Amp Legends: Fact-Checking Common Amp Myths

Amp Legends: Fact-Checking Common Guitar Amp Myths

September 21, 2017 23 Comments

Perhaps it is because music is passed down from one generation to the next via personal instruction and anecdotal knowledge, but whatever the reason, a great deal of what the average musician knows about their craft is hearsay as much as fact. And while all those legends we pick up may be useful in our quest to acquire a broad understanding of music, at some point we need to reexamine the wives' tales we've built our art upon to be sure they are worthy of our reliance. So with no further ado, let us endeavor to blast some of the most pervasive myths about amps and sound!


Tube amps have more power than solid-state ones.

Assuming both amps had the same output specifications, this legend suggested that tube amps somehow were simply more powerful than solid-state designs. But the truth was more bureaucratic than mystical. In order to arrive at a standard for comparison between different models, the industry adopted loose guidelines for equipment ratings. Amplifiers were often rated by their maximum output before exceeding a specified level of Total Harmonic Distortion (THD). It is for this reason that most tube amplifiers were designed with a lot of headroom in order to achieve the desired output without distortion. The solid-state designs didn't need nearly as much headroom to get the same rating. But when guitarists used the tube amps they didn't mind the distortion, in fact they soon began to consider it essential.

Gold-plated cables have "better tone."

Setting aside the rational objection that what "sounds better" is a purely subjective determination, are there advantages to boutique features like gold-plated connectors? Gold generally conducts better than other types of connector plating, but considering that none of the jacks you're plugging into are probably gold-plated, it isn't likely to matter much. And being a much softer metal, the thin plating will wear away very quickly. Not too many of us use a brand new cord every time we plug in. Are you still skeptical? Just remember that every hit song in the 20th Century was recorded with many standard cables and very little, if any, gold-plated connectors.

Even though humans can't hear beyond 20kHz, audio equipment needs to be able to reproduce higher frequencies to insure clarity.

A common misconception is that audio equipment designed to reproduce frequencies beyond human hearing will sound better in the audible range. But there is little evidence to suggest lack of inaudible high frequency response impacts the range of human hearing. The best designs may well be capable of reproducing sound beyond perception, but it is not essential.

The best amps are made with expensive "boutique" parts.

Choosing quality parts can be important to maintain reliability and consistency, but musical instrument amps are seldom made with the most expensive parts, and the most popular designs in history were made with parts that simply met the manufacturer's minimum specifications. One of the most famous evolutions in guitar pickups happened because the auto maker that supplied the pole-pieces had a completely different kind of windshield-wiper motor magnet on hand than it did when the guitar factory called the time before. This is also why randomly "upgrading" parts in your guitar amp won't necessarily improve your tone. In fact, often the individual character which sets one amp apart from the rest is due to the selection of compromises the manufacturer made on the model in question. Next time you see the word 'boutique' in reference to a particular part, try replacing it with 'trendy.'

Part of the mystery and excitement of music is trying to sleuth out the secrets of the ultimate tone or finding that one special instrument that 'just feels right.' Musicians are a creative lot, so a little imagination and embellishment doesn't hurt anything. Inspiration can come from many places. Just make sure you're responding to inspiration rather than marketing.

Which amp myths have you heard? Have you ever put them to the test?

 



23 Responses

PVB
PVB

February 21, 2018

Every time I see or hear conversations about what gear is best, I think, “how did Robert Johnson ever become so revered among guitar players”? Crackly single track recordings played on what was probably a budget guitar and the guy is a legend. Mystifying………..

