The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Amps: Part One

Tube vs. solid state.

Ultimate Guitar
The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Amps: Part One

Welcome to the first of a new series from Ultimate Guitar: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide. In these features, we're going to be offering a comprehensive guide on major guitar related issues aimed specifically at beginner guitar players. And, for edition numero uno, we're diving into the world of guitar amps.

There's a lot to take in when it comes to buying your first amp. These days, there are so many options on the market, with a number of technological innovations in the past decade having completely changed the marketplace and opened up a whole range of possibilities for the aspiring axeman/woman.

This week's feature is the first of a three part series, in which we're running through the myriad options on the market today, weighing up the pros and cons of each. To start, we're going to be talking about the two kinds of amp that have been around the longest: tube amps and solid state amps.

The distinction between tube and solid state amplifiers is one that has befuddled many a beginner guitarist. Chances are that you've heard the terms used, but aren't really sure what they mean. In simple terms, a tube amp (or valve amp - the two terms are used interchangeably) uses one ore more vacuum tubes to amplify a signal, while a solid state amp uses solid state electronics such as diodes and transistors. In order to understand a bit more about the distinctions between the two, as well as their respective reputations, here's a brief history lesson.

The birth of tube amps, and "tube tone"

Vacuum tubes were developed in the early part of the 20th century and became ubiquitous with electronics devices such as televisions, radios and, of course, electric guitar amplifiers - basically any device where a signal of any type had to be amplified. Tubes didn't amplify things perfectly, and, when the volume was turned up on a device, it distorted the signal. This was a bit of a pain when watching television, but guitarists fell in love with the distorted sound of the electric guitar running through the amp.

Tube-based technology sounded great, but had its drawbacks. Namely, that it was a bugger to maintain. As I've already noted, that sweet distortion sound produced by the amps came from cranking them loud. However, tubes dissipate the energy they create as heat, so running the amp loud meant running it hot. And heat had a tendency to break things down - the tubes themselves were prone to blowing, as were other things near them - meaning that regular servicing was needed to keep the amp at its optimum efficiency.

The 1960s, and the introduction of solid state

Solid state technology had been around since the early 1900s, but it was the popularization of the transistor radio in the 1950s that brought it to mainstream consciousness. Solid state tech was much more portable than tube tech. Back in the day, a radio was so large that it was basically a piece of unmovable furniture in your house. The transistor radio, contrastingly, could fit in your pocket. And, unlike tube amps, the components of solid state devices didn't overheat, and therefore didn't need to be regularly maintained or replaced. The other supposed advantage of solid state tech was that it amplified signals without adding any additional signals.

Given the cheapness, reliability and portability of transistors, it's unsurprising that solid state tech soon became the standard in every electronic device. And, by the 1960s, the same thing was happening with guitar amplifiers. But, guitarists didn't take to the new solid state amps. The reason being that, when the volume was turned up on them, it sounded less like that coveted valve tone of old, and more like plugging a guitar into a transistor radio. What's more, they weren't nearly as responsive as tube amps, which were much better at representing subtleties and variances in playing. As such, solid state amps acquired a pretty poor reputation that still persists in some circles. Indeed, a number of guitarists still adopt a "tube or nothing" approach to this very day.

Tube or nothing?

Certainly, there's a stigma attached to solid state amps. And indeed, for years, they were pretty damn poor. If you ever get the chance to have a jam with an example dating from the '60s, '70s or early '80s, you'll see what I mean. But, solid state amps have come on leaps and bounds since the 1990s. Solid state technology, in its infancy, couldn't approach that classic tube sound, but various developments and innovations in recent times have narrowed the tonal gap between the two. Indeed, in the past couple of decades, a number of guitar heroes have notably achieved their signature tone through solid state gear. Late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell used Randall Solid State amps because he was a fan of their harsh tone, while a number of noted jazz players favor the super-clean sound of the Roland JC-120. Even blues legend BB King, who you'd think was a tube player through and through, used a solid state Lab Series L5 pretty much exclusively from the 1980s.

Pros and Cons

So now you're clued up on the difference between tube and solid amps. But when it comes to putting your money down, what's the amp to go for. There's not clear cut answer on this one - it's all down to your personal needs. To help you make the decision though, I'll sum up the pros and cons of each.

Tube amps

Of course, the big pro to tube amps is that luscious valve tone that guitarists have coveted for many years. The tonal responsiveness and that classic valve distortion make tube amps a joy to play. In short, they sound awesome.

But, getting that awesome tube tone does mean cranking them, and that can be a problem for home practice. Even with the smallest tube amps, you need to run them loud to get the most out of them. If you've got neighbors or family members that don't want to hear the sound of sweet wailing guitar reverberating through the walls for several hours a day, then you might struggle.

There's also the maintenance issues - as has already been noted, tubes need to be replaced on a fairly regular basis - and the fact that tube amps tend to be bigger and take up more room than their solid state counterparts (though it should be noted that there's been something of a boom in more compact valve amps in recent years). On top of that, tube amps are the more expensive of the two.

Solid state amps

Historically, solid state amps had a reputation for sounding like crap. But the technology has come on so much in the past twenty years that that's no longer the case. While perhaps not usurping the tonal crown still held by their tube brethren, many solid state amps on the market these days sound great, and are certainly fit for the purpose of home guitar practice.

