When it comes guitar amps, there’s two main types: tube and solid state. But what’s the difference?
The short answer is that tube amps use older technology. To amplify the sound, tube amps use vacuum tubes. These vacuum tubes are also some called valves, so you’ll sometimes hear tube amps be called valve amps as well. Solid-state amplifiers, on the other hand, use semiconductors to amply the guitar signal. This is newer technology.
So is newer better? It depends on who you ask. But you’ll generally find that guitarists have a bit of a thing for old and classic guitar gear, whether it’s guitars, guitar pedals, an guitar amplifiers as well. But ultimately, it’s up the sound that you want to make, and there’s pros and cons to both styles of amp.
How Does A Tube Amp Work?
A tube amp takes the signal from a guitar pick up and makes it louder. That’s kind of obvious. That’s kind of the essence of amplification.
The vacuum tubes in the amp are what makes the sound louder. They do this through the magic of electricity!
The vacuum tube itself isn’t empty, it’s filled with the components that do the magic. When a guitar string is plucked, it sends an electrical current, via the pickups and the cable, to a cathode inside the tube. This causes the cathode to heat up and release electrons. Around the cathode is a positively charged plate (an anode), and since electrons are negatively charged, they want to flow to the anode. This is what amplifies the signal.
This signal is then sent to the speaker in the amp and you have sweet sweet guitar jams.
There’s a lot more to it, of course, but this article isn’t about how to build a tube amp or the ins and outs of electrical engineering. This is a general article for beginners!
How Does A Solid State Amp Work?
A solid state amp does basically the same thing but with a transistor rather than a vacuum tube to make a signal stronger.
Again, this isn’t an article on electrical engineering, but basically what the transistor is doing is taking the small input current created by the guitar string moving through the electric field of the pickup and converting it into a higher output current.
Transistors weren’t invented until 1947, and the guy who created the first one got a Nobel Prize for doing it. The physics of how transistors work is beyond me!
Difference In Sound Between A Solid State And Tube Amp
Obviously there’s differences between tube and solid state amps that lie beyond simply how they amplify a signal. The difference that people note is the difference in sound between tube and solid state amps.
Tube amps are analogue, and because of this can have a more natural sound to them. Meanwhile solid state amps are inherently cleaner in sound. Think of the difference between vinyl records and CDs.
Since tube amplifiers are inherently analogue, you can overdrive them when pushed to the limits. And I’m talking overdrive here, not distortion. There’s a subtle difference between overdrive and distortion, and that difference comes from pushing an electrical signal too far. Solid state amps, on the other hand, can’t be pushed the same way. However, you can use effects to mimic the sound of an overdriven tube.
Tube Amps Tend To Be More Expensive
Although it’s older technology, tube amps are usually more expensive than solid state ones. Vacuum tubes are delicate and difficult to manufacture. Meanwhile transistors are relatively inexpensive to produce.
As mentioned, people often find the tone of tube amps to be more natural and warm and they’re often willing to spend the extra money to get the sound they want. If you want a more budget friendly amp that still sounds pretty good, dollar for dollar a solid state amp is the way to go.
Other Differences Between Tube And Solid State Amps
Vacuum tubes are inherently bigger than transistors, and they’re heavier. Because of that, tube amps tend to be bigger and heavier when compared to a solid state amp of the same output. Again, if the natural sound of tubes is important to you, this may be worth it. However, if you’re a musician who’s trying to play gigs who has to move their equipment around a lot and play in small bars, a solid state amp may be more convenient.
For similar reasons, tube amps can also be a bit more delicate. Vacuum tubes can be fragile and they do wear out after awhile; that may be a long while, but they still wear out. Solid state amps should last indefinitely.
What Kind Of Amp Is Right For You?
That mainly depends on what sound you want and how much money you have. While most guitar gear heads will say a tube amp is “better,” it may not be suitable for you if you’re just starting out. Just like you’re not going to buy something top of the line if you’re shopping for a beginner guitar, the same goes for an amplifier.
Going further, a big heavy tube amplifier may not be suitable even if you are an experienced musician. It may be too big and heavy to be appropriate to where and how you gig.
All other things being equal though, I do prefer a tube amp. But half decent solid state amplifier will do just as a good a job in most circumstances and, with modern computing and modelling, you can get pretty close to the same sound.