Tube Vs. Solid State Amps

Posted in: Instruments by A Hollow on July 9th, 2008 | 20 Comments

Any gigging musician has at some point asked and been asked, “What’s the difference between Tube and Solid State?” followed promptly by the discussion of which is “better”. This article is meant to break down a sample of the pros and cons for both types of amps. This article scratches the surface of a complicated opinionated question.

I have been a performing guitarist for a little over a decade and from the first time I played on stage and again this past week I am constantly asked the same questions. You know what they are: What kind of gear do you use? Really I have a… blah blah blah. So what do you think is better Solid State or Tube?

Ultimately, this (and essentially on some level everything musical) is a discussion of taste and preference. Country and blue grass lean towards the telecasters and steel guitars just as much as Metal and Deathcore enjoy seven string madness and blast beats. But in the end there are some facts that anyone amp shopping should keep in my mind.
I have played a lot of amps in both the Solid State and Tube realm. I won’t tell you what I currently use so that you won’t right me off as a waste of time based on brand name preferences.

Let’s start by breaking down the Pro’s and Con’s of Solid State and Tube amps.
Solid State PRO’s:

  • They usually have fabulous clean sounds, crisp and accurate almost to a fault
  • They are quick and responsive
  • They can take more abuse because there are very few fragile parts
  • They require less maintenance
  • They can be used to ‘model’ other amplifiers with the push of a button or flip of a switch

Solid State CON’s:

  • They have no warmth or emotion, solid state sounds cold and sterile (compare electric drums to acoustic)
  • Built in distortion is terrible all low and mid priced amps. If you don’t have a huge wad to drop on a Solid State amp your distortion will be harsh and irritating rather than ballsy and ‘rockin’ (yes, some people like the harsh sound… keep it in the garage junior cause that won’t get you on a stage)
  • Solid State amps tend to all sound the same no matter what they are, who is using it, or what guitar is plugged in. Their tone is static.

Tube PRO’s:

  • They are best known for their exceptional warmth. The longer you “warm up” a set of tubes the better your sound quality and tone get. This is hard to quantify but we will look at some of the physics later.
  • They have a tone variety. Each tube amp sounds different according the specifics of the manufacturer and tube combinations; as well as, the tube amps response to an individual player. There are arguable endless combinations of sounds that can be made by “tweaking” the tube combinations in the same model of amp.
  • They have depth with fat and thick sounds that get fatter and thicker as the volume is turned up. A 30watt tube amp sounds HUGE next to 200 watt solid state amp.
  • They possess supreme distortion. Tubes by their very nature distort sound in a natural and pleasing way. Whether you want an edgy rhythm or a screaming lead a tube can be meant to bend to your specifics.

Tube CON’s

  • Maintaining a tube amp can be costly. Tubes must be maintained and replaced costing anywhere from $40 to $300, depending on the type and number of tubes you use. Since tubes are made of glass a shock to an amp head can crack. A slight pro to this is the fact that 8/10 problems that occur with a Tube amp are made from a dying or broken tube and can be fixed as easily as replacing a light bulb. Solid state is more likely to require some engineering skills.
  • A strange con is the fact that to get quality sound from a tube amp the tubes need to be pushed in volume. This is great if you are a touring musician but it can be bothersome if you are practicing in a two bedroom apartment with irritable neighbors.
  • If you have a bad back a tube amp will piss you off. They are heavier than their solid state counterparts. Plus it is advisable to get a road case to further protect your investment, probably adding fifty pounds. Do like me and get flight cases equipped with wheels. But, if you plan to add a 4×12 cabinet to your head, solid or tube, then invest in a gym membership while you’re at it.

The Myths:

The price of Tube amps has been slightly exaggerated. If you’ve got a couple hundred bucks to spend on an amp you can get a new tube amp. In all cases musical the more expensive the better. A vintage or boutique tube combo can run you two to five grand. There isn’t much point to buying a twenty year old solid state amp. You can get a bigger solid state amp for cheaper but the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is typical when looking at the price tag on a both tube and solid state amps. I bought an 80watt Marshall Combo for about $450 dollars in 1998. In 2001 I bought a Mesa Subway Rocket 15watt combo for about the same price. On a personal note, that was the changing point for me and I won’t go back to solid state. Some of you look at the wattage and are saying “Wow, that’s a step down!” That little Mesa combo drowned that Marshall two times over.

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20 Responses to “Tube Vs. Solid State Amps”
  • Evan August 19th, 2008 at 9:28 am

    Awesome article. I am interested to hear that this is still a problem even with today “modeling” amps. I am an aspiring Electrical Engineer and don’t really know much about music/ amps. Also, I don’t know if you read the comments on your articles, but if you do I would like to ask you a few questions. Is there a better way to contact you?

  • Jonny December 1st, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Excellent article. Great points on all fronts….

    I’d love to hear your take on pedal boards (several different stand alone pedals) vs multi-fx pedals (Boss GT-5, ect.)

