Trying to decide between a tube or solid-state amp, but wondering what the differences are in the first place? It’s easy to get confused about this, so we’ve created a guide highlighting what you should know about tube amps vs solid-state amps, so you can pick the right type of amp for your needs.
So, you’re probably aware already that there are a few different types of amps out there, and you may have also noticed that there’s a lot of confusing and sometimes conflicting info online. Fortunately, you’ve found us! So, let’s start with the basics: all of the main guitar amp manufacturers will use either vacuum tubes, solid-state circuitry, or a combination of the two in order to build their amps. Some of them will also include digital modeling technology, in order to model the sound of other amps (amp modeling); this modeling can be of tube amps or solid-state amps.
You may have heard the term “valve amp” and wondered how this differed from tube amps; fortunately, we can make this simple for you. There isn’t any difference; it’s two different words for the same thing, with the term “valve” being generally used in the UK, whereas in the US we almost exclusively say “tube”. Occasionally, you’ll also hear of solid-state amps being referred to as transistor amps; again, another word for the same thing, and the phrase transistor amps is pretty much obsolete.
You’ll also find that some guitar amp manufacturers come up with their own terms for their proprietary versions of amp technologies or designs; that can get a bit confusing at times, and there are a lot of different features out there, but the main thing you need to do is take a look at its specs and work out is whether the amp is a tube amp or a solid-state amp.
What Is The Difference Between Tube Amps and Solid State Amps?
In short, tube amps and solid state amps use different physical components that control the flow of electric current and achieve an electronic amplification circuit. While Tube amps operate using vacuum tubes (also known as valves), solid state amps utilize transistors. Both tube and solid state amps will sufficiently amplify your electric guitar but will theoretically differ in how they respond to your guitar signal, thus resulting in differing output and tone characteristics. For a more detailed analysis of the difference between Tube Amps and Solid State amp, continue reading below.
The way that these two types of amps work is quite different. Tube amps utilize vacuum tubes (or “valves”, as they are referred to in some parts of the world) and make use of these to amplify your guitar’s input signal. These vacuum tubes are glass tubes holding electrodes (special electrical conductors) inside a vacuum chamber and were developed in the early 20th century, originally for audio and communication setups. They were even found in radios and TVs back in the day. However, they proved just as effective in other applications, leading to the rise of guitar tube amps. They’ll usually have three types of tubes, pre-amp, power, and rectifier, each with its own role to play. Pre-amp tubes boost and shape your input signal, and power tubes amplify the signal to speaker level. There may also be modules placed in between pre-amp and power tubes, such as reverb or effects loop.
What about solid-state amps? They’re a relatively newer digital technology. While tube amps work in a totally analog way to amplify the natural sound of your guitar; solid-state amps turn your input into binary “zeros and ones”, as it were, with a series of transistors that are either on or off, and using wired circuitry to reinterpret that back into the audio output.
From the point of view of a guitarist, what matters here isn’t so much the tech under the hood, but rather the audible differences and the way the amp responds to your playing.
You’ll hear adjectives like “warm” and “fat” used to describe tube amp sound. That might not mean much to you now, but you’ll recognize it when you hear it! Think a full sound that isn’t overly crisp and clean, but rather cuts out overly-sharp frequencies, making it more pleasant to the ears and giving your sound profile a vintage feel. This sonic warmth is particularly interesting when you overload the tubes, leading to a pleasantly distorted sound called “overdrive”. There’s plenty of overdrive pedals for solid-state amps that attempt to replicate this sound, but many guitarists will argue that there’s simply nothing like the real thing, which is one of many reasons why professional guitarist, in most genres, have almost exclusively used tube amps for decades.
The way that solid state amps sound will depend mostly on circuit design, and since the sound is based on transistor switches, there’s generally less room for responsiveness to the way you play and many guitarists reckon that solid-state amps produce a bland sound. While there are certainly many “tube snobs” out there, there’s plenty of advantages to solid-state amps as well; in particular, exciting modern features that can come with solid-state amps (particularly in the higher end). So if you enjoy gadgets, features, and tone-tweaking, solid-state amps can be a very exciting territory, especially when you start to consider modeling and profiling ability.
