Tube vs. Solid State Guitar Amps: Things to Consider

Tube vs. Solid State Guitar Amps: Things to Consider

September 15, 2016 13 Comments

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.

SX300 3 Channel 100 Watt Solid State Combo Amp

SX300 3 Channel 100W Solid State Combo Amp

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.



13 Responses

Kenny
Kenny

October 09, 2016

Over the years I’ve played both tube and solid state amps. My experience has been that tube amps have to be babied and treated gently or you’ll have a problem. I’ve had (2) tube amps literally blow luckily at rehearsal. I know it was from the constant moving from gig to gig, being bounced and bumped around in the trunk of my car, etc. My solid states endured the same movement and never gave me a problem. As far as sound, I will say there is no sound sweeter than the warmth of a tube amp. I get that sweet warmth from my Carvin SX300 which is a solid state. Reliable, built like a tank, and durable. I also have a Fender solis state that doesn’t compare in sound. The Carvin SX series are awesome for all styles of music.

Carey
Carey

September 21, 2016

Honestly I think tube vs. solid state has less to do with an amplifier’s tone than the speaker. With a solidbody electric guitar I would argue that pickups and speakers each make more impact on tone than the tube/solid state thing. Quality cables, clean, solid iternal wiring, and minimizing cable length also make a positive difference. In the end this comes down to mechanical energy (string vibration) being converted to electrical energy via a magnetic transducer (the pickup) which determines the input bandwidth. The electrical energy after being amplified will then be converted back to mechanical energy via another transducer (the speaker) which determines the output bandwidth. The bandwidth in the middle can never be wider than the two ends of the chain allow.

Jim balzarini
Jim balzarini

September 18, 2016

I have owned a solid state Acoustic 470 amp since 1975. I toured
With it for 7 yrs straight 6 nights a week, then sporadically since then.
My son used it quite a bit in his rock band. Never had any trouble
With it. It came with a 4×12 cab that I blew all the speakers . They
Couldn’t handle the power of the head which has never been up
Past 5. Have traveled with tube amps also and had to change
Tubes in the middle of a road trip which wasn’t easy . If the amp
Gets bumped around in travel it can damage tubes. If you use
A good distortion pedal you can hardly tell the difference in a
Live setting. Having said all that I just got a Carvin V3M tube
Amp that I love paired with my Carvin CS6

Charles Davis
Charles Davis

September 18, 2016

I’m surprised at the claim in this article that solid state amps are more reliable than tube amps. That has absolutely NOT been my experience.

I currently have about ten amps, or so, both tube and ss, including two of Carvin’s solid state amps. EVERY solid state amp I own, current and past, have had to be repaired multiple times over the tubes.. The five ss amps I have now have been repaired a total of eight times and I rarely use them — a dozen times a year. The tube amps, have been repaired three times in the last 15 years and I use them over a hundred times a year. I’ve retubed one, replaced the reverb jacks on another, and rebiased one. Normal maintenance.

The ss amps have malfunctioned in the middle of gig and started squealing, they have quit in the middle of the gig, but tube amps keep going. I’ve owned 4 Carvin amps in my life going back to the early 1970s with the Band Leader BL1250 and the Super Band Leader. The only one that needed no repair was the tube amp.

Richard Ambrose
Richard Ambrose

September 17, 2016

This is a great article. Tells the needed facts about tube vs. s.s. Personally, I’m a tube amp guy, just my preference. I have heard some great modeling amps & some horrible ones. And yes, some tube amps are better sounding than others, do your homework, then plug in & LISTEN! I purchased a Nomad in 1996 that I still use. Its clean channel is GREAT! And yes, I’ve gone through lots of tubes during the years. At the time, I wanted a combo that was lighter than the 2 X 12 75lb combo I was lugging around. In larger venues, I just plugged in 2 X 12 cabinets to the Nomad. People were always surprised how great the amp sounded, thinking it was a Peavey or Fender. As time progressed, I bought the V3m! Great idea! 3 channels, all I needed for live gigs, very compact!. Never needed a distortion pedal, I could always dial it in. People commented on how good the sound was out of it too. And the few times I called tech support, they were friendly & gave me the answers I needed to know. And yes, the Bel Air with its 2 X 12’s, does sound richer than the 1 X 12 Nomad(DUH! more speakers is NEVER bad!), but I was looking for a smaller amp at the time. I love both of these amps!

John
John

September 16, 2016

I have an old Crate g40c that has G8L-35 CELESTION SPEAKERS. These amps were made by SLM (aka Ampeg). I is my secret weapon for recording. Even the distortion is crazy great! When people hear it and I tell them what I used. Their jaw drops.

