Tube or Solid State?
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
I consider this to be an issue of personal taste. I've heard guys sound great using tube amps and I've heard guys sound great using solid state amps. The only consideration as far as I'm concerned is what I sound like - TO ME!
So I'll say right upfront that I'm a solid state guy. I'll talk about the reasons why but the bottom line is I sound better - to me - using solid state amps.
I've owned several tube amps over the years - Fenders and Marshalls - and I always reverted back to solid state because I didn't like my sound. Notice I said, "my sound" rather than, "the sound."
There is no "the sound." Have 10 different players play the same guitar through the same amp with the same settings and you'll get 10 different sounds. Why? Because there are a massive number of variables from player to player that mostly boil down to differences in technique. The sound comes from the player.
I probably sound better - to me - on solid state because that's what I learned on. My foundational technique evolved subconsciously as a result of doing what I had to do to get the sound I wanted with the amp I happened to have. That technique - my touch, my inflection, my tone - was developed using solid state and exists on such a subconscious level that I can't change it. And when it's applied to an amp on which it was not developed, like any kind of tube amp, it doesn't transfer well.
That's my theory anyway. Whether you prefer tubes or solid state is the result of random circumstances in place when you first started trying to get the sound you wanted.
My first amp was a Kustom 100. It was a 2-12 combo. I bought it new (with some parental help), in 1968 or 9. It lasted up until 1981 when it finally gave up the ghost. At that point I had been performing with it 6 nights a week in clubs for several years. That was 12 or 13 years of constant, and I mean constant, use. Hours and hours a day.
I had no problems with it - not even one. It never failed, never went into the shop - zero maintenance. Over 10 years of constant use without a single problem.
And that brings me to a major reason for solid state; maintenance-free durability.
I don't remember what killed it but I remember it crapped out - just up and quit one night on a gig. I can't recall what I did with it either. According to the photographic evidence I was using it in 1981. 1982 is the year of the first photos of what I replaced it with; a 100-watt Marshall combo. All tubes.
The Marshall wasn't the first tube amp I'd owned. At some point in the mid '70's I bought a Fender Princeton Reverb to use as a practice amp. I never used it on a gig that I can remember although a guitarist that I was in a band with from '79-'81 used it. He was a tube guy. He used it for an overdriven sound; it was small and when turned up had a crunch to it that he liked. He used it on top of his regular, larger Fender amp.
From the beginning, I had issues with the Marshall.
When I first took it into the recording studio, I noticed that there was a rattle somewhere in the chassis. Upon closer inspection I discovered that the power tubes, the big ones, were held in place with a bracket that had springs fastened to the chassis that ran up along the sides of the tube. Those springs would vibrate against the tube at certain frequencies and that's what caused the rattle. If you removed the bracket and springs, the tube would come loose.
To eliminate the rattle, I wrapped the springs with aluminum foil. As I was in the studio, rigging this work-around on my brand-new Marshall, I was disgusted. I thought, "This is a pretty major design flaw! Without this work-around I won't be able to record with it."
Within 2 or 3 years I had to replace a couple of tubes. One time the amp got knocked over on a gig; more tubes.
The sound of the amp changed as the tubes warmed up; thus the stand-by switch that would turn off the amp but keep the tubes hot.
Also, the sound of the amp changed as the tubes aged.
Notice that all these issues revolve around the presence of tubes.
Now if you like your sound on a tube amp - you probably learned to play using one - I understand; by all means use tube amps.
I learned on solid state and I'm grateful for that. I don't have to deal with all the crap issues that come with tubes to get "my sound."
Sometime around 1981 I purchased a Polytone 102. It's a solid state amp with one 12-inch and two 8-inch speakers. I bought it because George Benson used Polytones and a musician I was working with at the time whose opinion I respected suggested I try one.
I loved it. I began using it instead of the Marshall, especially on Jazz gigs.
In 1985, the dance band I was leading at the time was hired as the house band at a big dance club. We played there 6 nights a week for several months. We had a horn section and played high-energy, classic R&B - James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding etc - as well as covering horn-based rock stuff like Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chase.
Since this gig was loud and high-energy, I thought my Marshall would be appropriate.
At the opening-day sound check, I used a long cable (no wireless in those days) and stood as far back into the room as I could to listen. The Marshall set my teeth on edge. I just didn't like it. There was a harsh, brittle upper-midrange frequency that irritated the crap out of me.
So I used the Polytone instead.
"If I'm not going to use the Marshal on this gig" I thought, "I'm not going to use it on any gig!"
Sometime later, I traded the Marshall to one of my students for two Polytone Baby Brutes and $100. Value-wise, I'm sure he came out ahead, but I traded the Marshall, which I was convinced I'd never use, for some cash and two amps that I still use to this day. I don't regret getting rid of the Marshall.
Thus began a decade of primarily using the Polytone 102. We're talking roughly 250-300 shows a year. Mostly club dates which are usually 4 hours a night.
The Polytone 102 wasn't as durable as my Kustom 100. During that time it went down maybe 3 times. The main thing I remember was blown transistors. Once it was a blown speaker.
My tech tried to get me to go with a different brand of speaker. I told him, "No! Replace it with exactly what's in there! I love the sound of it and don't want anything different!"
He told me that he understood. What he didn't understand is why the Polytones, "sound so good." He said they used cheap, bottom-of-the-line parts, that's why it would crap out every once in a while. They should sound like garbage, but they don't.
In 1990 I was working with Kevin Mahogany. We were on the 1st night of a 3-night stand and my Polytone 102 failed. The next day I left it with my tech and went to the music store I was teaching at and requested a loaner. The manager gave me a Sundown amp. I'd never heard of it. It was a tube amp.