Tube Amps Explained
The vacuum tubes used in tube amps can vary greatly, leading to the differences in sonic profiles that make particular tube amps iconic and recognizable to the extent that when amp lovers talk about Fender and Marshall tone with each other, they don’t have to define it – they just get it.
Vacuum tubes are split into power amp tubes (which power the amp) and preamp tubes (controlling the overall sound of the amp); together, these impact both the sound and the way that the amps react to how you play. The tube amp’s overdrive is smooth, sensitive and responsive, and represents the tiny, subtle variances in your guitar’s input signals in a way that solid-state amps can only try to replicate. Many guitarists will argue that it’s never going to be quite the same, which may or may not be true. While tube amps have reigned supreme for decades when it comes to some of these desirable response characteristics, amp modeling and profiling technology has made some impressive advances in recent years and will likely continue to do so.
People love a good tube amp for its natural sound, but that doesn’t mean there’s no tone-tweaking potential. Adding effects such as distortion and reverb is achieved using analog or digital effects pedals on your guitar input or through an effects loop.
Solid State Amplifier Explained
Nowadays there are solid state amps, and more specifically modeling amps, that can do a pretty awesome job of delivering a tube-like sound, but they can do a whole lot more such as modeling the sound and responses of other specific amp models, modeling effects, amp profiling (essentially, creating a digitalized scan of a real amp), downloading presets from your favorite pro directly to your amp so you can imitate their sound (and without all the fiddling!). You can obtain the almost-infinite potential of modern audio technology in all its resplendent glory, and that’s pretty amazing stuff.
For some people, tube amps are non-negotiable, but others value the positive tradeoffs to be had. The choice is up to you. It really depends on what sound and features you’re looking for. Tube amps aren’t the only way to get awesome tone anymore. Solid stamp amps are also more affordable and less fragile than tube amps, and require almost no maintenance; in comparison, tube amps can require some time and maintenance to look after, and it can be really frustrating to work out what’s going wrong if you don’t have access to a trustworthy tech. Solid-state amps can work for many years or even decades without needing any of the fuss of dealing with malfunctions. Solid-state amps are also a lot lighter weight to haul around if you are a touring / gigging musician.
Should I Buy a Tube Amp or Solid State Amp?
Choosing between a solid-state and a tube amp really is a very personal preference decision, taking into account what matters to you, how and where you’re going to use your amp, etc. An amp that’s great for someone else might not be what’s great for you. It’s easy to think you should use the same gear as a notable pro or buy your amp based on forum reviews, but there’s a lot more to it and it really pays to do your research.
Start by thinking about your budget, and narrowing things down from there: there’s plenty of amazing amps out there, but if they cost more than you’re willing to pay, then it’s not going to happen. Besides, if you’re not a pro, a pro-grade amp probably isn’t something you need! It’s almost certainly going to be better to pay less and get the features that you need (and some that you just want) without breaking the bank.
Here’s a quick summary of how to choose the right type for you.
Tube Amp vs Solid State Amps Summary:
Tube amps are a great choice if: you can afford to pay a bit extra; you don’t mind spending some time and money on maintenance; you’re content with fewer features; you love tube tone, and maybe you’ll be looking at medium-to-large room gigging, and you don’t mind a bit of extra weight.
Solid-state amps are a great choice if: you don’t want to spend a ton of money, you’re looking for lightweight and portable, you love tone-tweaking but don’t want to carry around a ton of pedals, you want to tap into the vast possibilities of digital amp and effects modeling and profiling
Are Tube Amps Really A Better Choice Than Solid-State Amps?
Solid-state technology has really come a long way within the last decade, with the sound quality getting and versatility of some product lines becoming true game-changers for many guitarists. In fact, some players even prefer the clean, crisp sound of solid-state amps to built their effects on top of. They’re particularly popular with jazz musicians as well as heavy rock/metal musicians who often prefer a heavy digital distortion tone. On the other hand, pro classic rock, blues, and country guitarists almost inevitably use tube amps. And If you love your overdrive, then tube amps are a very appealing choice!
Guitarists Who Use Tube or Solid-State Amps
Even though tube amps are considered the gold standard, solid-state amplifiers can be a great choice for many guitar players, from hobby guitarists to gigging musos, and even some pros! In fact, Dimebag Darrell (formerly of Pantera and Damageplan) would use solid-state Randall amplifiers to get the harsh, buzzy tone he was looking for.
