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The Question: Tube or Solid State?
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Long has the debate raged over what type of amplification sounds better: tube or solid state? Well, the Virtual Musician thinks this to be a question of apples versus oranges! Personally, I have always thought of tube and solid state amps to be two different types of amplification; not different facets of the same thing but two entirely different things altogether.

Tube amps are like watches with self-winding movements, technically archaic and prone to being problematic. But the really good ones produce a gorgeous, full bodied sound. And they have a certain cachet and mystique with a lot of guitarists. Let’s face it, as guitarists, most of our heroes use/used tube amps. So, there is always that draw: "Man, Hendrix got a killer sound out of these Marshalls. If I could just get that sound…".

Solid state amps are more like watches with quartz movements. They tend to be more workmanlike and reliable. Much more consistent, much less likely to exhibit a particular personality. With, say, 3 Fender twins sounding 3 slightly different ways, solid state amplifiers will sound the same from amp to amp.

The sound characteristics of both amps vary greatly. A good tube amp should give a full sound, with clarity and definition. My best example of what a great tube amp should sound like is a Fender Twin Reverb, also my favorite tube amplifier. It produces a sound with great bite and clarity from the lowest bass notes to the stratospheric reaches of the treble register. I love the definition it produces with the bass notes of a guitar, which can get muddy with a lot of amps. But, with a Fender Twin each bass note is clearly articulated and very round and full. Another thing I like about the Twin Reverb is that the sound it produces has what I call a "hollow middle". It doesn’t make a lot of mid range punch, it accentuates the lower and higher registers. This is why it is not a good amp for heavy metal type sounds. Also, in order to get a decent distorted tone, you need outboard gear. It won’t do it on its own. For tones like that, Marshall and Crate make great amplifiers. However……

Solid state amps can give you the best of both worlds. The solid state amp I like is also a Fender, the "Deluxe 112 Plus". This is what I use, but I am only using this as an example of a good solid state amp. There are many good ones available. What I like about solid state is that with a little fiddling about, I can get a real good tone for any musical genre. It has a great clean sound, almost as crisp and biting as a Fender Twin. Its distortion channel is blistering and with a slight manipulation of the gain and contour controls, I can achieve a wide range of distorted tones from a soft and fuzzy fusion-y sound to a full bore maniacal metal screech, with all the pick harmonics at my disposal. It can give you very punchy mid’s, so you can metal or grunge out to your hearts content. But what I really like is that with a little playing around, I can get a lot of tones that I have heard and loved, all out of this one little amp. I can go clean and cop a great Robert Cray sound. Also, that great clean tone Stevie Ray gets on Lenny? Been there, done that! You got a Strat and you want to sound like Jimmy? No problem. You got an ES335 and you want to sound like Robben Ford/Larry Carlton? And, hey, if you just want to sound like yourself? Solid state amps can be very versatile. If you like to play with a wide range of sounds, solid state can do it for you.

But, in the end, the debate still rages on. Tube or solid state? The beauty of sound is in the ear of the beholder.

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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