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


# Ryan Milton 2015-07-22 07:31
I am wondering if a low-wattage tube amp has a less sanitized sound than a solid state amp or if having a Vox 15 watt valvetronics amp with what added stomp boxes can get a tube sound with it being a tube amp? Help anyone with a opinion with any input.
I have been looking at Blackstar low watt tube amps that have a headphone input.
# JMO 2015-07-21 21:30
And how about power?? I've read people saying tube amps deliver more power than a solid-state. Example: I saw an add selling a tube bass amp (Markbass Classic 300) and the seller says that 300 watts of tube is equal to 1,500 watts of solid-state bass amp.
Can someone explain if it's true please?? Thanks
# Randy 2015-09-13 18:23
300 watts is 300 watts. The difference is that SS amps will generally sound the same clean or distorted at any volume. And in my experience SS amps will peak well before 10 on the volume knob, where tube amps (depending on class) will sound louder the more you turn them up... and doing this will cause some overdrive.

Long story short: they aren't necessarily louder. You just have to push it to get a nice warm sound. You also have to consider how speakers will affect the sound. Just swapping out speaker for more, or less efficient ones will greatly change the sound. A more efficient speaker can add tons of volume as well as making your amp head sound like a totally different amp.

Hope this help at all.
# samuel r siders 2015-01-05 00:17
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 23:46
this is the amp the tall black one with one less speaker
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 23:22
Sorry for my spelling TYPO LIKE IT AND OFF. :}
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 23:18
kalamazoo amp i don't think i spelled it right.Gibson made it. and he still has the echo guitar it is 40 years old a 16 of them were mad in the USA. and that was looks so cool and sounds good with a tube amp.I HAVE NEVER PLAYED A GUITAR LIKE EVER. :) OF THE SUB I KNOW.
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 23:07
I like tube amps. Just Don't like that they are so hard on the pocket and you have to buy tubes i think that they can make tubes that will last for ever they just won't it is the money that they want and they know you will pay it. But fender makes the best tube amps........... .. and I have play on a few in my life. truly the speaker is the key to a good sounding any thing. cheap speakers cheap sound. old thing to me are better then the new things on the market to day.
(money) Not good hearted CRAFTSMANSHIP so the love of music is money and image not real music. But i plan to buy a tube amp some time but for now i need to finish am studio.
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 21:01
And it would get hot fast to it needed a fan I think my self. I AM 36 years old. That amp was old...........
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 20:52
All it had 4 tubes in it with a 10 inch speaker my dad was crazy and throw it out :(
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 20:48
IF you run it hard you will have to. I HAD a old Gibson amp that my dad got when he was 18 years old. it was 15 watts tube amp blew it up after 3 hour of playing cranked up with a pedal hooked up to it all the tube had to be changes.
# boBisashitcunt 2015-01-04 21:40
That Gibson just sound like it's a shit amp. I gig my blues jr so yeah I have to crank it. I play a lot of bluesy crunchy distorted stuff like jack white kinda stuff so I use a big muff and sometimes a fuzz factory. I turn the volume up to about 3/4 and it's plenty loud enough for a pub venue.

Honesty it just sounds like you have had one bad experience with a low quality tube amp and then just decided that all tube amps are unreliable pieces of shit. I have never had any issues with my blues junior and it has been thrown in/out of vans, had beer spilt on it and been kicked over numerous times and I haven't ever had any issues with it.
# samuel r siders 2015-01-04 20:01
YES tube amps have a price that you will always pay for. But they sound clean and yes you must have money to have one. THINK pa amps for a minute they don't make tube P.A amps. why? because you do a show and the tube goes bad then you a done. SO solid state amps have a very important role in the amp word. TUBES get hot so you can burn them up fast 3 to 6 month and you will have to go and buy more and you need to buy all new ones not just the one that went out it won't sound right if you don't new and old tubes don't sound good together. But to me the speaker makes the amp............ .........TUBE AMPS have more distortion then solid stats to as the tube get hotter it will have to cool to be stable again. this is not good they need fans........... to keep them running smooth. So they both are need it is all about preference PLAY AND HAVE FUN :)
# boBisashitcunt 2015-01-04 20:41
"3-6 a month"

