Getting started in the world of electric guitars and basses can be quite a daunting task. Finally, after you painstakingly picked the perfect guitar for your needs, analyzing pickup combinations, build materials, body styles, neck profiles, and every other minute variation you can find, it’s time to pick an amp, and the entire process starts over again!
To help guide you on your journey, like a torch in the dark, let’s talk about the two basic options that face you when choosing an amp. Do you need a tube amp or a solid state amp — and what’s the difference?
How does that poem go? Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…
What is a tube amp? – Warm, classic, and vintage
It’s like the Beatles traveling from their flat to Abbey Road: They’re gonna take The Tube to get there!
Tube amps, also called valve amps, use ancient magic technology called vacuum tubes to create their incredible tone. A vacuum tube is a glass cylinder containing a few electrodes that control the flow of electric current inside a gas-free space (told you they were magic).
As the signal from an electric guitar flows through the tubes, charges are sent whizzing back and forth to create the tone, and the amplified signal is sent to the speakers and straight into your audience’s faces.
These types of vacuum tubes used to be in all sorts of electronic devices like (*checks notes) cathode ray tube TVs and radios — whatever those are — but all of that has since fallen to the wayside with the progress of modern technology. Today, vacuum tubes are mostly outdated — just like everything in your closet — but they’re still used in amplifier production.
Benefits of tube amps
Most gear snobs will tell you that tube amps are the best type of amp. They offer more tonal warmth, response, and dynamic abilities. They also tend to give the player more tonal capabilities. If you crank your gain high enough, the signal will oversaturate the tubes and create that lovely fuzz or distorted sound that rockers everywhere know and love.
Because of the ability to oversaturate the tubes, a 20-watt tube amp can easily hit the same decibel range of a 100-watt solid-state amp! So don’t think that “puny” 30-watt Orange TH30 won’t be enough to blow your ears out.
- Warmer tone
- Better response and dynamics
- Natural distortion
Downsides of tube amps
Yeah, yeah, tube amps are great, but there’s nothing perfect in life. Tube amps take their sweet time to warm up — literally! The tubes need to build some heat before they can amplify the signal properly. If you want the best tone, you should let the tubes in your amp warm up for at least 15-30 minutes.
And what happens if you don’t let your tube amp warm up before rocking out? Typically nothing drastic. You just won’t get the warmest, richest tone you could out of your amp. However, in some super-rare cases, you could break a tube, leading to the next downside of tube amps:
There are more breakable parts in tube amps — aka the fragile glass tubes! Don’t let these amps knock around in the back of your 1994 Honda Civic on the way to your next $50 gig. And even worse, there has been a major tube shortage that started around 2020, so you might not even be able to replace your damaged tubes.
Luckily, the tube shortage seems like it might be over soon, with many amp manufacturers pumping out their own versions of the beloved outdated tech, but it’s still something to consider when purchasing your next tube amp.
You’ll also be carrying more weight to each of your gigs, since tube amps are typically a good bit heavier than their solid-state counterparts. There’s just more heavy (ancient) tech inside those covers to haul around. Maybe it’s time to get a roadie?
And finally, because tube amps are highly prized by gear snobs around the world, they tend to be on the more expensive side of the guitar amplification world.
- Takes 15-30 minutes to warm up
- Fragile parts
- Higher cost
What is a solid-state amp? – Ready to rock ‘round the clock
You know how TVs used to be all big and heavy, then sometime around the early 2000s they all got real skinny? Well, the same thing happened to amps.
Some engineering smarty pants figured out a way to hardwire and solder transistors, resistors, and capacitors in an amp to amplify the guitar’s signal and drive the speaker without using tubes — similar to a computer chip. These tubeless guitar amps became known solid-state amps.
Benefits of solid-state amps
Because they don’t have tubes to warm up, solid-state amps are ready to rock ‘round the clock (just in case you didn’t read the super-creative heading). Just plug in, turn on the amp, and it’s ready to go to 11 right away without worrying about breaking anything or having a diminished tone.
Speaking of tone, solid-state amps are beloved for their dazzling cleans. Without the natural distortion of the tubes, solid-state amps can maintain better clean tones and at higher volumes than tube amps. They’re very popular with jazz players. Plus, you can always get that dirty, distorted tone just by plugging in a few pedals.
Also without those fragile little tubes, solid-state amps are much more durable. You can beat them around on stage and on the road without much worry about breaking anything. I mean, don’t throw them out your tour bus window… but they can definitely take a few heavy drops without issue.
And just like the TVs of yore, the advancement of solid-state technology means they’re typically much smaller and lighter than their tube counterparts. They’re also not quite as expensive for the same power of amp.
- No warm up needed
- Cleaner tones
- Less expensive
Downsides of solid-state amps
Okay gear nerds, this one’s for you:
Yes, you’re right. Solid-state amps can’t get the same level of warmth, response, and distortion as a good tube amp. If you’re a true audiophile, you’ll notice a big difference between the tones. There’s a reason tube amps are used by basically every legendary guitar player throughout history.
Think of it like this: Tube amps are like listening to your favorite song on vinyl, while solid-state amps are like streaming on Spotify. It’s the same song but with very different tones and feels (and ease of use).
It should also be noted that while cranking tube amps to 11 sounds spectacular with the oversaturation, it’s not quite the same with solid-state amps. Their “oversaturation” as you turn them up sounds more like a crackling speaker crying for help (which is basically what’s happening…).
