Tube Amp vs Solid State: Which is the Best Guitar Amp for You?
Choosing the Best Guitar Amp
Tube or Solid state? What’s the difference anyway? If you’re trying to pick the best guitar amp for your needs it’s easy to get confused if you haven’t done your research. But that’s why you’re here!
If you’ve found this article you already know there are a few different types of amps to consider. You probably also know that there is ton of conflicting information out there on each. This page ought to help you sort it out.
First, some basic info: All major guitar amplifier manufacturers build amps using either vacuum tube technology, solid-state technology, or a combination of both. Some amps incorporate digital technology as well, which is often used to emulate the sound of other amps, either tube or solid state.
There are a couple of interchangeable terms to know right from the start. When talking about tubes you may also hear the term valve, especially in regard to British amplifiers like Marshall or Vox.
What is the difference between tubes and valves? There is none. They’re just different words for the same thing, and whichever one you use usually depends on which side of the ocean you are on.
You might also hear solid-state amps referred to as transistor amps, or transistor technology. This term might be a bit outdated, but again it’s another word for the same thing.
Some of the top amplifier manufacturers also like to invent words for their own particular, patented type of technology or amp designs. Don’t let any of that derail you. The important thing to figure out is whether the amplifier is a tube amp or a solid-state amp. A quick read of the amp’s specs should give you this info easily enough.
For now, let’s take a look at the difference between tube amps and solid state amps.
A Brief History of Amplifiers
Tubes date all the way back to the days of Thomas Edison. Prior to World War II, pretty much every electronic amplifier out there incorporated a tube design. This included radios, telephone technology and early televisions. In the late ‘40s transistor technology was invented, and over the next thirty years most systems that relied on tubes switched over to transistors.
Guitar amplifiers are one of the few cases where, in the opinion of many, tubes remain a better alternative to transistors.
Transistors don’t work all that differently than tubes, and many solid-state amps sound really good these days. Modeling amps in particular have done a lot to narrow the gap between tubes and transistors. Many of them utilize digital technology, and can mimic not only the tube sound but the tonal impact of different speaker cabinet setups.
The days when solid-state amps sounded lifeless and buzzy are gone. Guitar players today have many choices in amps, whether they are all-tube, solid-state, digital or a hybrid model. Yes, some amps are even made with part-tube and part-transistor technology.
But even with the rise of incredible digital effects and tube-like transistors almost all guitar players still agree that tubes sound better. In fact, most professional guitar players, and the serious amateur ones, choose tube amps over solid state just about every time. But why?
What's the Difference Between Tube and Solid State?
Are Tubes Better?
Tube overdrive is much smoother, and more responsive than solid state. It can be influenced by adding high-gain pedals to the signal chain between the guitar and amplifier, and this gives players much more control over the sound.
With a tube amp, even how hard a player picks can influence tone. Tube amps are more subtle, and the variances in the signals coming from your guitar are more accurately represented.
Tube amps are loud, and they tend to be louder for their listed wattage compared to solid-stte amps with the same specs. In other words, a 50-watt tube amp will usually be much louder than a 50-watt solid-state amp.
This is important when it comes to being heard over your drummer, but for another reason as well. The tube saturation we’re looking for happens when the tubes are pushed hard, generally close to their max. The “max” of a 50-watt amp occurs at a lower volume than a 100-watt amp, so we can get great tone from a lower-wattage amp.
Realistically, 100-watt stacks have very limited uses. Tube amps in the 40-50 watt range are more than enough to get the job done.
Tube amps have a warmer sound. Even in cases where players do not care about distortion they often feel that the tube sound is more natural, and warmer. That said, this is one aspect where some good solid-state amps can give tube amps a run for their money.
The Advantages of a Solid-State Amplifier
So, if tube amps are so great why would anyone ever want a solid state amp?
Historically, to achieve all the wonderful things listed above guitar players had little choice but to go with a tube amp. In the past decade that's changed. A lot. There are many solid state and digital amps that do a good job of replicating all the good stuff about a tube amp.
Can you tell the difference? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on your ear, and the kind of sound you are looking for. Point is, don't shy away from solid-state amps just because you think tubes are the only possible way to get good tone. That's just not true anymore.
There are more good reasons you may choose a solid-state amp over a tube amp. Solid-state amps are generally more reliable than tube amps. Vacuum tubes are a somewhat archaic technology, and prone to all kinds of issues. Like a light bulb, they only last so long before they need to be replaced, and you never know when one is going to go south.
Tubes are a bit more fragile. If you have a roadie and amp tech to manage your gear you might not care, but if you’re like most gigging musicians you toss your amp in the back of the van with all the other junk and expect it to work when you get to the gig. You don’t need the added hassle of trying to diagnose why your tube amp suddenly won’t cooperate.
Solid-state amps are generally less expensive, both to purchase and maintain. A tube amp will require time and money to keep it in the proper working order. A solid-state amp can go on for years or even decades without you ever having to worry about what’s going on “under the hood”.
Who Plays What
You can see why solid-state amplifiers might be a good choice for many guitar players. Their sound has gotten much better over the past couple of decades, and their reliability, cost and ease of use makes them a very attractive option. Many hobby players, gigging musicians and newer players prefer solid-state amps for these reasons, but some pros use them too.
Jazz guitarists often prefer the super-clean sound of a transistor amp. The Roland JC-120 is legendary among jazz musicians, and even rock players looking for a good clean sound. Many solid-state or Transtube Peavey amps are known for their power and realistic distortion. The late Dimebag Darrell, formerly of Pantera and Damageplan, was known to use solid-state Randall amplifiers because they accomplished the harsh, buzzy tone he wanted.
So who plays tube amps? Pretty much everyone else. Tube tone is definitely the gold standard in guitar sounds, and most rock guitarists from Hendrix on have used tube amps to get their sound.
How Do You Decide?
When you’re trying to make your decision, consider your needs realistically. It’s easy to get caught up in what you think you should be playing based on the rigs of your favorite guitarists, or what people are saying in guitar forums.
But remember that your tone will ultimately come from you, and the aura that surrounds certain amplifiers is often just a whole lot of hype.
Let your wallet help you decide. Unless you can justify plunking down the extra cash for a pro-grade amp, sometimes you’re better off with a little money in your pocket. This is especially true for young players.
A few more thoughts that might help with your decision:
Go with the tube amp if:
- You can afford it.
- You realistically think you need it for your playing situation.
- You have the time and patience to deal with upkeep.
- Nothing but awesome tube tone will do!
Take the solid-state amp if:
- You’re a bedroom or basement hobby player.
- You don’t want to own an amp that’s worth more than your car.
- You’re a gigging musician who needs a reliable rig.
- You found one you like better than any tube amp you tried.
Of course the notes above are only suggestions.
There are plenty of hobby players that have full Marshall stacks in their basements and love them. Nothing wrong with that.
Some players love working on their gear, and don’t consider amp maintenance a hassle at all.
There are some very reasonably priced tube amps on the market today, so it’s not necessarily true that you’d have to spend a ton of money to get tubey tone.
When it comes to guitar gear, ultimately you have to do what makes you happy. All kinds of players get incredible sounds out of all kinds of gear, so you can certainly go against the grain and make it work if you want to.
Hopefully you found something about this article helpful. Good luck choosing the best tube or solid-state amp to meet your needs.