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Tech Tip: What's the Difference Between Tube and Solid-State Guitar Amps?

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Guitar Amps: Learn about the differences between tube, solid-state and hybrid amplifiers.

The simple answer is that a guitar tube amp uses one or more vacuum tubes to amplify the signal, while a solid-state guitar amp uses solid-state electronics (diodes, transistors, etc.) to amplify the signal. On paper and in theory these two approaches should yield identical result, but in actuality the difference is usually quite noticeable.

Fender Hot Rod Series Blues Junior 15W Combo Amp

The all-tube Fender Hot Rod Series Blues Junior 15W Combo Amp generates warm, musical distortion at relatively low volumes.

But the simple answer fails to address underlying complexities. Many amps are not simply tube or solid-state, but mixes of both kinds, called "hybrids." This usually means that they have a tube preamp stage, employing vacuum tubes in the tone shaping circuitry, but use solid-state circuitry for the power section. The hybrids are closer to full tube amps in response and tonal warmth, but purists will still find a difference between the two. Tube amps are generally more expensive in initial cost and to operate (because you need to replace the tubes occasionally), and solid-state amps are generally less delicate and more reliable. Many players, however, feel that tube amps yield a warmer, more musical tone and more musical-sounding distortion.

Vox AC30VR Valve Reactor 2x12 Guitar Combo Amp

The Vox AC30VR Valve Reactor 2x12 Guitar Combo Amp combines a low-maintenance power amp section with a tube-powered preamp to deliver a winning combination of reliability and vintage tone.

Yet another wrinkle is tube emulation circuitry. Many amps and preamps have sophisticated circuits designed to act like tubes, and as in all things, some are better than others. A relatively new development has been the introduction modeling amps, which not only emulate the tone and response of tubes, but of specific tube amps. In general these pretty exciting amps, but again, some are better than others at reproducing the specific models, and in maintaining the sounds through a range of volume levels.

Line 6 Spider IV 75 Guitar Combo

The Line 6 Spider IV 75 Guitar Combo uses advanced modeling technology to generate the signature sounds of revered amps, effects, and professional guitarists.

Another point to make about tube amps is that bigger is not always better. You get the most distinctive tube sound when the amp is cranked up enough so the tubes are saturated or nearly saturated, creating the overdriven sound revered by tube-amp fans. For this reason, it is often better to choose a lower wattage amp over a higher wattage amp, depending on how and where you play. By the time you crank up your 60- watt amp enough to saturate the tubes to get just the right level of distortion, you could be blowing your audience out the back door. It might have been better to choose a 20W amp that lets you get your saturated tone without the ear-killing decibels. Many professional guitarists prefer this approach both for recording and performance situations. They use close-miking to capture the overdriven sound of smaller tube amps, sending that signal to the recording console or the PA mixer.

Tags: Amplifiers

Comments  

# Bill Silva 2014-07-20 11:22
Try an axe fx with a matrix amp(ss) and close your eyes. If dialed in right...no one can tell if its tube or ss. If you say you can, you're lying. Been playin for 47 years and technology has changed everything. Bottom line: good tone is good tone. Just like bad playing skills are bad playing skills. Now, argue all you want.
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# Greg 2014-06-24 08:27
I had a Cyber Twin and I loved the sound until I turned the volume past "3". I finally bought a Marshall JVM, and yes, I can tell the difference. I can feel the difference. I can smell the difference. I know the limitations of double blind studies (I am a medical scientist by profession) and you can keep your solid state.
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# DM 2014-07-14 19:07
As a medical scientist, or any scientist for that matter, you should be well aware of the difference between correlation and causation. There are so many variations other than tube vs. solid state e.g. PPS vs. C0G vs. PE Film caps all of which induce nonlinearities and noise to various degrees, various biasing topologies for output stages, etc. Amp tone does not come down to something as simple as solid state vs. tube. There me a correlation between quality sounding amps and use of tubes but this does imply causation.
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# Bandit Panda 2014-07-14 20:02
Exactly !
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# Bandit Panda 2014-06-24 11:37
Greg..when I run my Carl Martin Plexitone thru my Peavy Bandit you would not be able to tell the difference between that and your JVM.
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# Greg 2014-07-14 03:03
Congratulations . Glad you love your Peavey Bandit. You are arguing both sides, by the way. Recall your comments to DM and Stefaun.
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# Bandit Panda 2014-07-14 17:30
Good for me and I don;t see it that way.
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# Stefaun 2014-06-20 18:56
So many people say " I can't hear a difference" between a tube amp, a different tube, guitars, etc, and then chase after buying what ever equipment their favorite rock star is currently using. Such people should go out and buy the cheapest amp or guitar, and just save their money for something else in life.
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# Bandit Panda 2014-06-21 04:40
That is pure nonsense. Some people can't tell the difference in the handling of a Honda 2000 against that of a Mazda 3 but it is there and that shouldn't prevent those people from aspiring to the superior car.
Did everybody rush out and buy a wah, a TS8, a RAT,? Yes.Why?. To emulate sounds. How many people can really tell the difference between EL84's and 6L6's ? Not many.but if you find out that Keith Richards uses 6L6's in his Twins then yes you go out and get them.
Try to stop being an elitist snob
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# Michael 2014-05-18 12:51
I can't hear a difference. Certainly pro musicians, most of whom have hearing loss, can't hear the difference. I think it's all in their minds, and what they're used to.
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# jason 2014-05-30 06:35
I can hear the difference. I have played with many amps in the last 15 years and I can definitely hear the difference. If you can't you must not have a very good ear.
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# DM 2014-06-08 10:56
Forgive me because I've been unable to find the article, but someone from the AES wrote up an academic journal article compiling every study that's ever been done on Tube vs. Solid-State, including double blind tests using "experts" to see if they could tell the difference. To this day, there is no substantial proof that anyone on the planet can tell the difference.