Keith Darling
Keith Darling

February 20, 2018

1st and foremost.
Whatever sounds and plays good for YOU is what works and most important.
I could take a cheaply built $50 guitar made from parts in whichever 3rd world country, set it up to MY LIKING, maybe exchange pickups and it will play and sound incredible…..TO ME!!!!
As far as amps go however, in my 48+ years of playing, I must say there is a HUGE difference between Solid State and Tube/Valve amplifiers.
Yes, you can take an EQ, process the amp to death with Overdrives, Distortion boxes and Boost pedals and maybe get near what a Tube amp sounds like.
Remember, your choice of Speakers as well as the wood used in either the Combo Amp, theater or not it’s a closed or open back design and the Wood used in an Extention Cabinet.
So many varibals to consider.
This is just my opinion.
You will NEVER NATURALLY get the same tone from a Solid State Amp that you get from Tubes.
SS Distortion is guzzler and nowhere as clear as Tube nor is a SS Amp going to give you the Warmth and Low Frequency tone a Tube amp gives you unless you EQ or process the heck out of it.
In my opinion….which to most doesn’t amount to a hill if beans, the ONLY SS Amp I’ve ever used that came even remotely close to Tubes was the Line 6 Flextone lll.
Set to the, I believe Boogie Triple Rectifier Amp with a Marshall 412 Cabinet Simulator.
The Flextone lol had 32 Amp Models to choose from and 16 different Cabinet Models to pick.
This Amp is no longer made.
I, fortunately kept mine as a backup just in case my Blackstar Stage 60 212 Combo goes on the blink.
In closing, also remember the choice in Tubes/Valves are important as well.
Depending on the tone you’re seeking, Tubes DO HAVE A POWER RATING and there’s definitely a difference in which ones you use in both the Preamp and Power….6L6 vs EL34’s vs whatever your Amp uses.
Like I said in the beginning, the ultimate tone you seek is YOURS AND YOURS ALONE as to whether or not it’s the sound YOU LOVE!!!!!
End of my Novel and now stepping down from my Soapbox!!!!!
Good luck everyone and just enjoy playing!!!

WILL White
WILL White

September 28, 2017

I HAD A DOZEN DIFFERENT AMPS THE MESA WALK ABOUT IS THE BEST I’VE OWN. HANDS DOWN.

James Murray
James Murray

September 27, 2017

Everything music is subjective and soaked in compromise. Charley Greenwood nailed it. 40 years of bass, I quit chasing my tail years ago. If it sounds good,it is good.

Kenny
Kenny

September 24, 2017

I’m still confused whether tube amps have more power than solid state. I’ve owned 100+ watts solid state amps. My main amp is the SX300. That amp has never been taken past 3 on the volumn knob.

Burr Fee
Burr Fee

September 23, 2017

Note to self:

Whatever YOU like best, is best!!!!

Gytrpykr
Gytrpykr

September 23, 2017

I love my tube amp; I love my solid state amp. They both have their own sounds and they both can be adjusted to sound like I want them to. No one in any audience I have ever played for, or any other musician has complained about my “tone”. I think there’s more subjectivity than anything where “tone” is concerned. Play what you like through the amp that you like.

John Bourgeois
John Bourgeois

September 23, 2017

Been playing guitar for 57 years, always wondered why the big difference between tube and solid-state amps, besides the tone. Thanks for the info, keep up the good work.
Steve
Steve

September 22, 2017

The tube-vs-solid state section seemed a little vague to me. I don’t know about “power” but tube amps seem to have much higher volume for a given wattage than solid state amps. A good example is the 22-watt Fender Twin Reverb amp, which doesn’t even have a gain circuit on either channel, but is much louder at a volume of 2-ish than a typical 100-watt solid state amp at 5 or 6 on its clean channel, and can easily handle a decent size club or even a slightly larger venue. My ears tell me this is not a myth – is the article saying that the tube amps should really be rated higher than they are?

MIKHAEL PORTER
MIKHAEL PORTER

September 22, 2017

The fact is, gold is NOT the best conductor. The only reason it’s used is because it doesn’t tarnish like other metals.

Monte Walton
Monte Walton

September 22, 2017

thank you,very imformative.

Bob
Bob

September 22, 2017

I think you meant to say “Even though most humans can’t hear beyond 20kHz…..”

Charley Greenwood
Charley Greenwood

September 22, 2017

Acoustical impedance is the most over-looked parameter in the link between your hands and the environment you are playing in. We all notice that the sound you love in your practice space is rarely translated into your performance space, and vice versa. This is just as true for purely acoustic instruments.