Holy shit what amp do you use that chews through tubes that quickly?
I have a blues jr and I haven't had to change the tubes once in 3 years. I also gig with this amp twice a month and have been doing so for the past 2 years.
# boB 2015-01-02 13:25
Good info. So solid state sounds better lasts longer and tubes are for elitist snobs with a lot of money and no ear.
# boBisashitcunt 2015-01-04 07:20
Lol the fender blues junior they talk about in this article is about $500.
It is by far the best sounding amp in that price range.
Go somewhere else troll.
# heW hwV 2015-05-17 11:36
He was a jerk about it but the truth is that sound is a matter of opinion when it really comes down to it. Personally I love cold hard sound like solid state, spring reverb, large cave-like echoes -but I understand that many people will have differing opinions, and I respect that.
# samuel r siders 2014-12-29 17:18
To me fender is the best tube and solid state amps because. They know there stuff... And they make very clear sounding good tone, high high and low sounding speakers. closed or open cab they sound good........... .
# samuel r siders 2014-12-29 16:48
Tube amps are not good for out side use............ ............... ..............
# samuel r siders 2014-12-29 16:42
And tubes burn so u get a cleaner sound to. but out side on a could night you might have a prob.
# samuel r siders 2014-12-29 16:37
tube amps have a clean sound and solid state amps have a ruff sound butt a speaker is the big thing to me. All speakers sound different in the guitar world. So a good speaker helps.
# Ryan 2015-02-15 09:30
I want to purchase a low watt tube amp maybe Blackstar. Also would like to put a celestion Lynchback to have it put in as the speaker. It will NEVER be used outside of me in my room. I am 47 and at 32 diagnosed with ataxia (a neurological problem without a cure. I am on disability now). Sorry for the soap box. .Any suggestions from anyone? Choice of amp or any other ideas that may help?
Thanks Ryan
And yes it effects (the ataxia) my ability to play guitar.
Basically back to a beginner from where I use to
be which may have be almost been intermediate without any theory.
# vonpeedler 2014-09-26 20:14
May I say this please?, I am no means a professional guitar player but thought Id try this out for size. A 20+ watt something V-tronix, making it into a head only and running that that into a 2x12 w/ ancient Altec 417Bs. I know tone. Blind tests? Any takers?...
# Bill Silva 2014-07-20 11:22
Try an axe fx with a matrix amp(ss) and close your eyes. If dialed in 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.
# 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.
# vonpeedler 2014-09-26 19:56
May I say this please? I'm not by any means a great guitar player but...I do know good tone. To prove a point, I altered a particular hybrid 20+watt something VALVEtronics + into a head w/ Just an external speaker jack and simply plugged THAT into a 2x12 cabinet with old Altec 417Bs. Blindfold test anybody? This certainly sewed a zipper on my lips. Just sayin....
# 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.
# Bandit Panda 2014-07-14 20:02
Exactly !
# 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.
# 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.
# Bandit Panda 2014-07-14 17:30
Good for me and I don;t see it that way.
# 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.
# 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
# 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.
# 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.
# 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 :)
# 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 don't matter which amp you use " ??
# Bandit Panda 2014-05-18 15:31
And you make that assumption because you can't hear the difference ?
# 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.
# 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.
# 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.
# 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.
# 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!
# 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.
# Dude 2015-10-31 12:25
I saw Roy Buchanon (sp) walk out on stage w/ Champ, place it on a chair facing away from the audience and put the PA mic almost touching the grill and well......
May he rest in peace.
# 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.
# andy 2014-05-16 11:12
isn't it the other way around? TUBES=even order harmonics, TRANSISTORS=odd order h's
# 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.
# DM 2014-07-14 19:09
# 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.
# 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.
# 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.
# Rakez 2014-04-15 19:39
Awesome anks
# 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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