Sunday, February 20, 2005

Tube Amps vs. Solid State

Here’s the secret formula for the ultimate live sound from your electric guitar.

Quality Electric Guitar + All Tube Amp = Warm, Fat, Awesome Tone!

Example: Gibson Les Paul + Marshall TSL100 = Orgasm

Example: Gibson Voodoo V + Marshall JCM800 (2203) = GOD
Example: Fender Stratocaster + Fender 68 Vibrolux = Stardom

There is nothing in the world like the sound of a quality electric guitar plugged straight into a Tube amplifier. You could easily rule the world with the right combination and playing style. It’s the ultimate live setup and a proven formula; guitar plus all tube amp equals the ultimate in tone.

There are basically two different types of guitar amplifiers, Tube and Solid State. Tube amplifiers use a series of old fashioned tubes to provide power, distortion, and tone. Solid State amplifiers rely on transistors, and sometimes software, to provide the tone. They both have the same job, to amplify the sound of your guitar, however they both sound totally different, with good points and bad.

Let’s take a look:

The advantages of a Solid State Amplifier.

  • They usually have fabulous clean sounds, crisp and accurate almost to a fault.
  • They are quick and responsive to your playing.
  • They can take more abuse in moving since there are very few fragile parts.
  • They require less maintenance.
  • They can “Try” and emulate other amplifiers at the push of a button.

The Dissadvantages of a Solid State Amplifier.

  • NO WARMTH – solid state sounds cold and sterile.
  • LOUSY DISSTORTION - to the point that it fatigues your ears and can cause your spine to shatter at high volumes. I have actually talked with people who have no idea about music gear describe the sound of a quality Fender solid state amp that was trying to “rock”, as sounding “Harsh, like a razorblade through my ears”.
  • NO TONE – Solid State amps all sound very similar and will sound the same with almost any player.
  • THIN – They usually sound very thin as soon as you leave the clean spectrum. Distortion only makes solid state amps sound even more thin and lifeless. Like a mosquito in a jar.

Now let’s look at Tube Amps:

The Tube Amplifier advantages.

  • WARMTH – Tube amps are best known for their exceptional warmth. They are pleasing to the ear, something you can not justify in a laboratory. Scientists have no way of measuring the warmth, which is probably the reason that they have not been able to duplicate it in a solid state amp. You can hear a tube amp “Warm Up” the longer it is on. Your audience’s ears will not tire of a tube amp sound in the way that they will from solid state. The warmth acts like a blanket, soothing the ears. The WARM tube amp sound blends with the rest of the band perfect.
  • MORE TONE - Each tube amp sounds different, each with its own unique tone. You can hear this tone between manufacturers and even between the same exact models. Changing out the tubes will even change the tone. No two guitarists will sound the same through the same tube amp, as the amp will respond to the individuals playing technique in a totally different way. Tube amps have been described by many veteran guitarists as “Tone Monsters”.
  • THICK AND HEAVY – Tube amps sound fat and thick, and will sound even fatter as the volume is turned up, creating that famous wall of sound. Tube amps sound HUGE!
  • ULTIMATE DISTORTION – Most electric guitarists want at least a little edge to their guitar sound, otherwise known as distortion, while others want screaming leads. Tubes, by their very nature of operation distort sound, and do so in the most pleasing way to the human ear, by Pushing and Pulling on each other. I have heard many tech guys go on and on about why tube distortion is better and I do not feel like quoting all of their boring documents about it. Let’s just say, YES, there are specific proven reasons why, but who cares, everybody agrees tube distortion is far superior to solid state.
  • COMPRESSION – Tubes compress your sound in several ways, usually when to much power is demanded from the output transformer. The transformer can not handle the signal peaks and softly rounds them off, causing even more distortion. Trust me, it’s a good thing.

Tube amp disadvantages.