  • Raja April 18th, 2009 at 1:49 am

    Kick Ass article nice work very informative i am waiting for the next one.

  • Joe July 2nd, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Great article. Personally I dropped 300 bucks on a 75w line 6 solid state, but I now wish that I had saved up more money to get a lower wattage tube. Oh well.

  • Chuck July 5th, 2009 at 2:00 am

    Couldn’t disagree more. I’ve been playing and making money at it for 30+ years. Recorded everywhere from tiny home studios to the BBC in Maida Vale, London. Amps–I’ve owned ‘em all–Marshalls, Fenders, Mesa-Boogies. Last 7 years it’s been all Line 6–now I’m using an XT Live. Dialed in, it sounds awesome. Problem is, most players don’t dial it it. It takes time and patience, and careful listening. Cranking the gain to 11, scooping the mids, etc will give you horrible tone. So don’t crank the gain and scoop the mids. Then plug it into a (yes, tube powered) Atomic Reactor. You won’t miss those 12AX7s.

    For that matter, it’s easy to get a horrible sound out of a great tube amp. Including a Boogie (I owned a Mark III for years–great amp–but you can make it sound BAD without much effort). Also owned a blackface Deluxe, and had two JCM800s in my basement. All can sound horrible if dialed in wrong.

    But agree on the Spider series. Not good amps.

  • James July 10th, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    lol this is so true,
    when i started out playing guitar, i got a Marshall MG50DFX
    because i figured, higher wattage, and MARSHALL for a low price
    but when i heard my friends little tube Traynor, there\’s a presence and crunch that even the frequency dependent dampening on my Marsh cant copy. What’s funny is that over time since i’ve been playing with this amp, i’ve been using less and less distortion, and im almost at the lowest gain, and i think ive found a pretty nice niche in the sound. considering I only spent $250 on it i’m not complaining cause i did really get my money\’s worth..
    but maybe in another few years ill get a tube

  • Saraceni October 10th, 2009 at 12:49 am

    I am using a Tech 21 Trademark 60 Solid State and for Tube I use the 6505/5150 Peavey. Both I used for my recordings and for distortion or clean works. For live gigs I use the 6505 Tube .

  • Al February 20th, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Wait a minute… Wattage ISN’T an awesome meter?

    That’s just crazy talk.

  • mikey March 16th, 2010 at 3:19 am

    I recently found a Crate v18 2-12 tube combo .They were asking $150 bucks for.I talked the guy down to $100 bucks for(what a steal) I’m on a real tight budget,But anyway Ive been playing guitar for 20+yrs.OMG solid state is junk.Sounds like crap.If you have any kinda ear for tone ,and your not retarded then you damn well know tube is the only way to go.Its like the difference between an epiphone and a real Les paul.you cant compare them.I will never own another solid state piece a crap ever again as long as i live.I like the ones with less tubes like i said im on a budget.My solid state junkers are on the chopping block as we speak.im thinking about getting a black heart when these junkers are gone.Can you say warm tone!!

  • Mark March 31st, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    The article is pretty accurate if we were comparing straight up ( no DSP) solid state amps vs tube amps. However the modeling technology is pretty good now. I think its getting harder to tell a modeling amp from a tube amp on a recording. Some claim that the modeling amp may sound good recorded , but can’t handle live situations. This is partially true. If you don’t have a quality PA , then amplifying a modeled sound through an amplifier that will begin to introduce its own distortion will not sound good.So for a band that just live mixes amps and has no PA, tube amps are probably still the way to go. Of course I am assuming a loud band here. If the music isn’t high decibel rock then a modeling amp can probably cut through without breaking up.

  • NeCrom-X June 25th, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    It all depends on how much you want to spend a cheap amp is a cheap amp and a quality one is a quality one. You can get the exact same sound out of tube and solid state.

    Tube amps are purposely made the way they are to make you think there is a difference. I work for an electronics engineer and I was talking to him about this so we prototyped two amps real quick a tube based one and a solid state one with the same quality of auxiliary parts. The output of the two on a scope had identical output in the traces and sounded the same when running a mic or a guitar through them.

  • fiddler December 22nd, 2010 at 3:47 am

    good article!

    ive heard some tube amps sound terrible, and SS or hybrid amps sound great. depends on the playing (and pedalboard and/or EQ setup), doesnt it?

    article mentions 2-5K price range. yup, im sure we’d all buy tube stuff if that were our budget. mine is much lower.

  • Porkus_Bellus February 9th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Tubes have warmth? What a bunch of crap. If there was any signal difference between tube vs transistor amplification then a solid state TV would look like hell as compared to an old tube set. It’s all in your head Bubba.

    Due to it’s superiority, the whole world has gone solid state digital. Even the telephone company which has always been 20 years behind the technology.

