Tube Amplifiers vs. Solid State Amplifiers

September 21, 2016

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“You need to heat the tubes up first man, then you crank it all the way up.” These sound like the words of many people out there including people like Eddie Van Halen and Zakk Wylde who famously use tube amplifiers. The debate between tube amplifiers and solid state amplifiers is pretty much a one sided argument, most people usually favor tube amps over solid state amps. Why though? Let’s dive deeper into it.

This is a very technical subject so you will hear a lot of snobs talk about this in such detail, but this post will try to make it simple enough for you to understand.

Tube Amplifiers

Vacuum tubes from a tube amplifier
Tube amps use one or more vacuum tubes to amplify an electric signal. The tubes in the guitar amp are a lot like light bulbs, there’s a glass housing that seals the components in a vacuum. I won’t get too into it, but I’ll try to make it so that it’s understandable. There’s a cathode in the tube that produces electricity that is a lot like a part inside of  a light bulb that is part of that metal apparatus you see.

The more electricity, the louder the sound gets. Your guitar pickups send sound out an electric signal through connection of your wire plugged into the amp. That signal enters your amplifier and is routed through the tubes. Electricity causes the heating element in the tube (which heats the tube up to make things possible) to get hot, which releases electrons.

This is when your amp settings come into play. The electrons are then sent through the grid and then sound comes out of the speakers depending on how loud you have your amp set for.

So basically the hotter your tubes are, the louder and better you can sound.

Tubes that are used to create the signature sound of tube amplifiers need to be replaced after a while, so keep that in mind.

Tube amplifiers also usually have a standby mode. During the standby made the tubes get heated but the sound is muted.

My personal favorite tube amp right now is the Blackstar HT 5 Combo.

Solid State Amplifiers

Marshall solid state amplifier
You can research for hours and maybe you might find some information that’s not understandable at all. Solid State amps don’t use cathodes or heat or any of that to send a signal to the speakers. They use solid state electronics to amplify a signal. That is all that you need to know about them to know what is important in this argument. This a Marshall MG30CFX, which was on my list of best beginner guitar amps.

The Showdown: Tube Amps vs Solid State Amps

So many more people prefer tube amps and the way that the signal is amplified has everything to do with it. The tube amp has the heating element which makes the tube amps sound “warm”. If you’re a beginner you might hear the term warm and say how the heck can something sound warm. I was just like this until I heard it for myself and I got it.

Listen to a Guns n’ Roses solo like the ones on “Knockin’ on Heavens Door”  while really playing attention to the guitar playing the solo. That is what warm sounds like. Funny enough, Slash uses a Marshall JCM 800, which is a tube amp. Solid state amps don’t use heat for anything so they don’t have this warm sound.  It’s all in the ear of the beholder really.

Another thing about solid state amps is that they can’t take a lot of distortion. Tube amps do distortion at high levels way better than solid state amps. Solid Marshall Tube Amplifierstate amps tend to “break up” with a lot of distortion.

Solid State Amps Aren’t All Bad

Usually they are the guitar amps for beginners because they cost much less to make. They are also usually much lighter and require no maintenance like tube amps. They also aren’t as delicate as tube amps which have glass inside of them. You can get a solid state amp to sound like a tube amp with some tweaks, but that is not what this post is about. You’d pick tube amps right out of the gate if that was the desired sound. If you have a budget and you have no other option, you’ll probably get a solid state amp and that’s fine. You might want to upgrade to a tube amp later or you might not.

As humans, we use the logic that if something costs more than it’s better. We’ll make things up in our own heads to justify how “it’s better because it’s more expensive.” This has a little bit to do with this argument. Tube amplifiers cost much more than solid state amps. By this standard they have to be better, right?

Back in the day when solid state amplifiers were first used they really were inferior but now they’re becoming close in level to the tube amps. This stigma might never leave though.

If you’re an intermediate or beginner guitarist, check out my list of the best guitar amps for beginners and intermediate players.

Tube amps or solid state amps? Comment your pick and why. Let’s start a discussion.

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