What Is A Tube Amp? Common Tube Amp Brands
There are a myriad of amplifiers out there these days and they seem to do everything under the sun. It is complex even for those of us who have been using them for a while, for a beginner or someone just venturing into the world of guitar amplification it can be downright intimidating. You hear so much about tube amps vs. solid-state amps and, with so many entrenched opinions on each side, it can be very difficult to know what to do, take the wrong advice and end up with an amplifier that doesn't suit your needs which also covers the common question- what is a tube amp.
Lay your worries to rest. Here we will explain everything and even run through some of the better known amps out there.
What Is a Tube Amp?
This is the big question. Well, we'll have to get a little technical here. Essentially a tube amp works by having vacuums inside it (the titular tubes) through which negatively charged electrons pass from a cathode to an anode when given a small electrical jolt from the guitar pickups. As these electrons go from the cathode to the anode they amplify the signal from the guitar over and over.
This electrical wizardry has actual been around for over a century, since 1906 to be precise. What we are talking about is really quite a simple and yet beautifully effective system of amplification which creates a warm and organic sound and overdrive.
Solid-state amps on the other hand work by using semiconductor circuits, which are also frequently found in computers and mobile phones. This produces something of a cleaner tone and so, to compensate, some manufacturers include tubes in the pre-amp to add some warmth to the tone. These are known as hybrid amps.
Tube Amps Vs. Solid-State Amps
There is a lot to consider when making the choice between purchasing a tube amp or a solid-state amp. In general, a solid-state amp will be cheaper and lighter due to the circuitry used instead of the tube system and many of the lower end, cheaper amplifiers on the market - especially those targeted towards beginners - will be solid-state.
Tube amps, however, will typically be heavier and cost a little more. Most crucially though is the sound difference between the two. Tube amps have been the standard for far longer than solid-state amps, which have been designed trying to emulate the sound of the tube amps. The natural tone produced by the tubes has often proven to be elusive and few solid-state amps have ever managed to accurately capture it (though some, like the Fender Twin Reverb are exceptional amps in their own right precisely because they stopped trying to sound like a tube and focused on the cleaner tones. It is, incidentally, a hybrid anyway.)
There are few solid-state amps which are top-end as many players and professionals swear by tube amps and their warmth and fuzzy overdrive sounds are ubiquitous and unmistakable. Often a lower voltage amp is a better choice for achieving these desirable sounds as you are actually trying to slightly overwork the tubes. If you were to choose say a 60 watt over a 20, you would have deafened the crowd before you managed to achieve fuzzy overdrive nirvana.
Now, that's all well and good but...
What Are Some Great Tube Amps Then?
I'm glad you ask. Though I said earlier that solid-state amps tend to be cheaper, that isn't to say there aren't some fantastic tube amps on the cheaper end of the spectrum.
These guys make some fantastic tube amps. Famous especially for their "lunch box" style Tiny Terror range, which are all classic, simple amps that are perfect for gigging and highly recommended.
They have something of a stripped-down aesthetic and this is even reflected in the simplicity of the amps themselves. This is a big selling point but can be a letdown for those who don't want to need a bunch of supplementary pedals.
The familiar Fender know amps. Fender have made some of the most instantly recognizable and classic amps in music. Their sound is everywhere and their amps are remarkable. Often their tube amps are designed with a kind of retro look and it compliments the great warm tones they produce.
Now, it is Fender after all. These amps can be expensive on the top-end but they also have plenty of cheaper options available and, as they are so popular, it isn't uncommon to be able to find a great deal secondhand somewhere.
Marshall make a dizzying array of amplifiers. From their classic reissues, to the signature series and the raw power of the JVM's. With Marshall, expect a warm amp with a strong and quite distinctive overdrive.
Suited especially for rock guitarists and hey, if they're good enough for Slash....
Sometimes overlooked, a definitely unfairly, Mesa Boogie consistently make some of the best amps on the market. They have a great look and can generate walls of sound crunchier than a sack of grit and cornflakes.
Peavey seem to have established themselves as the go-to for many working professionals and session players. It's hard not to see why, their amps are orderly, professional and can use across the spectrum for any kind of player or genre.
It's that bite. Anyone who's played a Vox amp knows about that bite. It's almost unlike any other amp.
So that, in a nutshell, is tube amplification and why you want it. And really for a natural, warm sound and winning fuzzy overdrive with kick, there is no replacement for the real thing. The beauty of valves being that you, the player, control every aspect of your tone directly and they, more so than solid-state amps, augment your own playing and tones. What are you waiting for? Head down Guitar Center, select a few choice amps, crank them up and see if you can remember that Led Zeppelin solo.