Today I would like to talk about something that is hotly debated amongst guitarists all around the world but before we do that, I want to take you on a trip down memory lane to the moment when I first decided to be a guitarist. I was watching the movie ‘Varsity Blues’ and in one of the pivotal scenes, the AC/DC soundtrack – Thunderstruck came on and it just transformer, what was for me a, pretty drab movie until then into something fun and exciting. Instantly, I had goosebumps and this was the first time a piece of music had such an impact on me. It took me a bit of asking around (this was before Google was a mainstream thing) and that is how I came to find out about the glorious years of rock music that started somewhere in the 60s. As I became older, I wanted to sound like all the guitar legends I had come to love and like many aspiring guitarists I started to do some research into the gear they used and that’s when I discovered that almost all of them used tube amplifiers.
My first tryst with tube amps:
Of course, back then I had no idea what tube amplifiers were and I just assumed that they were just a type of amplifier used by guitarists and so I decided to go to my local musical instruments store and check what was so special about them. The first thing that blew my mind about them once I actually got up close to one wasn’t the sound though, it was the price tag. I was still a student back then and there was no way I could afford it nor could I bring myself to ask my parents to get me one. So, I reluctantly asked the owner of the shop if there was anything else I could use that was a lot cheaper but still sounded just as amazing and I was pointed in the direction of a solid-state amp. Keep in mind that back then, I was still quite inexperienced but I could still tell that there was a night and day difference between the sound I got out of a solid-state amp and the one I got through a tube amp. The tube-amp sound was just so warm and exciting. However, my financials (or the lack of it) won the battle that day and I had to settle for a solid-state amp. It would be years before I could own a tube amp but once I did, I thought that my journey as far as amps were concerned was over until I came across two solid-state amps – The Boss Katana 100 and the Fender Champion 100.
Have solid-state amps become just as good as tube amps?
Back when I went shopping for my first amp, the choice was simple. Go for the tube amp if you can and only buy a solid-state amp if you just cannot afford a tube amp. However, if someone starting out as a guitarist went shopping for an amp today, they would simply be confused. Solid-state amps have gotten so much better and they actually offer excellent tone, are powerful enough to be gigged with, are much more versatile, and so much more affordable. So, is the tube amp still worth all the money it commands, or is a modern solid-state amp just as good?
I myself was caught in this dilemma recently as I had to go for a small gig and I had to choose between my versatile solid-state Katana 100 and my trusty Marshall DSL 40. Both have similar dimensions but I could have all my tones saved on the Katana 100 while I would definitely need to bring pedals as well along with my Marshall. Again, I would like to reiterate that this was for casual playing as I always prefer to use pedals as opposed to inbuilt effects in amps but the point I am trying to make here is that this decision would have been a no-brainer 5 years ago as the only reason I would have even owned a solid-state amp along with a tube amp would have been for sentimental reasons.
After a lot of deliberation, I decided to go with my solid-state Katana 100 as it was just so much more practical and I sounded quite all right at the gig later that night. So, which one should you choose I hear you asking? Well, the answer is quite complicated and convoluted. If you are someone who is just starting out and is looking for something dependable and something you can use without worrying about it hampering your learning phase then go for a solid-state amp by all means. Boss, Fender, Vox, Yamaha, etc all make some excellent solid-state amps that are more than capable of powering you through the first few years of your life as a guitarist. However, if you love that classic overdriven sound of classic rock and metal then a tube amp still is the king. While many solid-state amps can emulate a tube amp and many pedals do a pretty good job in coming close to that iconic sound, they still aren’t there yet and a tube amp is still the crème de la crème among amplifiers as far as I am concerned. If I were to perform in a situation where the tone really mattered to me then there would be no doubt in my mind – I would still choose a tube amp.
Why every guitarist should own a tube amplifier:
For those of you who don’t know, tube amps get their names from the vacuum tubes they use for amplification as opposed to the integrated circuits that solid-state amps use. Both were initially used in computers and the vacuum tube is considered to be an obsolete technology in front of its solid-state counterpart. The vacuum tube in itself has many flaws but when put inside a guitar amp, it creates some of the most amazing sounds in conjunction with an electric guitar. It responds so well that it feels like this is a match made in heaven. Bands like AC/DC had all the money in the world but they still preferred to perform with a wall of Marshall tube amplifiers and they should know a thing or two about guitar amplification considering how pivotal the guitar was to their music.
So, in conclusion, if you cannot afford a tube amp right now, do not be discouraged. We live in amazing times where even the affordable solid-state amps are quite excellent and will keep you very happy throughout your formative years as a guitarist. However, once you get to the point in your life where you can afford a tube amp, do get one as playing through a tube amp that is turned all the way up to 11 is something every guitarist deserves to experience on a regular basis.