Buy Tubes or Bye Tubes?
by Justin Boden
For decades the warm and buttery tone of a vacuum tube amplifier has been ingrained into guitar culture as the only true driven sound to accompany professional tone. While solid state amplification had existed since the 1950’s, iterations of gain, overdrive, and distortion were laughable to a point of becoming early memes among guitar amp tone.
Solid state and digital modeling amps were ridiculed through the nineties and early 2000’s and rightfully so. If you happened to own a Gorilla 30 years ago then it’s likely you know what “tin-canny” means and Line 6 and Crate had seemingly made a business out of convincing players to move to tubes with various lines of solid state and modeling amp models. There are countless examples of poorly designed sounds from that era and even today, so it makes sense that sour grapes still rain on any ideas that solid state matches tube driven sound in any application.
It’s even easier to laugh at technology’s attempts at finding its place in a hobby that clings to classic and golden era ideals more than perhaps any other. Gibson’s G-Force “robot tuners” mark a splendid example where despite technology that worked decent enough, players were uninstalling them like a computer virus. Technology fits awkwardly in the realm of guitars whereupon it exists but is generally looked down upon from the get-go, having much to prove before it’s readily accepted at all.
We aren’t here to tell you that solid state has overcome tubes outright. When it comes to sound, tube tone still reigns supreme in our opinion, but the lines have never been greyer as advancements in solid-state technology and digital modeling continue to push the envelope. Advancements that have solid state amps not only nearly matching tube tone but even warranting its own reasons to be purchased instead of tubes outright. Should you buy tubes or bye tubes?
Amps with tubes sound better. Despite the advancements within the solid-state world, when it comes to natural warmth and overdriven tubes, the soft clipping that occurs with a saturated tube simply cannot be replicated by the transistors used in solid-state amps. Instead, a harder, synthetic clipping occurs that gives off a sharper, less warm sound in overdriven settings. While manufacturers have come closer to replicating the natural organic sound, there is yet to be a true enough harmonic match. If natural overdriven sound is a must for you, without appropriate substitute, then buying a tube amp should be in your future.
Tubes are loud. Even the smaller 5W and 15W tube options can push enough air to be far too loud for smaller spaces like bedrooms and apartments. In order to get those truly warm tones, tubes are best cranked to the point of driven and unless your neighbors want in on the band you’ll likely be driving them up the walls before your tubes can even saturate. This is important because many bedroom or apartment players invest in tube amps but can never actually experience them for what their greatness. The truth is, if you aren’t in a band that is playing out or have a solid practice space to crank those tubes, you may actually find it more difficult to get great tone and never get to use those tubes to their full capabilities. Buy tubes if loud is the preferred and available option where you play the most, or you have aspirations to play live or in a band. The extra volume will have you keeping up with the drummer’s hardest hits and you’ll be able to drive the tubes into buttery, saturated goodness.
Bring your wallet. Buy tubes if money is not something in the way of your guitar playing. Tubes require more upfront cash just to purchase. They’re more expensive to make, have more parts and fail more often. This means that, like owning a car, you’ll likely have to put in some maintenance to your tube amps every couple of years or so. They are less reliable, more finicky and tend to need repair more often. This isn’t to say they are outright fragile, but when compared to solid-state amps, this isn’t one that favors tubes. A tube amp will just cost you more. To many, it’s a small price to pay for ultimate tone, but for many players, the extra cost doesn’t justify the purchase within their needs.
Tube amps are an investment, the holy grail of tone and sound, but they come at a price and simply aren’t right for everyone’s space and applications. Tube amps aren’t going anywhere and are in no threat of being outright replaced by solid-state amplifiers, but more and more players are finding great tone and even outright clone-like sounds being produced from many of today’s modeling and solid state amps as well as software alike.
Our recommended tube amps:
Solid state and modeling amplification are in an entirely new galaxy than they were 20 and even 10 years ago. Improvement is an understatement as amps by manufacturers like Boss and Yamaha are replicating tones with stunning accuracy, bringing consumer-friendly pricing options that fit nearly every budget, and lighting up the amp world with exciting entries like the Boss Katana and the Yamaha THR series alike.
Some artists are even jumping to software like Bias FX and Axe FX which can use nothing more than an interface and software on an iPad or computer pumped through a PA. Before you start thinking that there’s no way this can sound good enough to reach professional levels of quality, would you believe that artists like The Edge of U2, Steve Vai, Keith Urban and John Petrucci are full-time Axe FX users? Digital software continues to be a growing area for guitar players and offers even more options for the consumer too. Whether you opt for a true solid state amplifier, any of the many fantastic modeling options or digital software alone, each year there are increasing reasons to invest in this side of the argument.
Bye tubes if your space is small. One thing that solid state amps have over tubes is that no matter the volume, they always have the same tone. Unlike tubes, whose tone can change drastically depending on the volume and power being pushed through the tubes, your solid state will still sound true at low volume levels. Headphones won’t be a problem at all and so finally bedroom and small space players can rejoice in having both the ability to rock out with their guitar and simultaneously have happy roommates, family and significant others. Sure, pedals can match some tones pretty well without the volume, but just as mentioned previously, if you can’t ever crank your tubes anyways, you may be wasting potential and modeling or solid state amps are likely a more versatile option for you.
If your budget is limited. Everyone is on an increasingly tightened budget these days it seems. The dollar just doesn’t seem to travel as far as it once did, and so luxury items like say, expensive amplifiers might feel a bit gratuitous for the hobby player that doesn’t have dreams of touring in vans. Luckily, solid state and modeling amps fall right in line with this ideal in that rather than a tube amp you can’t crank and a pedalboard worth more than some cars. They’re an affordable solution with robust options that allow you to easily capture nearly any sound you could dream up. The Boss Katana 50, as an example, comes loaded with 55 Boss effects, 5 amp voicings and software that allows you to shape those effects even further. When it comes to most bang for your buck, digital, modeling and solid state amps come loaded. They also generally require less maintenance often ticking away without a single issue seemingly indefinitely which can keep a little extra cash in the pocket every few years.
Bye tubes if guitar is just a hobby. It’s no surprise by now that less and less are picking up guitars today than any time since the 1950’s. Life is fast and busier than ever before. Time seems to escape easier with so many activities, hobbies and life events grasping for your precious time. So if you already find yourself with time for a few noodling sessions a week at best, does it make sense to invest extra capital into something that will actually have you spending more time dialing in tone than playing?
Today’s solid state and modeling amps can have a desired tone at the push of a button. Looking for Van Halen’s “Brown Sound”? It’s a few button pushes away from a true blues tone, a scooped out metal tone and an array of delay and reverb options that will prevent you from spending hours dialing in pedals and knobs in an attempt at replicating all your favorite tones. For many, that savings and lightning-quick versatility is enough to give a little on tone and pass on tubes.
Our recommended solid state/modeling amps:
Tubes are here to stay, and there is still no substitute for true smooth tube tone. But modeling amps have come a long way and can no longer be laughed at, as manufacturers have spent tons of R&D time to better craft sounds that come with solid state amplifiers. Sure, that glowing tube amp might be everything you’ve ever wanted, but there are so many situations these days where owning a solid state amp can actually make more sense, add more fun and keep you playing more.