"John Scofield uses these." he said.
"Cool, I like John Scofield. I'll take it!"
I took it to the gig that night and fought with it all night. Couldn't get a decent clean tone.
I took it back the next day and said, "I don't like this. What else you got?"
"Well" he said, "I've got this Roland JC-120. You could try that."
I showed up at the gig that night and plugged in. Instant affinity. I mean, instant!
From the very first chord I loved it! That doesn't happen very often. The only other time that's happened to me was with my Martin MC-28.
I started watching the classified ads in the Sunday paper. Whenever a Roland JC-120 would appear I would go check it out. Between 1993 and 1995 I collected 3 of them, all used. I paid $500, $350 and $250 for them respectively. I still have, and use, all three.
At one point I was gigging with all of them. I would set one up at the beginning of the week wherever the weekly club gig was at the time. That one stayed in place for the week. I had a Saturday matinee that I played every week; I just left one in the back room there. I had a steady Friday matinee at another club and carried the 3rd amp in my car for that one.
The JC-120 has the same kind of durability that my old Kustom had. From the mid-nineties to now, for over 20 years, not a single problem, and they were used when I bought them! Any issues have been due to human error or abuse; one time a lead singer knocked one over and the foot switch jack in the back broke off inside the chassis. There have been knobs broken off and replaced - stuff like that. No systemic issues: no bad transistors, no blown speakers, no loose solder joints - nothing.
Now let's talk about the negatives.
The main problem with solid state amps is the overdrive sound sucks!
I've owned one solid state amp that had a great distortion sound; it was a Crate. The problem with that amp was that it wasn't versatile. I loved the sound of it on rock gigs where I was playing solid-body guitars but the clean sound wasn't warm enough for Jazz or Blues. It was like the speaker was too efficient or something.
One of the times my Polytone was in the shop I used the Crate on a Jazz gig and hated it! I was playing an Ibanez Artist on that one - a semi-hollow Gibson 335 knock-off. I got rid of the Crate shortly after that. I now regret getting rid of the Crate; I liked the distortion sound a lot.
My solution to the lame distortion sound with solid state amps is, of course, pedals. You can always dirty up a clean-sounding amp with a pedal. But if an amp doesn't have a good default clean sound you can't go the other way. There's no pedal that cleans up a dirty or harsh-sounding amp.
With the JC-120, for Rock and Pop gigs I have a pedalboard that I designed specifically for that amp. It has two signal chains and so uses both channels.
On the lead side I have a Marshall Guv'nor Plus distortion pedal and on the rhythm side for a rhythm crunch I use an old MXR Distortion II that I've used since the late '70's. I use the onboard Stereo Chorus, Stereo Tremelo and the Reverb on the rhythm side of the amp.
Sometimes on a Bluesier gig (with no pedalboard) I'll use the onboard distortion, but only in tandem with the chorus, which softens it up some and gives it a kind of John Scofield-y sound. I never use the onboard distortion on it's own. It just doesn't sound good - to me.
Another thing about the distortion on the JC-120 is that when you switch it on there's a db boost. It's way too much of a boost in my opinion.
As I've grown older, I've been on the lookout for something smaller and lighter that I can live with. The JC-120 is getting heavier as I get older; it weighs almost 62 pounds. I have a nice, heavy-duty dolly and if there are no steps to the stage I just wheel the dolly up there; I don't even take the amp off the dolly!
A couple of years ago, the store wherein I rent studio space started selling Quilter amps. They are solid state, small and extremely light - ridiculously light.
I noticed that my old rock buddies were trading in their huge dinosaur tube amps for these little Quilters. I thought I would try one out. What's not to like? It's solid state, small and light. And if the old rock guys like them they have to have a big sound.
I wanted to like them really bad! Unfortunately, I didn't. I wrote the following on Master Guitar School's Facebook page:
"It sounded ok with the Telecaster but I already know I don't like it with my PRS hollowbody. On my JC-120 I can get a good warm jazz tone with the Telecaster, and I can also get a brighter rock/pop tone as well. The Tele sounds good on the 120 and the hollowbody sounds good too. This Quilter amp is way too bright. Look at the tone knob on the left channel. There's no more room to darken it up and it's still too bright. One more thing; what's with the foot switch cable? It's the same stupid jack that's on a phone modem or internet cable. How long is that gonna last - about 2 weeks? I continue my hunt for a small light amp that's versatile. This one isn't. It sounds good for rock/pop/country but horrible for jazz. I play lots of gigs where the first set is jazz and the last set is dance music. This amp isn't going to work for me. Maybe I should go back to the small Polytones I used to use. Man I really wanted to like this amp - I really did. It's light, small, solid state, big sound. This was actually the second time I've used one on a gig. I just can't bring myself to buy it. It sounds harsh to me and I can't warm it up."
Upon further reflection I realized I should have expected my dislike. It sounds like a tube amp! That's why the Rock guys were trading in their old tube monstrosities for it. I should have known. If you like a tube sound but are getting too old to lug your Fender Twin or your Marshall 4X12 around then these little Quilters might be the thing for you.
A few years ago I was nosing around in a boutique-y music store in the artsy part of town. They carried lots of old vintage stuff. I stumbled across a Kustom 100 exactly like the one I used to have! My very first amp! The nostalgia unexpectedly hit me like a ton of bricks. It was $300. I resisted the temptation to make an impulse purchase. I knew I didn't need another amp and that the urge to buy it was rooted in emotion and nostalgia. I walked away from it.
Kinda wish I hadn't.
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