Douglas Robinson
Douglas Robinson

September 16, 2016

I’m glad to hear someone suggest that a solid state amp may actually be the right choice for some players. Of course many (but not all) Jazz players and others who’s primary sound is based on an accurate clean sound have preferred solid-state amps, but there are also lots of solid-state amps, like the Carvin SX300, that can produce a great dirty sound. I personally know a couple incredible guitar players who love the way their solid-state amps sound and love not having to worry about the road causing their amp to give out at a sound check just before a gig. I’m also glad that you pointed out the need for higher wattage with solid-state amps than what you may think you need, due to the gnarly way the power section sounds when it goes into overdrive (i.e. solid-state “clipping”). Thankfully, watts are cheap with solid-state amps, so a 100 watt transistor amp is way less expensive than any decent tube alternative. Of course the most important thing stated in the article was that, what other people say about this or that type of amp (class A, class AB, high gain, low gain, solid state, whatever), their opinions should be secondary in your decision to buy any given amp compared to what an amp sounds like TO YOU when you play through it. If you like what an amp sounds like, well… what else need I say.

Antonio Cavicchioni
Antonio Cavicchioni

September 16, 2016

I used to have a SX300, but it was too heavy. I love the sound of the 300, but has Carvin considered to design a lighter solid state amp? I believe the SX 100 is discontinued. Thanks.

Joe Parrish
Joe Parrish

September 16, 2016

Hello!
Just want to tell you all that I’m really enjoying your very informative articles! To be truthful, I was just deleting them for a long time! But then I started reading some that seemed to interest me and now I either read them immediately upon receiving them or I keep them in a file for reading later. There is much more to owning an amplifyer than I actually knew before reading your very informative articles. I currently own a VX3 with a half stack speaker and I just love it. It is my only tube amp thus far.
Keep those articles coming!!
joe

John Arevalo
John Arevalo

September 16, 2016

I started out with a Heathkit 100 watt rig utilizing a head and two cabinets with 2- 12s and a horn. It sounded great actually. I would dime the knobs and it would scream. The problem was that it was screaming because I was destroying it. It had huge power transistors with gigantic heatsinks that couldn’t handle the rock’n’roll torture. Also the horns would blew really easily.
Fast forward to 1976, I bought a Peavey with a solid-state pre-amp and 4 6L6s for power and 1- 12in. It looked almost like a Boogie wannabe. It was nice and loud but the tone just wasn’t right. I later learned that the opposite setup – a tube pre and ss power section would’ve been way better.
Then in 87 I got a Boogie MKIII simul-class combo. It sounds amazing and yes it does require an active maintenance schedule… but it’s so worth it.
Since then I’ve purchased a couple of solid state combos for their light weights. They just don’t deliver that interactive tone control that tubes provide.
Perhaps your design works. I’ll have to try one someday. I live too far from the showroom.
Your guitars however, are the best I’ve ever experienced. THANK YOU.

Richard Wilcox
Richard Wilcox

September 16, 2016

Well from what I just read I will need to do test between the SX300 vs. the Belair. I still love the warmth of the tube amp over the solid state. When I get a chance I would like to come down to test both units side by side.

Devon Tucker
Devon Tucker

September 16, 2016

I play a Kiesel DC 600 through a 50 watt Marshall Vintage Modern combo in a house band for one of the big casinos. I love my tone, but it is at times to loud depending on the type of music we are playing. This an unfortinate side effect of an all tube amp. I’m considering the Carvin SX 300 or the Carvin V3M with it’s adjustable wattage settings to help reign in the volume to keep the sound guy happy. I played both Carvin amps at the show room recently while in Southern California and was impressed by both. Decisions, decisions.

Tim Starin
Tim Starin

September 16, 2016

Solid state guitar amplifiers generally have much less headroom than comparable wattage tube amps, and usually cannot be heard very well over the rest of the band. I’ve seen on many occasions that 50 watt tube amps can be heard over 150 watt solid state guitar amps. This is not true for bass amplifiers.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Also in Guitar / Bass Amplifier Info & Education

Jack of All Trades: Build a Modular Pedalboard
Jack of All Trades: Build a Modular Pedalboard Part 1

February 20, 2018

In light of the rapidly growing popularity of boutique guitar pedals, more and more players are finding themselves confronted by the challenge of moving and setting up all those different pedals. Gigging musicians have an even more difficult challenge of addressing a wide variety of venues and styles in an age when almost every gig is a one-nighter. 

Read More

Warning Signs That You Are Overpowering Your Bass Guitar Cabinet
Warning Signs That You Are Overpowering Your Bass Guitar Cabinet

October 03, 2017 13 Comments

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.

Read More

Quick Clips: BX250 Micro Bass Amp and 1x15 Cab

September 26, 2017

Quick Clips: BX250 Micro Bass Amp and 1x15 Cab

Even with all the EQ controls set to Zero, you can get a wide range of tones from one knob on the BX250 250W Micro Bass Amp HeadWatch the video to check it out.

Read More