Of course, just because you’re a hobby guitarist doesn’t mean you have to go solid-state: there’s plenty of hobby players with a bit of extra cash to spend that have high-end tube amps! And if you don’t mind spending a little extra time, cash and effort, don’t be put off of tubes, especially if you love that tube tone. Also, you can find affordable tube amps on the market nowadays, so while they are more expensive than solid-state overall, it doesn’t mean that you have to break the bank. Go for what you can afford, and what gets you excited!
What about watts?
Tube amps have a lot more volume at the same wattage when compared to a solid-state amp. It’s true that a watt is a watt, but it’s not that simple, because actually, a 20 watt tube amp will be perceived by human ears to be a lot louder than the equivalent 20 watts from a solid state amp; a 15 watt tube amp will do nicely for small room gigs, whereas with a solid-state amp you’d be looking at 50 watts or more. This matters when you want to make sure that your guitar can actually be heard when you’re playing with your band or your buddies, rather than being lost in a crowd of generally louder instruments like percussion; but that’s not the only reason it matters. You also have to think about how the amp will sound at a lower volume because tube saturation will occur when you push the tubes close to their max wattage. This means that you can create an awesome tone from a lower watt amp.
For the most part, you won’t need to look at 100 watt tube amps unless you’re doing large-room gigs; mostly because if you’re playing them at lower volumes that won’t anger your neighbors, you’ll lose tonal quality. 40 to 50 watts will do the trick for gigging in medium-sized venues generally; even better, find a tube amp with variable power so that you can play at home without getting the police called on you, but can bring it along to most gigs as well.
How Many Watts Do I Need For Home Practice?
For beginner and hobby guitarists, you’ll probably want a solid-state amp with a speaker around 8 to 12 inches, which will usually be around 10 to 20 watts. That’s easily enough power for a beginner or hobby guitarist to get started with, especially for home practice! Some features to keep an eye out for include onboard effects and reverb. As you get more experienced, you’ll want something that’s a bit more feature-rich, but for now, you can get a good-enough beginner’s amp for around the $100 mark. You can go for an amp that’s a bit more powerful if it’s within your budget, especially if you’re sure you’re going to stick with playing guitar. You could consider a solid-state amp in the range of 50 to 100 watts, which is good enough to go from absolute beginner to jam sessions with your buddies. There are also some great low-watt tube amps for home practice so that you can get that amazing tube tone at a neighbor-friendly volume; and finally, with digital modeling amps, you’ve got good-quality sound and a ton of effects to play with, opening up a world of tone-tweaking that’ll keep you excited for years to come.
And being excited is really what it’s all about; you want an amp with awesome sound, and that actually makes you want to play. There are great choices for home practice across tube amps, solid-state amps, and modeling amps, so again, it’s up to what matters to you!
I’m playing in a band. What kind of amp is right for me?
If there’s a drummer in your band, it’s easy for your guitar sound to get drowned out if you’re not using an amp that has enough power. General ballpark around 30-50 watts tube or 100-120 watts solid-state is a popular range for playing with a band. Again, that’s just a general point of reference, as there are quite a few more factors to consider than wattage. For example, if you’re playing rock music, your whole band will want a sound that’s loud and proud; and so you’ll need to be able to play loud enough to handle that. And of course, if there’s another guitarist in your band, you’ll want to be able to keep up with their power too. In this context, there’s an important difference between tube and solid-state amp wattage, because with solid-state amps, the higher the wattage, the better. That’s because you don’t want to push your amp to its limits, and have it break up when you play loud because the distortion here can be unpleasant. You need some extra leeway when it comes to headroom, so your sound is loud but still remains clear. On the other hand, tube amps sound great when they’re pushed into overdrive – unlike solid-state amps, they distort in a good way. You don’t want to push a tube amp to its limits too often (because your speakers won’t love you for it) but the way that a tube amp breaks up at high volumes is a big part of its charm.
Keep all of this in mind when you’re deciding on an amp to play in a band; it really does depend on what other instruments are in the band, how loud you’ll need to play, and your genre. For rock and metal, cranked up is the way to go; but unless you’re rocking out in stadiums, 100 watts is really quite unnecessary. Crank it up at 50 watts for awesome tone at easily enough volume.