- Tone not as good as tube amps
- Don’t sound great when volume is pushed to the limit
What is a hybrid amp? – Best of both worlds?
Hybrid amps, as you might suspect, take aspects of both solid-state and tube amps and combine them into one glorious sound-producing machine! You can get two different types of hybrid amps:
- Tube preamp (input) with solid-state power amp (output)
- Solid-state preamp (input) with a tube power amp (output)
The basic idea behind hybrid amps is that you can get that awesome tube sound and distortion with the reliability and enhanced signal processing power of a solid-state amp.
But like any Frankenstein combination, hybrid amps aren’t true tube amps, and neither are they true solid-state amps. They end up having their own unique tone and capabilities that players may or may not like. Basically, just go try one and find out!
You’ll find hybrid amps mostly in the bass world. They’re great for blending the perfect combination of highs and lows. Check out the Ampeg SVT3PRO if you want to see a great hybrid bass amp in action!
What is a digital amp? – Sounds and effects galore
Digital amps don’t leave tone up to something as archaic and simple as tubes or transistors. They use digital algorithms! This is the 21st Century, after all…
Powered by microprocessors, digital amps can mirror nearly any tone. They can match amp and cabinet combinations, genres, effects, or even specific decades of music. You’ll find that most modeling amps are digital.
Now, here’s the tricky part. All digital amps are solid-state amps, but not all solid-state amps are digital amps. It all depends on whether the amp has a digital algorithm powering the tone.
And if your amp doesn’t have a digital algorithm to swap tones in an instant, you can easily get one with a modeling pedal like the HeadRush.
Which type of amp is best?
Just like with anything in the music world, there’s no such thing as the “best” type of amp. Whether you choose a solid-state or tube amp all depends on your personal tonal preferences and your playing style.
If you’re looking for an amp that can handle some abuse and make a great clean tone, a solid-state amp would probably make more sense. If you’re ready to become the next Hendrix and get the absolute best distorted tone possible, tube amps might be more your speed.
Think about your needs as a guitar or bass player and choose an amp that checks the most of your “must-have” boxes. And when in doubt, try it out! The best way to see if you like an amp is to test it for yourself.
At AMS, we offer a 45-day money-back guarantee on your purchase. If an amp tickles your fancy, we’ll ship it right to your house, you can play it for a month and a half, and if you don’t like it, just send it back and try something else. However long it takes, we’ll help you find the perfect amp to fit your sonic needs!
AMS amp top picks
Now that you know the difference between tube and solid-state amps, let’s take that knowledge into the real world. To help you get started on the search for your perfect amp, here are our picks for best solid-state and tube amps, straight from the AMS gear nerds:
Tube amp top pick: Marshall DSL40CR
When it comes to tube amps that really rock, it’s hard to beat Marshall. If you’ve been to any rock concert in the past 50 years, you’ve probably seen a wall of Marshalls all lined up and looking crazy behind the band!
The Marshall DSL40CR is a 40-watt tube-driven combo amp. That means the tube head and the speaker are bundled up together in a nice all-in-one rocking unit. No need to buy separate parts!
Perhaps the best part of the Marshall DSL40CR (aside from the fact that it has that iconic Marshall tone) is that it comes with adjustable power settings. You can maintain that incredible tube distortion and tone regardless of volume.
When you’re ready to take your tube-driven tone to the next level, you know where to go:
Check out the Marshall DSL40CR combo tube amp
Tube amp budget pick: Fender Blues Junior
For another powerful tube combo amp at a slightly lower price tag, check out the Fender Blues Junior 15-watt tube combo amp. This little baby comes from a long line of legendary Fender tube amps, and it doesn’t disappoint!
Fender tube amps achieved legend status for a good reason. They’re some of the best in the biz! The Blues Junior comes with three 12AX7 preamp tubes and two EL84 output tubes. If that means nothing to you, just believe me when I say it sounds GREAT!
Finish the whole package off with a super-cool vintage tweed covering and you have a modern/vintage amp that sounds as good as it looks.
Check out the Fender Blues Junior combo tube amp
Solid-state top pick: Fender Tone Master Twin Reverb
Remember those legendary Fender amps we were talking about? Well one of those legendary amps is the Fender Twin Reverb Deluxe. While that might be a tube amp, the Fender Tone Master Twin Reverb is the solid-state version of that iconic amp, and it keeps up in terms of both tone, power, and looks!
With a whopping 200-watts of power, the Fender Tone Master uses digital processing power to achieve a painstakingly reproduced sound that’s identical to its tube-driven doppelganger — but without the warm up! In other words, it’s about as good as a solid-state amp can get.
Check out the Fender Tone Master Twin Reverb solid-state amp
Solid state budget pick: Boss Katana 50 MKII
What can less than $300 get you in the amp world? If you pick the Boss Katana 50 MKII, a heck of a lot!
Boss is a leader in the world of tone, especially with their line of effects pedals. The 50-watt Katana takes all that tonal excellence and packs it into a solid-state amp with built-in effects; Tube Logic design for extra power, punch and sustain; various cab resonance options; and power control.
As if that wasn’t enough, you can use the Boss Tone Studio software to customize your sound even more with tons of effects, channels, and EQ preferences to tweak your tone to the limit.
And did I mention it’s less than $300!? Oh, I did, but that’s crazy enough to mention twice!
Check out the Boss Katana 50 MKII solid-state amp