You've also got the advantage of the transistor technology requiring next to no maintenance. Not having to worry about blown tubes and fried circuitry is a bonus, especially when you're a beginner player. You can also run them much quieter than tube amps while still getting a decent sound, which is a major plus for bedroom playing.

Finally, solid state amps are much more compact and easy to transport than tube amps. This is even more so the case in recent times, with the introduction of amps like the Blackstar Fly - a 3 watt portable amp that's small enough to fit in your backpack, but sounds like a real amp rather than a transistor radio.

So, that's it for this week's edition, but we're certainly not out of the woods yet. While the tube vs solid state debate used to be the be-all, end-all when it came to amps, that's certainly not the case these days. In recent years, the introduction of hybrid amps, modeling amps and modeling software have changed the playing field in a number of ways, and even raised the question of whether you need a guitar amp anymore. We'll find the answers in the next edition...

29 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Gray Lensman
    If you're just starting out, put most of your money into a solid but used guitar. Best bet being a used Standard (Mexican) Strat. Find an experienced player to help you make the purchase. Then add a used modeling amp. My best advice would be either a Vox VT20+ or a Fender Mustang II V2. Total cost about $400 for both. The guitar, if you make sure it's in good shape, will help you to not get frustrated with a cheapie starter guitar and it's crappy sounding always out of tune frustrations. The modeling amp will give decent sound output and lots of different effects and sounds to play with, to help keep you interested and practicing. But leave all of those sounds alone and learn playing "clean", until you feel comfortable with your "basics."
    Yeah I have a Fender Mustang 1 and it works great as a practice option.
    My son has a Fender Mustang 1 and I have a Mustang 2 for practice. Great little amps. Right now u can get the Mustang 1 for around $119 and the II for $199. I love these amps especially for their ability to connect to the Fender Fuse website and download one of thousands of presets that other players have made.
    If your going for low cost but want a great sounding Tube Amp, I highly recommend the Bugera V5 - Love It!
    I'd very much like to have a Bugera V22 for small club gigging but they are out of production an there are none left in my country afaik!
    Nope. Peavey Windsor. 6 tube amp for, used, usually less than $300. Perfect for sludge tone Unless you can't go 100w loud
    You should elaborate on "replaced on a fairly regular basis". I have a Super Bassman that has been my gigging bass amp for 3 years and I've not had to replace a single tube. My rockerverb is still on the factory power tubes and the same pre tubes that I rolled in after buying it in 2009. These are heavily used amps and have never had a tube issue. Don't perpetuate the belief that tube amps are unreliable.
    I love my Fender valve amp but it does take up a lot of room. But the way I see it, I have my coffin for when the time comes.
    I've been wanting a decent tube amp for a while, but there are some really nice solid-state options coming out lately that I'm stoked to try, like the Boss Katana.
    I'd recommend beginners to purchase an affordable (not cheap), sturdy solid state amp. As you progress, when you have a fair amount of extra cash, and more importantly, when you know what kind of guitar tone you're aiming for, go to your guitar store, and try out different tube and solid amps until you find something that suits you. Starting out with a tube amp is an option of course, but it's an expensive investment that can discourage one or cost a lot of money in the long run if it's not the sound one is going for, or if one doesn't have the cash/knowledge/willpower to maintain it in good shape. Solid state's will take a lot of battering and "experimentation" and still work perfectly fine. As of now, I own a solid state for practice, but I do love the sound of a tube amp when the right moment arises.
    I like my Orange Dual Terror and Micro Dark as far as getting into tube amps goes, pretty low maintenance, very loud, compact, and can still get decent enough cleans out of both! also paying under $300 canadian with tax for the micro dark is a steal for how simple it is and how great it sounds!
    I have two amp heads, Orange TH30 (tube) and Orange CR120 (solid state) and I must admit that I love how stable the CR120 is. The sound is amazing and it is often hard to tell the difference. It is also cleaner when it comes to unwanted noises. I got to admit that my cranked TH30 takes the cake though.
    Mountain Trash
    I was a die hard Marshall 2203 guy for the longest time, tubes just sound better to me. they're warmer, more organic, it just sounds right. Then I picked up the 5150 IIIs. That stack is a freaking BEAST. If you all get the chance fire that monster up and unleash hell. tubes verse solid state, to each his own I say. I've played a few of these new modeling amps, I guess they sound pretty good. It all comes down to what sounds good to you.
    Couple years ago I replaced my old busted Vox practice amp with a $100 solid state Stagg- the first time I heard it in the store I was pretty convinced it was tube, and was pleasantly suprised when it was not. My old Vox was one of those tube-power, solid-modulation amps that sounded okay but the tube didn't hardly last a year and a half. So I've been really happy with the little Stagg.
    Completely disagree, solid state Randall amplifiers can sound as good as a standard tube amp. It is also common knowledge that many jazz guitar players prefer the solid state tone for its coldness. Also, Roland JC-120 is a favorite among many guitar players of multiple genres, and its a SS amp.
    I'm not sure if you exactly understood his point. He did say solid state amps have significantly better technology in them today than what they used to have. Also, everyone has their preferences, which means an amp is only as good as how the player perceives it to be.
    Good article. It should also be known that, most tube amps can be repaired if needed...also can be modded if you get into that side of things. Solid state, thats pretty much all it will ever be, and if it breaks down? Might as well throw it out...cause nobody wants to work on them. Parts, let alone schematics are almost impossible to find. Comparing Tube to Solid is like comparing a muscle car of the 60's to an import tuner from recent.