  • Maintenance Costs - If you play every week, tubes will last a little over a year before they start to loose their tone. They need to be replaced and that will cost anywhere from $80 to $250, depending on the tubes and the amp. Since they are made of glass, they can also break if the head is dropped, or if they go from cold to hot too fast. I should also point out that 9 times out of 10, if something goes wrong with the amp that it is usually a tube and can easily be fixed by simply replacing the bad tube. Most touring musicians bring spare tubes with them on the road.
  • Purchase Price - No doubt about it, a nice tube amp will cost you. The Marshall TSL100 is my favorite all tube head, and probably one of the best sounding and most versatile tube heads ever made. A new Marshall TSL100 is going to cost you $1799, and that’s not chump change.
  • Volume - This might not seem like a negative point to many, however it is. Tube amps need to be played loud, pushed, in order to sound their best. Many tube heads will get way too loud in a rehearsal studio and drown out everybody else, requiring a power break or VPR as in the TSL. If you’re not planning on playing festivals, I would recommend a 50 watt head or combo amp. The 50 watt heads and combo amps can be turned up to their sweet spot while still not drowning out the drummer and vocals. Of course, I make this suggestion knowing full well that I only use 100 watt heads. My poor band.
  • Versatility - Many of the older tube heads are not very versatile as compared to a solid state head. They have one sound, all be it a GREAT sound. Today, several tube heads come with 2 or 3 channels for more versatility; clean, crunch, and lead. Usually this is more than enough for a band, however there is something to be said about the 100’s of sounds you can get from a LINE 6 POD. I think it’s important to note that the best sounding LINE 6 sounds are those that try and emulate or model authentic tube amps. Imagine that.
  • Weight - HOLY COW! Tube heads and amps are heavy beasts. They were originally built to take the abuse of the road, and that has never changed. They are heavy bastards and require some serious lifting. Add a 4x12 cabinet and you can forget about the gym membership.

If you look at any of the great guitarists, behind any of them you will find a tube amplifier. Hendrix and Orange, Stevie Ray and Fender, Van Halen and his magic JCM800 or even his 5150, Townshend and Hiwatt, and the list goes on and on. There is a reason that every guitarist worth his weight in Fast-Fret uses a tube amp; THE SOUND.

You can forget about all the hype, blow off the technical documents, toss away the magazine ads and endorsement bullshit. None of it means anything. It’s your ears that tell the tale, and the ears love the tube sound. I dare anybody to put a solid state amp next to a tube amp and tell me otherwise. Why do you think all those solid state emulator or modeling amps are all trying to emulate a TUBE AMP?

Let me set it all straight for you. If you play out live, with any kind of an edge to your guitar sound, blues or rock, metal or crunk, YOU WANT A TUBE AMP!

I personally recommend and play both Marshall and Fender tube amplifiers. The Marshall is my favorite, although I love to play through my vintage Fender Vibrolux whenever I want a warm blues sound. I would also recommend checking out; Orange, Mesa/Boogie, and Matchless. Several new heads have hit the scene and are becoming quick favorites with the metal monsters, both Brunetti and Diezel make quality tube amps, however their price tag is a monster as well.

Truth is, every guitarist is searching for that great sound, the ultimate tone. We call it “The Holy Grail”. As we progress as guitar players, this quest will take us down many roads and equipment purchases. Every once in a great while, we actually find it, and that is the most amazing experience any guitarist can have. When you pick up that perfect guitar and plug it into the perfect amp, it’s almost like an out of body experience. You will play better and sound better, leaping years ahead of your experience as if by magic. It’s happened to me, and eventually it will happen to you. Ah, the quest!

Bob Narley

You can hear Bob's material.
Comedy Audio and Parody Songs

A great source for Tubes:
Euro Tubes
Tube Depot

A great book on Tube Amps:

Backbeat The Tube Amp Book Deluxe Revised Edition (Book/CD)
Backbeat The Tube Amp Book Deluxe Revised Edition (Book/CD)

Here are some of the amps mentioned in this article:

Marshall JCM 800 2203X Vintage Series 100W Tube Head
Marshall JCM 800 2203X Vintage Series 100W Tube Head

Fender Vibrolux Reverb Combo
Fender Vibrolux Reverb Combo

Marshall JCM 2000 Triple Super Lead 100 and 1960A Package
Marshall JCM 2000 Triple Super Lead 100 and 1960A Package

Marshall JCM 2000 Triple Super Lead 100 Head
Marshall JCM 2000 Triple Super Lead 100 Head

Marshall JCM2000 DSL50 Head
Marshall JCM2000 DSL50 Head

Line 6 PODxt Pro Amp Modeler
Line 6 PODxt Pro Amp Modeler

Ruby Tubes ECC83 (12AX7A) Preamp Tube
Ruby Tubes ECC83 (12AX7A) Preamp Tube