Tube vs. solid-state is a historical difference caused by things such as crossover distortion, etc. Things that have no been improved with Class AB output stages.

Does that mean I don't believe there is a difference? No, I'm not saying there is/isn't a difference, just that anyone who claims to be able to tell the difference is lying, based on many double-blind research studies.

Analog design engineer and purchaser of tube amps :)
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# Bandit Panda 2014-06-08 14:44
Wait a minute DM. are you suggesting that if I were to go into a world class recording studio with my Peavey Bandit and my Blues Deluxe that the recording engineer would say " have at it mate.it don't matter which amp you use " ??
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# Bandit Panda 2014-05-18 15:31
And you make that assumption because you can't hear the difference ?
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# Bandit Panda 2014-05-17 04:39
With the advent of the Eminence Reign & Maverick speakers attenuators are no longer needed and tube saturation can be achieved at very low volumes.
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# Old Rocker 2014-05-07 22:58
I'll play devil's advocate. I have the aforementioned 2/12 Blues DeVille tube amp, which sounds great, along with a loud solid-state Fender Pro 185 and several smaller solid state Fenders and Peaveys. I'm old enough to remember when my band gladly traded in our tube amps for the newly introduced solid states because the tubes were such a hassle. Not only did the tubes burn out or come loose during transport, they sounded very different in different situations: temperature, humidity, etc. But back in those days, we mostly played clean or with just a touch of distortion. Solid states can sound great under those conditions, or with various pedals, or with keyboards.Not that I don't love my tube amp, but SS's do serve a purpose.
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# Steve rtioGraham 2014-04-26 18:36
I prefer tube amps, with 6L6 tubes over the EL84s. If I want distortion, I can use pedals for that. But I want an amp that can also crank out clean sound. The EL84s are too easily overdriven to allow for clean sound at anything more than very low volume. The 6L6s can be cranked a good bit more before noticeable distortion occurs. I love the Twin Reverb by Fender or the Hot Rod Deville 410.
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# Bandit Panda 2014-04-25 22:41
Good picks ups,,good pedals, good speakers.
I use a solid state amp with the above gear and I get rave reviews about the sound I get.
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# Lord Badger 2014-04-24 17:54
It also helps greatly to have a master volume or gain knob on your tube amp, so that you can really drive the preamp tubes to distortion without damaging ears or your skull!
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# John Schulien 2014-04-19 18:33
To put an even sharper point on it, many of Eric Clapton's most famous studio recordings were made through a Fender Champ amp -- a 5 watt tube practice amplifier! Everyone else had their big stacks and Eric had a tiny little amp in the middle of the room with a microphone right up on the speaker and his guitar had the biggest fattest sound of all.
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# John Daly 2014-04-16 23:20
Actually, the difference is in the physics of it all. At the saturation point in a tube amp, the sound is processed in such a way that it accentuates the odd-order harmonics, giving a warm, pleasing tone, where solid-state amps accentuate even-order harmonics, giving a more harsh tone.
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# andy 2014-05-16 11:12
isn't it the other way around? TUBES=even order harmonics, TRANSISTORS=odd order h's
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# Ross 2014-05-22 22:26
It's not either way, it's a myth and one quickly dispelled with an oscilloscope and a spectrum analyzer. Circuit topology determines harmonic response, not circuit technology. Too bad nonsensical stuff like this has been passed around so long that it's become gospel.
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# DM 2014-07-14 19:09
Exactly!
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# Geaux 2014-04-16 03:49
My first amp purchase when I was learning was a 60W Fender Blues Deville 2X12. Crazy loud amp, big mistake. Way louder than 60W solid state stuff I was used to. Ended up buying an 8w tube the was great for the home office. I still like to use the 60W amp when the wife is not around though.
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# Gordon Arvidson 2014-04-16 01:05
Very helpful. Looking to buy a new amp, just was not sure to look for. I have to agree, louder is not always better--listen to concerts, the sound maybe good, but the sound is being blown out the door, for you can't hear a word. Would sooner have a solid sound and be heard.
Thanks for the info.
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# BD 2014-04-15 23:26
That's why I put a hot plate on my 40 watt hot rod deluxe. In order to get the saturation without having to turn it way up.
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# Rakez 2014-04-15 19:39
Awesome information..th anks
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# Frank D. Daniel 2014-04-15 17:36
nice article, tubes resonates inside themselves and the warm sound is produce within them, you cannot get that from solid state, same thing with home amps, why bring back LP's in you cannot reproduce the originally intended sound of VIBRATIONS.
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