Do you know that scene in The Matrix where Morpheus asks Neo to choose either the blue pill or the red pill for the ultimate revelation?
Well, when it comes to guitar playing, this is kind of like that—only this time, the “red pill” represents tube amps, and the “blue pill” represents solid-state guitar amps. Also, every guitarist out there is Neo and might have to make a choice for the best-sounding guitar amp at some point in their guitar journey.
However, the choice is often not an easy one. In a land of many “red pill Neos” (guitarists who prefer the sound from tube amps), there are also others who would rather go for the “blue pill” sound from solid-state amps.
So then, the question remains lurking in the deepest parts of every guitarist's mind: Is the “red pill” (tube amp) truly the ultimate sound weapon? Or perhaps then, is there even a slight chance that this simply boils down to personal preference?
Let's find out together, shall we?
First off, let's start by gaining a bit of basic knowledge on how amps work.
Put simply, an amplifier's job is to turn a small audio signal, usually generated by a guitar pickup, into a stronger electric current that can drive a speaker
In achieving this, amplifiers typically use two stages:
Click here for a tutorial on how to use an effects loop.
Although the ultimate goal of every amp is the same, the components used to achieve each stage vary amongst various types of amps.
Guitar amps are then categorized into four main groups depending on the components they use. Furthermore, more subdivisions are made within the categories reliant on specific design differences in the components used in each stage.
Tube amps—or valve amps as they are known in some parts of the world—are among the earliest types of guitar amps. Aptly named, they make use of different types of vacuum tubes/valves in the preamp and power amp stages to increase the electric signals from the guitar.
Typically, preamps use smaller-sized valves than the power amps. Today, while there are other types, most of the tubes used in this preamp stage are variants of the ECC83/12AX7/7025 (dual triode) tubes.
In contrast to these smaller tubes, power amps use larger ones such as the 6v6, 6L6, EL84, and KT66, among many others. These larger tubes do much of the raising of the preamplified signals into stronger ones that then drive the speaker.
While aesthetically most of these tubes look similar in construction to old-fashioned bulbs, specific makeup elements give each of these tubes unique sonic characteristics that offer a wide array of tonal possibilities. Equally, while tube amps contribute hugely to the overall tone, other components such as output transformers also contribute to the overall sound of tube amps.
Examples of tube amps include Orange Rockerverb 50 MkIII Head, Marshall SV20C, Fender ’64 Custom Princeton Reverb, and the Blackstar HT-1R MKII Combo.
Figure Orange Rockverb 50 MKLL HEAD TUBE AMP (Image credit: Orange)
In simple terms, Solid-state amplifiers generally refer to amps that use transistors in the pre-amp and power amp stages as opposed to vacuum tubes. Technically, transistors and tubes perform the same functions.
Examples of solid-state guitar amps include Boss Katana 50 (MkII) Combo, Marshall CODE100, and the Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb.
Figure ROLAND JC 40 JAZZ CHORUSS (Image credits: Roland)
Modeling amplifiers imitate the sound of guitar amps, cabinets, and effects. For instance, the Fender Mustang GT-100 is modeled to imitate the sound of a real Fender tube amp.
More than often, you might find that some of these amps may also make use of solid-state and tube amp components such as transistors and tubes in their makeups. Even then, because of the sound 'modeling' characteristics, these amps are then still classified as being digital.
Examples of modeling amps include Boss Katana 50 MK II, Vox Valvetronix VT20X, Blackstar ID: Core Stereo 100, and the Fender Mustang GTX100
Figure VOX VX II MODELLING AMP (Image credits: Vox amps)
These types of amps combine components from the various guitar amp types, more often from solid-state amps and tube amps. For instance, consider an amp with a tube preamp and transistor in the power amp.
Equally, some digital amps that use transistors can also technically be considered hybrids. The definition of what exactly a hybrid amp is has over time continued to change with advancements in guitar amp technology.
An example of a hybrid amp is the Boss Katana 100 MKII.
Figure BOSS Katana 100 MKII (Image credits: Boss)
Now that you’ve gathered some basic knowledge on how tube amps work, you can probably make up your mind on whether tubes are the better choice when compared overall to other types of amps.
A close in-depth look reveals that on average all types of amps have qualities that make them uniquely pleasing to guitarists with specific needs—whether it be the portability of solid-state amps, the versatility of digital amps, or the clipping qualities of tube amps.
It also becomes clear that a lot of what makes an amp the best choice is subjective to the music style, environment of use, and ability to afford the product, amongst many other factors.
To add to all this, technological advancements continue to add to the wide array of achievable sounds, and even the ability to digitally recreate almost similar sounds to older versions in much cheaper and efficient ways.
So then, do tube amps really sound better? The answer to this is yes, no, and it depends? Or rather, it all boils down to preference.
This, as the issue of what sounds good and what doesn't, is largely subjective and dependent on the specific needs of each musician and the genres they’re playing in.
So while, for instance, the unique distortion abilities of tube amps may be appealing to some musicians in genres such as rock, other musicians from different genres such as jazz may prefer the clean sounds of solid-state amps. In addition, with modeling amps continuing to perfect the art of emulating specific sounds, it makes the process even more complicated as to which types of amps ultimately have the “better sound.”
It's all simply preference. What may be the “better amp sound” option for some musicians or genres may not be the best choice for another!
When choosing an amp, you must consider various factors. These include the following:
In theory, tubes can last anywhere from a few months to many years, depending on their quality and how often you use them
Often, you’ll get drastic tone changes when the tube quality diminishes. On some occasions, the tubes may not even power on. When this happens, it's time.
More often than not, tube amps are made with parts that are more expensive to make and lower in demand.
On average, most tube amps take between 10-20 minutes to warm up.
No, you should not. Tube amps generally deteriorate with more usage. Only turn on your tube amp when you’re about to use it.
We hope that you’re now fully equipped with knowledge that will help you in making your next amp choice. While the task of choosing an amp can be quite difficult due to the numerous options available nowadays, experimenting with different sounds to find the amp that best suits you can be quite fun. As a parting shot, always make sure to test out an amp before you purchase it!