  • Thomas February 21st, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    The television industry is a Completely different ball game. Let’s stay on point.
    Yes, modeling has gotten a lot better, and yes, it is hard to hear the difference.
    I think it comes to preference, but-there is no replacement for a good tube amp.
    People complaining about them sounding crappy may have tried one of the lowest of the low end tube amps.
    I’m not saying you need to spend a bundle. But you get what you pay for.
    A small, 15 or 30 watt amp through a 2×12 cab is all the amp you’ll ever need.
    Cranked, it sounds fantastic. Turned down, it may be harder to get a good sound.
    One way I’ve found on my rig to counter that is to turn the gain down.
    Over time, I’ve found I use less gain than most of my peers…leaving me free to turn the volume up.
    In short, it’s nice for me to walk into Guitar Center and look at the solid state amps, but I won’t play on them.
    Give me a good tube amp any day.
    There’s a reason the greats built their careers on tube amps, and why people sh*t themselves when back in the day, everyone thought that transistor amps were going to be the only amps around in the days to come.
    Get one of the lunchbox amps like the Orange Tiny Terror (which is what I use through an Orange closed back 2×12), a Fender Blues Junior, Mesa Transatlantic, Marshall Haze, Peavy classic 30, Vox Night Train or the new, low wattage Egnater amps.
    Happy playing.

  • Thomas February 21st, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    The television industry is a Completely different ball game. Let\’s stay on point.
    Yes, modeling has gotten a lot better, and yes, it is hard to hear the difference.
    I think it comes to preference, but-there is no replacement for a good tube amp.
    People complaining about them sounding crappy may have tried one of the lowest of the low end tube amps.
    I\’m not saying you need to spend a bundle. But you get what you pay for.
    A small, 15 or 30 watt amp through a 2×12 cab is all the amp you\’ll ever need.
    Cranked, it sounds fantastic. Turned down, it may be harder to get a good sound.
    One way I\’ve found on my rig to counter that is to turn the gain down.
    Over time, I\’ve found I use less gain than most of my peers…leaving me free to turn the volume up.
    In short, it\’s nice for me to walk into Guitar Center and look at the solid state amps, but I won\’t play on them.
    Give me a good tube amp any day.
    There\’s a reason the greats built their careers on tube amps, and why people sh*t themselves when back in the day, everyone thought that transistor amps were going to be the only amps around in the days to come.
    Get one of the lunchbox amps like the Orange Tiny Terror (which is what I use through an Orange closed back 2×12), a Fender Blues Junior, Mesa Transatlantic, Marshall Haze, Peavy classic 30, Vox Night Train or the new, low wattage Egnater amps.
    Happy playing.

  • Gray Ghost May 11th, 2011 at 4:36 am

    You have a great narrative on difference between tube and solid state amps. I agree with everything you said. For the upcoming bluesman that think you can only get the blues through a tube amp, think again! The blues is a st5ate3 of mind that is transferred through your body to an instument and your voice. The great bluesmen played through a cheap guitar that was nrarely in tune using a butterknife as a slide. Can you find a blues sound on a solid state amp? Sure you can ! Many musicians copied the electrified blues sound because the first amps were tubes. If Chuck Berry or T-bone had used solid state the influence of rock and roll would have been measured with a different yardstick. Blues is made with what ever equipment the artist has at hand. Don’t be afraid to let you soul out on a solid state amp. Ten years from now equipment will change and the sound will change. Don’t be afraid to develope your own sound whether it be with a tube amp, solid strate amp or wax paper and a comb.

  • Francis May 20th, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    I ve got a solid state amp and 40 years old tube amp – all vitage, never modified.

    I love tube sound, but i do not notice wattage difference between them.

    All techs say: there is no difference between 30 w tube and 30 w solid state. And it makes sense. It is a myth.

    But the sound difference is patent. I prefer tube but i like solid too.

  • Dallas September 8th, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Thanks for all of your tips, however I disagree with one of your last statements. There are many 15+ year old solid state amps that are famous for their sound quality, even today.

    In fact, I purchased a Crown Com-Tech 400 from 1996 with a bad channel for $75. It needs to be cleaned and refurbished but even with just one channel working, my Com-Tech’s sound quality is great and its power is exceptional for the wattage.

    Also, my Com-Tech is incredibly complex even compared to some quality amps build today. It appears to have around 1000 components…

  • tubemeister May 9th, 2012 at 4:40 am

    Wow, the SS cons are so stereotype and totally subjective that there’s no point in reading on, really.

  • Billy August 1st, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    I’ve been using SS amps since 1969 and my audience continuously asks what kind of tubes I’m using. When I tell them I use MJ15003’s and 4’s they look at me puzzled and say what kind of tubes are those? I tell them that they are NPN and PNP transistors, not tubes. Now my custom built SS amp looks like it’s an old 1950’s piece of tube equipment and thus this is probably where the confusion comes from. You can’t really tell tubes from solid state in the hands of someone who knows how to get the sweetest sound out of an amp. I realized long ago that it’s all in the way you play, not what you play through. I’ve used some real junk in the studio over the years that wound up sounding fantastic.

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