On the other hand, a 50 watt solid-state amp probably won’t be enough for playing with a band, because you won’t be heard unless you crank it up, and a solid-state amp doesn’t go well when it’s played to its limit – you could even damage the amp. So for a solid-state amp for playing in a band, you’ll want to go for 100+ watts. A powerful solid-state amp delivering loud, clean tones is great for jazz players, but rock players will generally want to go for tube amps that they can really work hard at higher volumes.
What amp should I get for gigging?
Guitarists playing in bands will often use the same amp for gigging as they do for rehearsal; but that doesn’t have to be the case, because what you need when you’re gigging or rehearsing can be a little different. You still need to be able to be heard and not get drowned out by the band, but when you’re playing gigs, you can take advantage of sound reinforcement, because your sound guy can just stick a mike in front of one of your speakers to project it through the PA system. So they can control whether the focus is on your sound or a mix of sounds from the band. That means that you can go for a lower wattage if you like, as long as it’s delivering the sound that you’re looking for. Lower wattage amps are easier to transport around, and they can really sound great – and it saves you from having to lug around a head amp and a cab, making life a lot easier.
If you’re doing small-room gigs and managing your own sound reinforcement, you may just use a small PA for vocals, but use instrument amps for your overall sound, so in that case, you’ll need a guitar amp that’s powerful enough to be heard even in the back of the room; if that’s the case, you’ll probably want to lug around the amp you’re using for rehearsals (and if you need to, get a trolley or a roadie).
Some factors to consider
Tubes can malfunction. Vacuum tubes, a technology that’s been around for a long time and has been phased out from many other devices such as televisions. They’re still beloved in amp circles because of their warm sound, distortion, and so on, but they can be a bit of a nuisance. Tubes can stop working properly, impacting your tone, and leading to sound problems (poor quality, squealing, distortion of the unpleasant and unwanted variety, etc.) The amp can even stop working. You can swap out your old tubes with new ones when they stop working well, but remember the adage “one size does not fit all” – you’ll have to do some troubleshooting. Tube amps come with three different types of tubes: power, preamp, and rectifier. You’ll need to figure out where things are going wrong and get the right kind of tube(s) to fix the malfunction.
Tube amps require regular maintenance. Depending on how much you play, you can expect your power tubes to last for around 1-2 years, at which point they need replacing. Pre-amp tubes should last about twice as long. However, some amps will go through tubes faster, so there’s isn’t a hard and fast rule. With power amp tubes, you’ll quickly be able to tell when it’s time to replace a tube: your amp will start making unpleasant sounds be reduced in power, or your tone will change significantly. Check your power amp tubes first, and if they don’t seem to be the problem, head to your preamp tubes. They can give off different noises than a power amp tube that needs replacing; for example, excessive feedback or screeching sounds. A word to the wise: remember to turn your amp’s power off for a while before you start replacing tubes since they store a lot of power and can be dangerous if you touch them straightaway. Also, always use a clean cloth when you’re pulling a tube out to inspect it – from natural skin oils to that KFC you were eating earlier, any oil on a tube will make it run hotter, reducing its lifespan.
Tube amps are heavy and fragile. Vacuum tubes are made of glass, so unsurprisingly they’re easy to break. On top of that, they’re heavier at the same wattage than solid-state amps. So when you’re lugging your heavy amp around to gigs, they’re not just hard on your back: they’re also pretty darn breakable, which isn’t great when you find yourself at sound-check with an amp that doesn’t work. Handle your tube amp with care when you’re moving it around; there’s a good reason why the pros hire roadies. For now, if your amp’s going to be on the move, consider getting a trolley, and keep the bumps and drops to a minimum. Some great advice that will stand you in good stead whether your amp is a tube or solid state:
- Always transport your amp upright, and never face up.
- Set it on some sort of cushioning (like a blanket) to give it that extra protection from bouncing.
- Lock it in so it can’t slide around, using a seatbelt or a bungee cord.
- Buy an amp cover, bag, or a hard case.
When solid-state amps go wrong, they’re harder to fix. Solid-state amps are more reliable, but on the occasion, they do happen to go wrong, you’ve got issues. Tube amps are built with analog technologies and usually discrete components, making them a fair bit easier to fix. On the other hand, solid-state amps are digital, and will often use integrated circuit board components. It’s often much harder to figure out where the issue is coming from and you may need expert help to figure out why your hardware is malfunctioning.
