The Great Tube Amp Controversy

There is a constant debate among guitarists that divides players into two distinct groups; one simple question that can separate friends and alienate entire families. The question is “Do you use Solid State or Tube Amps?”

This question regarding the use of tubes versus solid state transistors in guitar amplification is a heavy one and really resembles more of a battle call than anything else because either side is usually diametrically opposed to the other, often times to the point of bloodshed.

I can understand the passion involved because it comes down to getting the perfect tone, which as we discussed is the true passion of every player.

My good friend Rich Gonne’ of Gonne’ Amplification in Visalia California is a “tone purist” and only a tube amp will suffice. He started his own amp company because he wasn’t getting the tone he was after from any other amplifiers on the market. His company focuses on high end boutique tube amps and the mere thought of running a signal through a “processor” is unbearable to him.  However, the tech savvy guitarist may find the reliability, versatility and consistency of a solid state amp much more appealing.  At the end of the day both sides are right because every guitarist must find their own tone.

The debate is multi-sided and has great arguments for both sides. For example, no one will dare argue that the tone Edward Van Halen achieved on the first (and every other) Van Halen album was not absolutely amazing. This was due in part to his modified Marshall Tube amps. The same could be said for Angus Young, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Yngwie Malmsteen, Warren DiMartini and the list goes on.

On the other side of the argument are amazing players like Dimebag Darrell and George Lynch who have achieved monumental tones with Randall Solid State amps.  If you throw into this mix the ubiquitous presence of rack and floor processors like the Line 6 Pod and the Spider series of amps as well as the new Fractal Amp units and it can become overwhelming.

The issue gets even more complicated when you add elements to the signal chain. For example, if you take a Marshall JCM 800 and add an Ibanez Tube Screamer to the mix you have now compromised the “purity” of you “tube” sound. If you add overdrive pedals, chorus or digital delay pedals you have now further drifted away from your “pure tube tone”. By contrast if you take a Digital Preamp like a Behringer V Amp Pro with full built in digital effects and run it through a Peavey All Tube Power Amp you have now introduced the tube element into your “digital chain”.  

So what really is the debate? Isn’t a great tone what were after? The debate has as much to do with feel and responsiveness as it does with sound. Do you prefer the warmth and intuitive responsiveness that comes from a tube or do you prefer the tight precision and consistency that comes from a solid state unit.

It is a total preference issue and there is no wrong answer.

The reality is that I can get great tone from a solid state amp and I can get great tone from a tube amp. However I cannot get great tone from EVERY tube amp or EVERY solid state amp.

The sad truth is that much like the guitar market is flooded with mass produced inferior products, the amp market is flooded with poorly made inferior amps…lots of them…both Solid State and Tube amps.

A few years ago I decided that I really wanted a good versatile combo amp so I decided to troubleshoot every 2x12 combo amp on the market and I would not let cost deter me in my quest.

 I compiled a test sheet of every great tone I could think of from Edward Van Halen’s brown sound to the country rock twang of Shooter Jennings to the full on metal crunch that James Hetfield gets from his Mesa Boogie amps.  I then took one of my Pasquale Custom Guitars loaded with EMGs to Sam Ash and Guitar Center and just started in one isle and went up and down each isle playing every amp in the store. Solid State, Tube, Rack Mounts, Guitar Rig Programs …you name it, I played it and they all got reviewed. This went on for over 6 months.

What I discovered for myself was that out of probably 60 amps played I found that there were 3 that I would even consider buying, a Line 6 Spider, a Peavey 6505 or an Egnater Renegade 65. (The Egnater won hands down by the way. I believe the Renegade 65 to be the greatest amp in the world due in part to its ability to blend the power tube tones together.)

In other words approximately 5% of the amp market is actually usable for my tone or as I like to state it ...95% of the amps on the market are crap whether they are solid state or tubes.

Over the years I have found that I get inspired by a great tone no matter what source it generates from. I try my best not to be swayed by brand names or advertising. I won’t let an ad in a magazine convince me that their amps sound great. I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars over the course of my life because I read all the reviews on an amp, played it in a store and  convinced myself I liked it only to bring it home to be disappointed later.

I have also found that advances in technology are not always a bad thing.  

For example, in the early 1990’s I was fortunate enough to have a rack system custom built by Bob Bradshaw. Bob is the amp guru to the stars and he has worked with everyone you could ever think of when it comes to the guitar. He has done rack systems for Steve Vai, George Lynch and Steve Lukather just to name a few. My rack system featured an original version of the Bradshaw 3+ Tube Preamp which was just released at the time. Today it is one of the most sought after pieces of collector amplification on the market. The sound was amazing. It was run into a Custom Audio Electronics Line Mixer then into a Boss Effects Processor and out into a Tube Works Power Amp through a 4 x 12 Carvin Stack loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. It was loud and sounded absolutely amazing. It was an enormous pain to get it from gig to gig but so what …It sounded awesome!

Fast forward 10 years and I find myself in an entirely different playing situation. The dreams of rock stardom have faded and I am now playing in a much smaller situation. I have long since gotten tired of dragging this enormous rack around so I purchased a Korg Toneworks AX 1000 G digital floor processor. You know the kind, a floor pedal with all the bells and whistles in one box with 4 buttons to change banks. I think I spent a total of $199 for this thing on sale and I have been able to get some incredible tones out of it. Metal crunch as well as clean lush Pink Floyd style tones out of a box that is no more than 18 ” long with no tubes. At rehearsals I would run it into a Hughes & Kettner Triplex Solid State Amp but for gigs I was so lazy I would just run it through the PA and use the house monitors.

 Was the “experience” of playing this way as satisfying as playing with my Bradshaw Rig?  No Way! But if you asked me if it was a legitimately great tone I would say yes. I became so enamored with this type of set up that I became a collector of floor processors over the years. I highly recommend The Vox ToneLab LE (which actually has a 12AX7 tube in it) and the Zoom GFX 8. I am also an enormous fan of the Behringer V Amp Pro.  In fact one of my favorite tones comes from a Behringer V Amp Pro set to the Savage Beast setting run directly into a digital interface and played through a  pair of 5” Yamaha Speakers. If you contrast this set up with my Bradshaw rig it is as far opposite of the spectrum that you can get when it comes to tone generation yet both are not only valid but they sound incredible.

So as far as technology is concerned I am all in favor of it. However, technology will never replace craftsmanship. The one common factor in all of the guitar set-ups that I have used over the years is my guitars. A perfectly balanced and set up guitar with tonal sonic versatility makes getting a great guitar tone that much easier. You see the real secret to getting great tone doesn’t just come from an amp. It comes from a combination of a perfectly balanced guitar, the right amp and a player that is in tune with both. That is the key to unlocking YOUR tone.

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was once quoted as saying “a great tone comes from running the right guitar into the right amp”.

I couldn’t agree more.

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