on stage, you’ll change something that doesn’t need to be changed in the house sound, and then hear the recording and go, what was I thinking? Usually for me, if I don’t like my sound, I tend to overplay and oversing. Which sounds terrible!

    Thanks for the killer insight! Love it.

  4. I agree that the real tone comes from the power tubes not the 12ax7 preamp tubes as many think. On the other hand I have heard plenty of class a tube amost that have the crappiest overdrive ch and then i do prefer solid state over tubes,especially with the modeling. Perhaps the best combo is a solid state preamp and a tube power amp section? Also, most boe heads buy 100wt marshalls which they barely run past 1 or 2 and so you dont get the tone which requires a tube amp to be turned up, I have some 30wat crate amps tat need to be turned up to sound “good”. I see tons of players buying 100 watt marshall heads and they stay in their bedrooms and wonder why they arent getting “the sound”. In these cases, I can honestly say i prefer solid state to tube amps…..

  5. Hey, good points, aliengtr. And cool site. I agree that for a consistent tone if you don’t want to worry about volume, solid state does deliver that ‘consistency.’ However, there are some great amp-builders doing some 6 watt, 12 watt, and switchable wattage amps. That way you can sound good in your bedroom or at a gig. I think even Mesa’s latest version of the Lonestar can go from 100 watts to 50 watts, and even down to 10 watts, depending on which tubes you switch out of the circuit.

    So I kind of feel like the builders are trying to improve their tube technology to be a little more consistent, which is great!!

    Thanks for the insight, and hope to see you around here some more!

  6. Other than my first Crate amp I got when i was 9, my first real amp was a Marshall Valvesate 2X12 combo. I was about 12. When I first learned the fact that “tube amps” were better, I read more about my amp to find out “OH MY GOSH. MY AMP IS TUBE!” So I told everybody I had a tube amp.

    Came to find out later that my amp actually had one little preamp tube in it. It wasn’t a bad sounding amp, though. I don’t have it anymore, but I’m sure I could find out how to dial it in a little better now that I know more about tone. The little tube in it actually did a decent job.

  7. I had a friend who had a Valvestate head. This was a long time ago, but I remember thinking the sound was alright. Amazing the difference a tube can make! :)

  8. Your writing style is so stinkin’ funny…and informative!!! I just found you online…I can’t stop reading your posts. I’m a fellow guitarist, I love to play for worship every time I get a chance. You have wonderful taste in music…I myself am also a huge U2 fan!!! I’m also on that journey to discover that perfect tone! Thank you so much for your input, it’s good to hear your perspective and to know that I’m not the only guitar tone nut out here!

    Blessings

    Shawn

  9. Shawn, thanks for the kind words, and welcome! And if you’re a worship guitarist gearhead on a tone journey who loves U2, you’ll fit right in here! haha Cheers!

  10. So….last night I purchased my first tube amp. Been playing 12 years and never owned one. So after some searching on Craigslist, I stumbled on a guy selling a Fender Pro Jr. I went and tried it out and woah! The little thing is amazing! 10″ speaker and 15w and it is so loud, so beautiful, so amazing! I was blown away how huge of a difference it made in my tone. Previously, I had been running my Pod direct into the PA, and it sounded…OK. But the picking dynamics just weren’t there. With the FPJ, it’s just a thing of beauty, I am tearing up just thinking about it…not really, but you get the idea. So I don’t know what the point of this comment is…but I guess it partially a Thanks. So thanks Karl for encouraging the switch to tubes. Totally worth it! I’ll let you know how it works out this Sunday. I can imagine it will be glorious to have an amp on stage. Yay for not having to worry about my monitor mix as much! =)

  11. Ya!! I’m so stoked for ya, brother! Doesn’t the feel of real tubes just do it for ya? I can never go back. Congratulations, my friend!

  12. A friend of mine had a ’60′s Bandmaster at one time, a blackface version. It sounded spectacular. The ’70′s silverface ones are good too, but I’ve never been able to get that same blackface tone out of them. Do you have an opportunity to score one?

  13. So this year I finally upgraded from my crappy Peavey solid-state amp with way too many watts and way too many knobs. I had sort of figured out how to get usable tone from it, but the new amp is so, so much better: a Dr. Z Carmen Ghia – it’s got only 2 knobs (vol & tone) and 18 watts. But the thing gets so loud it can make the stage vibrate at church, so I got the attenuator to go with it (which can take the decibel level down up to 11 dbs).

    It’s got a really warm, smooth tone. I love the fact that it’s so simple – you really can get plenty of different sounds by working the vol & tone dials on the guitar.

    (and since this is a delay-obsessed blog I should mention that I use an analogman delay, the one that’s like having two delays in one)

    • What attenuator did you get? I’m curious to know what you think of it. I have a Weber Mini Mass on the way but I’ve never really played with an attenuator so I’m not sure what to expect.

      • I know its been a year, but I have a Weber Mini Mass and it sucks a little treble from the signal–so I use the treble boost. I use the Mini Mass to drop back 6 to 12 dB. Just enough to take the too-loud edge off.

  14. Zach–congrats!!! Analogman and a Z…sounds like a great combo!! Bet it sounds awesome!

    KennyG and Zach–interesting. I haven’t read good reviews on the Z attenuators except when you use them with Z amps. I’d love to learn more. :)

  15. I think some Peavey models, from their mid-90′s Transtube series solid state guitar amps, sounded great. They were priced like solid state amps, but sounded almost as warm as tubes, with the same kind of damping factor. But the richness of all-tube harmonic distortion wasn’t really there, though…

    Still, those amps were an interesting alternative. I mean, the Transtube models of the nineties; today’s Peavey solid state stuff really does sound like… solid state!

    Still good analog solid state, I think, sounds much better than all those contemporary digital modeling amps. Those digital amps are really cold and inexpressive, I think. And most don’t even provide realistic modeling. They just sound like shit, overall!

  16. For the past four years our church has joined the “dark side.” POD HD500s, electronic drums, no floor monitors (in ear), no amps on stage. A sound tech’s dream.

    I finally brought my Princeton RI and pedal board and used it one weekend. Ran it through a closed-back 2×12 with Greenback/G12H30 Celestions. Cranked that baby up to 3! Facing off stage, mic’ed the G12H30.
    Well, our worship leader said afterwards, “Don’t you EVER bring anything else again. You sound great!”
    Tubes rule!

  17. I must add that I’ve been a “tube amp snob” for much of my guitar playing life. I spent countless dollar$ across several credit cards purchasing Marshalls (JCM 800 & 900…. the 800′s were actually better), MESA/Boogies (Studio 22 – a totally rad amp, as well as a rack-mount Studio Preamp), one Laney, a Music Man, etc. I didn’t have all these at once, but I certainly went through my fair share of tube amps, and I’ve messed with plenty of solid state amps as well. And yes, tube amps do sound better, to varying degrees, than solid state. HOWEVER, digital modeling by Line 6 has become so realistic that it’s all I use in church now. Direct into the PA, no miking issues, and it sounds awesome! I generally use a Class A model of some sort, like a Vox or Matchless-type setting, and it really does sound convincing coming through the PA. Some will say they can “hear” the difference, but I don’t buy it – especially in a mix with other musicians. So while I’m a tube amp guy at heart, digital modeling for the purpose of playing in a church is really something to be considered. I’ll also add that I’ve played solid state gear by Hughes & Kettner while I lived in Germany many years ago and that stuff was very tube-like. It was a rack-mount preamp, if I remember correctly. It absolutely nailed the “cranked Marshall” sound, with not a tube in sight.

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