Tube amps take time to warm up. Tube amps rely on vacuum tubes to work. It’s an oldie but a goodie in the tech department, with its own unique benefits, but a downside is that they’re not ready-to-jam straightaway. They take a little while to warm up in order to be ready to deliver that classic tube tone. Some tube amps will have a standby switch so the amp stays warmed-up, meaning you don’t have to wait around in between jam sessions; it’s slightly more pricey, but a lot of guitarists reckon it’s more than worth it for great sound with less hassle.
Tube amps respond better to the way you play. The guitar tones that come from a tube amp (often known as “tube tone”) are loved by pros and hobby guitarists alike! As well as producing a nuanced, smooth sound, tube amps also respond in a particular way to the subtle differences in the way you play with immediate feedback and responding in a deeper fashion to the way you interact with your guitar strings – when you’re picking, you can really make out the pick hitting the strings (whereas solid-state amps will crop the sound, making them less sensitive than tube amps). These differences aren’t necessarily obvious from a listener’s perspective, but you’ll really notice it while you’re playing and crafting your sound. You can imitate this responsiveness with a solid-state amp to some extent by using a compressor, to some extent, and some solid-state amps like the Blackstar Silverline Stereo Deluxe are particularly known for delivering up that tube amp magic.
Solid-state amps are less delicate. You can turn the volume up high on a solid-state amp without it going into overdrive; while many guitarists are actively looking for that overdrive, if you’re playing smooth, clean jazz then this can be a real selling point – for example, the aptly-named Roland Jazz Chorus amp series are loved for their “JC clean” tone and smooth, mid-ranged voice, with speakers covering a wider audio spectrum – no wonder the JC-120 amp has the nickname “King of Clean” and is one of the world’s top-selling and best-known solid state amps.
Tube amps tend to be pricier. Low-end tube amps usually start off around the $400 mark, while you can find solid-state amps from around $100. Tubes are expensive to make, and construction materials tend to be more premium; they’re also often hand-wired, so you’re paying for that craftmanship. On the other hand, transistors are cheap, so you can get a solid-state amp at a similar level for less.
Solid-state amps offer more flexibility. Want to play clean out of the box, or genre-bend at the flick of a switch? Solid-state amps keep coming out with more and more exciting features, giving you access to enormous versatility; and they just keep on getting better.
Why not both? Looking for a compromise that’s affordable but still delivering tube tone and response? Hybrid amps sit somewhere in the middle, with at least one tube so you can enjoy playing with the warmth and responsiveness of a tube amp, and they also open up the exciting features (effects, presets, etc.) that become possible with electronic circuitry. They’re also considerably cheaper than all-tube amps, meaning that you don’t have to entirely choose between tube and solid-state. However, sometimes they fall flat and end up sounding rather “meh”, so tread carefully! Fortunately, many of the main amp manufacturers like Marshall, Vox, and Orange make hybrid amps, so you can get your favorite tones for less.
We hope that the sometimes-confusing world of amps makes a bit more sense now and that we’ve helped to equip you with the knowledge to make the best decision for you! And remember, it really is about what works for you. After all, with many thousands of tube and solid-state amps to choose from, you don’t have to spend a fortune to find an amp that will make you happy for many years (and even decades) to come.
And in the end, for many players, whether you go for a solid-state amp or a tube amp isn’t going to be a dealbreaker. There are so many talented musos out there making great sounds with either (or both!) With some understanding of the basics and a bit of research, you can discover an exciting world of tube and solid state amps, and find a great amp for your budget, your wants, and your needs!
My name is Chris and I’ve had a passion for music and guitars for as long as I can remember. I started this website with some of my friends who are musicians, music teachers, gear heads, and music enthusiasts so we could provide high-quality guitar and music-related content.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13 years old and am an avid collector. Amps, pedals, guitars, bass, drums, microphones, studio, and recording gear, I love it all.
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. My background is in Electrical Engineering, earning a Bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University. With my engineering experience, I’ve developed as a designer of guitar amplifiers and effects. A true passion of mine, I’ve designed, built, and repaired a wide range of guitar amps and electronics. Here at the Guitar Lobby, our aim is to share our passion for Music and gear with the rest of the music community.