Solid State vs Tube Guitar Amplifiers

by John

John is a new addition to TheGuitarZero team. He has been playing guitar since he was a little kid, and has spent most of his adult life chasing tone and knowing all there is to know about guitar gear.

Ahh, the great battle is upon us!  Solid state versus Tube amps.  Well, like most things I would normally say that its personal opinion.  But not this time…  I will make a bold statement and say that 99 out of 100 tube amps will dominate not only volume, tone, and clarity but will also make the solid state amps crawl into a corner with its tail between its legs.  Oh, did I say great battle?  I meant a slaughter…  Its like comparing an atomic bomb to a set of nun chucks.   Tube amps for the win every time.

There are many reasons why tube amps are used by virtually every performing and nonperforming musician out there.  They just sound better.  They sound warmer, fuller and richer.  Why you ask?  I’ll tell you.  Tube amps use tubes (go figure) to power the amp.  I wont go into any boring details on how it works or what makes the tubes sound the way it does, but Ill put it in layman’s terms.    There are two kinds of tubes in tube amps.  There are big ones and small ones.  The big tubes are called power tubes.  They give the amp its overall volume output and tonal characteristic.  The little tubes are called preamp tubes.  They take the incoming signal and amplify it X number of times.  The most commonly used preamp tubes are called 12ax7’s.  The most commonly used power tubes are either 6L6’s or EL34’s.  The sound varies greatly not only on what tubes you’re using but what company made the tubes.  The most popular tubes on the market today are groove tubes.  They sound great and last a long time.  The best tubes on the market in my opinion are made by Mullard.  They are the best because they use nothing but the highest quality parts and they aren’t afraid to go the extra mile in making the best of the best.  Of course that comes with a bigger price tag too.  There are many different kinds of each tube out there.  When you get to guitar nerd status like me you start ignoring most things you used to find interesting (like cool new amps or some self-tuning guitar or something) and start focusing on the smaller details like what tubes sound like what and how to manipulate the combinations of tubes.

Any popular amp will be tube.  Here are some popular tube amp companies.  Marshall, Fender, Mesa Boogie, Hiwatt,  Bogner, ENGL, Soldano, just to name a few.  Some of these companies make solid state amps but they are few and far between.  Here are some companies that make a lot of solid state amps.  Crate, Peavey, Line 6, Randall, and some of those companies also make tube amps.  Im my experience if someone says to me they got a new crate amp, or line 6 amp, I usually smile and nod because I know there is a huge possibility that its a low end solid state amp.  On the other hand if someone came up to me and said I just got a new Marshall or Bogner amp, I can almost guarantee its not solid state and they instantly become more musically credible.

Now the devil’s advocate… Solid state amps aren’t all bad.  In fact Im sitting four feet from one right now.  Granted its my 50 watt junker from when I was growing up, but it does the trick for late night computer room jams while the Mrs. is asleep in the next room.  Ive been hard on the solid state amps so lets dog the tube amps for a bit.  Tube amps weigh a ton, they are expensive, they are bulky, high maintenance and they are about as energy efficient as an over sized SUV.  They are made with heavy parts and when you’ve been playing on them for a while the tubes get so hot they start glowing.  They turn into tube sized soldering irons.  (But damn they sound good).  The Pros for Solid state amps…  They are much more energy efficient, more reliable, better sounding at lower volumes, lower maintenance, they are much cheaper, and you can get modeling versions that make your amp sound like several different types of amps.  Solid state vs. tube amps….  tube amps win with a knockout 5 seconds into the first round.

Thats about all I got for this week.  I will leave you with a short personal story about this subject.  A few months ago my band was looking for a second guitar player.  So this guy comes to the door and he needs some help bringing his half stack down into the basement.  No problem.  So we are unloading his vehicle and I noticed he had a “famous brand X” 250 watt head with a 4×12 marshall cabinet.  I knew it was a solid state because hardly any tube amps get that high in wattage.  I pleasantly said “Nice head, is that one of those “famous brand X” heads?”  He looked at me really cocky and said “Yeah, I hope I can hear your amp over this thing.  This amp will blow your head off, man.“  I smiled and nodded like the polite man that I am and we proceed to go down, set up and jam.  We did a quick sound check and he (of course) turned his amp way up.  Obviously louder than it needed to be and he looked at my fender combo amp and smirked.  So I turned my Fender tube amp volume up a little over 75% way, (mind you at normal jam volume is around 20%) kicked on my 70’s Big muff distortion/fuzz and my boost pedal and as God as my witness my 60 watts of tube power ate his 250 watts of solid state power for breakfast.  A shocked look came across his face and he later asked me how many watts my amp was.  I  told him 60.  He didn’t believe me.  So after showing him the little 60 watt print on the back of the amp he asked me why mine was so much more overpowering.  I basically told him what Ive told you in this week’s article and he was dumbfounded saying something to the effect of “I guess real tubes do make a difference.”  Then I was the one with the smirk on my face.  The funny thing is both amps cost about the same.  His cost a bit more due to the 4×12 cabinet.  But it goes to show you that tubes are where its at.  I had less than 25% of the watts and half as many speakers and I still drowned him out.

Here is a great video on this week’s topic.

Leave a Reply