Acoustical impedance can be thought of as the energy transfer efficiency from the instrument to the room, almost always involving an amplifying device and transducers (speakers). In the dark ages many working musicians had a Champ, a Twin Reverb, and all sizes in between. You could select just the right match up, and presto – you ruled the room with your tone!

It’s no wonder that such magic moments lead to a life time search for the next perfect sonic experience. Gold plated EL34 tubes and all.

Dr. Chuck Billera
Dr. Chuck Billera

September 22, 2017

There is also the controversy of PCB (Printed Circuit Boards) versus PTP (point to point) hand wired circuit boards and there are manufactures on both ends that think their approach is the best way to fly when in fact they both work. Service ability wise though, I think PTP might be easier to repair, but in our modern “throw away” society, it might be easier to replace a board rather than remove and solder in a new component. No doubt old school PTP is more labor intensive and has that certain “vibe”.

Gary Nichols
Gary Nichols

September 22, 2017

I have many Amps Marshall, Fender, Ampeg, Orange, Kustom, etc. I find that my Old 1970 Marshall and 4 Valve Kustom amp have a warmth and easy tone. Can’t get it out of Solid state amps. Attenuation and the way my old amps increase the voltage to the instrument itself allows the pickups to become Hotter! That is even in a clean state the exciteation voltage fed to the instrument seems to be higher in old chasis tube amps ver. Solid state amps.

travis
travis

September 22, 2017

class A amps are way better than A/B — myth?

Thom
Thom

September 21, 2017

I moved away from tube amps in the 70’s. I had SO many problems with tube amps. I had my last two tube amps to techs probably eight times and finally got rid of ’em. One was a Blonde/Brown Fender Bassmen, sounded great. Irronically, the guy I sold it too never had a minutes problem with it. The other was a Fender Super Six, someone had messed up the wiring of the speakers, so it was running 16-22ohms instead of the 6.5ohms it was supposed to be. Got a Yamaha G100 112, put a JBL d120 in and it was Perfect the whole time I owned it!

Roger Hurley
Roger Hurley

September 21, 2017

You can hear the difference between a hand wired & PCB tube amp !

John Lattimer
John Lattimer

September 21, 2017

I thought this might be an interesting post. It wasn’t.

Never cared about the power difference between tube and solid state amps. Tone matters most, and what I hear that pleases my ear matters most. I’ve used both, and what pleases my ear the most is true vintage tube tone.

As far as gold plating goes, it is a better conductor; but you’re right. I have a ‘76 Firebird with gold-plated pickups. They’re appealing to the eye, but the difference between them and chrome or nickel is negligible.

Higher frequencies than I can hear to produce clarity?!;0 Absolute BS!!!

More expensive boutique parts to produce a better amp. Sorry, but more BS!

Not sure who’s been spreading this stuff, but I’ve been playing since the 70’s and never heard any of this nonsense from players that were older, wiser, and more accomplished than myself.

Hope your next post is a bit more relevant to anyone besides ill-informed kids.

John Lattimer

Kirk Smith
Kirk Smith

September 21, 2017

You’re right on. We 15 and 16 year-olds could never figure out how a Fender Twin rated at 85W could blow the livin’ socks off of a solid-state Vox Super Beatle (the ones made in California) rated at 240W. And where are the boutique parts in my antique Bassman 410? Huh?

Kevin Greer
Kevin Greer

September 21, 2017

Is this a typo?:
Even though humans “can” hear beyond 20kHz, audio equipment needs to be able to reproduce higher frequencies to insure clarity.
Did you mean: “can’t”, or “can”?

Russell Evans
Russell Evans

September 21, 2017

Point to point wiring. Myth? Or truly better?

Robert England
Robert England

September 21, 2017

What about class A sounding “truer” or more “natural” than AB? I have both and A to me is practice/writing, AB is the gig rig, so it seems like playing volume perception and wattage.

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