Tube Vs. Solid State Vs. Modeling Guitar Amplifiers
Look at any guitar forum on the Internet or hang out in any music store and the age old question inevitably raises its ugly head. It usually starts with someone saying, “Modeling amps suck!” or “Tube amps are overrated!” or “Solid state amps sound like fizz!” It’s the argument over which of the three types of guitar amplifier is “best” and it’s simply a question which cannot summarily be answered as a universal truth.
There are three types of guitar amplifiers that you can buy to produce a wall of musical sound from an electric guitar. Tube amplifiers have been around since the 1920s and are considered by most to be the holy grail of electric guitar amplification. They use vacuum tubes to amplify the guitar’s signal to drive the speakers. For more than 40 years, they were the only game in town.
By the late 1960s, the transistor had largely replaced the vacuum tube in amplification applications from televisions, radios and other electronics and had made its way into the guitar amplifier. Manufacturers began replacing expensive vacuum tubes with cheap and plentiful transistors to amplify the guitar signal. The result was an amplifier that was much more hardy, much lighter, and much cheaper. But there was a cost in the quality of the sound, especially when the amps were pushed to high volumes or “overdriven.” It was very quickly discovered that the tube amplifier wasn’t going anywhere. Then the computer revolution of the 80’s came into the picture.
By the early 1990s computers had found their way into everything from our television sets to the fuel injection systems of our automobiles. It was only a matter of time before they found their way into the guitar amplifier. It was 1996 when Line 6 introduced the first digital modeling combo amplifier. A digital modeling amp is what you get when you plug a guitar into a computer which is dedicated and optimized to process audio in real time, and send that computer’s output to a transistor-based amplification system to push the amp’s speaker. These amps provide the ultimate in flexibility and customization to one’s sound. The goal, ironically, is to make the modeling amp sound as close as possible to, well… tube amps! Many critics of these amps claim that while they are a good approximation of a tube sound, they lack in dynamics and sound more like someone playing a recording of a tube amp over a hi-fi rather than sounding like an actual tube amp. Those who love them claim that they can tell no difference.
So where does that leave you, you might ask? Is any particular type better than the others? Well, yes!… and no. Before deciding on what type of amplifier you want or need, you have several factors to consider! First, is price. Solid state amps tend to be the least expensive of the bunch ranging from $50 up to $700 or so, with modeling amps being the next step up, starting at about $100 and going as high as $2000. Tube amps are the most expensive, ranging from around $150 for small, low wattage practice amps to upwards of $10,000 for some high-end boutique and hard-to-find vintage models.
The next thing to consider is what will you be doing with the amplifier? Do plan to play in a touring band? Do you just want to play for fun at home? Do you want to jam with your buddies on weekends? What style of music do you play? Country? Blues? Metal? Jazz? Rock ‘n’ Roll? To answer these questions let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of each type of amplifier.
Solid state amplifiers are very good at one thing in particular — crystal clear cleans. This is the kind of clean where there is no indication of any kind of distortion or overdrive present. They are perfect for jazz music. In fact, one of the most beloved jazz amplifiers is the Roland Jazz Chorus, a solid-state amplifier that has very low noise and a nice chorus effect built in. If pristine clean sound is what you’re after, solid state might be for you. That’s not to say that there aren’t some high gain monsters out there in the solid state market, most notably, the Randall Warhead made famous by the late “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott of Pantera fame. His sound was extremely edgy and harsh, which is what he was looking for, though the overwhelming majority of high-gain enthusiasts find that sound to be less musical than other options.
Modeling amplifiers can be thought of as the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! If you play a wide variety of musical styles, a modeling amp might be for you. If you want to do home recording, they might be for you. That’s because at low to moderate volumes, modeling amps can sound incredible! The problem is, when you turn them up to gigging volumes, the transistor-based power amp begins to have an undesirable effect on the amp’s tone. It becomes brash and harsh. This might not be a problem if you play with your buddies on weekends or play small gigs, provided the amp is of a high enough wattage. Many modeling amp users proclaim that the tube amplifier’s days are numbered, but just a second… not so fast. On the contrary, modeling amp manufacturers are beginning to look to tried and true tube technology to address the problems inherent in the pure modeling amp by using tube power sections instead of transistors. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
Finally, there’s the old tube amplifier. These amps have both tube-based preamps and tube-based power amps. If you play blues, rock, metal and especially if you intend to play them at high volumes, then you want a tube amp. Tube amps are the mainstay of the majority of professional musicians from country to blues to rock to brutal death metal. But why? It’s due to the way in which the amplifier goes into distortion as the amp is overdriven. They produce very musical harmonics that add a richness to the sound and that richness only gets better as the power amp is pushed louder and louder. But wait, it’s not that simple. They require periodical tube changes, which can cost up to a couple hundred dollars every couple of years or so. They’re VERY heavy and at low volumes, well, they just don’t sound much better than a good modeling amp.
So I hope you have a better idea why there is no real answer to the question of what type of amp is “best.” When you chose an amp, make sure you try as many as you can before making a decision. Play some solid state amps, some modelers, and some tube amps. You might be surprise at the conclusion you reach.