If you were to buy a new guitar amplifier tomorrow, what would be your primary consideration? For many musicians, it would be what gives them the tone they want. It may also be based on what their musical heroes use. And it's completely understandable- we all want gear that speaks to us, our audience and helps to shape our signature sound.
But the choice of which gear is more than just what sounds good, because there are lots of great sounding amplifiers. It's about what is reliable and what fits your lifestyle. In fact, buying a new amp is a lot like buying a car- it's your responsibility to pick something that will fit your current needs and will stick with you for the long haul, especially if you gig a lot. Amps can really take a beating being loaded up and down stairs, onto stages, and into cars night after night. If the amp is going to sit pretty in the studio and never be moved, that's one thing. If it's going to be a touring workhorse, some additional considerations need to be made.
Tube amps often have a reputation as being less reliable than their solid state counterparts. While some guitarists have tales of all-tube amps that went for years without needing to be serviced, the fact remains that tube amps do require more maintenance. Preamp tubes go bad slowly with normal use losing their sharpness and tone. While power tubes need to need to be replaced before they break down and fail. It's all part of the job, and part of the bill of owning a tube amplifier. If you're a tube amp guru who knows how to maintain your amp, and may even enjoy working on your own amps, the inevitable maintenance that goes into owning a tube amp is probably a labor of love. For musicians who want to power on and plug in without having to think about much else, tube amps may not offer the best peace of mind.
Solid state amps are generally more dependable, since they utilize transistors in place of tubes. Back in the early days of solid state amps many musicians would say they lack the warm, responsive tones of tube amps, but with all the years of tube emulation circuits this is said much less and sometimes the tone is preferred creating new tones in new genres of music. Overdriving a solid state power amp will clip it in an instant, resulting in a fuzzy, harsh sound. A tube amp enters clipping more gradually, going into an overdrive compression mode, with a more natural sounding grit and increased harmonic content before it goes into harsh clipping. With today’s typically lower power guitar amp needs on stage and higher power solid state amplifiers available, this has also become less of an issue in solid state amplifiers.
Of course, nothing beats plugging into an amp and firing it up to see if it’s right for you. You may, for instance, enjoy the sound of a Carvin Audio SX300 as much as the all tube Belair. Your choice of amp should definitely be based on what sounds good to you, but also how that amp accommodates your musical situation.
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Even if you’ve matched your bass head and cab properly impedance wise and set your amp for clean sound, sending simply too much power to your bass cab can result in blown speakers. This often happens when you are using a rig you are unfamiliar with, as we tend to know the limitations of our own equipment and have chosen that setup for a reason. Borrowing another bassist’s amp or using a backline rig only to blow it up is definitely not a great feeling.