While it is widely acknowledged among the world’s guitar players that tube amps sound better than solid-state amps, this generalization can be broken down into several strands. The first and most apparent is age; those who began playing when there was no alternative to tube guitar amps, and many of today’s guitar gods belong into this category.
They created their sound with a tube amp. Thus their preference for this technology is well-founded. As technology progressed and alternatives to tubes came, it was solid-state electronics. Now we have the modeling capability of microprocessors, which can mimic those warm sustaining tube sounds. The variety is astounding.
Younger budding guitarists have easy access to guitar amps, which can help them produce the sounds they want at a fraction of the expense of the original guitar amp used to build the sound. However, when they improve their skills and maybe their resource pool (money), there will be a general shift to the actual thing (no, not the band). Others are content to work with the several hybrids available; I recently purchased a Vox Valvetronic 30 watt for my son. It has 22 preset sounds and is both a tube amp and a modeling amp. It meets his demands for the time being (they’ve just finished their first rehearsal sessions with their brand in a local recording/practice facility [I don’t have a garage]). The drummers were also jacked; what is it with “artistes”?
However, having an all-tube guitar amp isn’t always the pinnacle of tone. Modern amps, especially the all-tube variety, are bursting at the seams with bells and whistles, ostensibly to provide greater control over the final sound, but at the price of depth and quality. The rich, warm sound produced by the guitar and its amplifier results from the harmonics produced. Every interface between the stages that the currents pass through filters out harmonics, resulting in the richness of sound.
The first vintage guitar amplifiers were relatively simple, with minimal interfaces and low harmonic loss, producing rich, warm sounds. The wiring was another feature of the vintage guitar amp. Even today’s tube amplifiers employ circuit boards, and the co-planer structure of the printed circuit causes capacitance, which leaks harmonics and hence sound quality.
Even the cabinet contributes to the overall tone. Would you own a plywood guitar, and if not, why why? Your first reaction is likely to be that it sounds terrible, and you’d be correct. The majority of current amplifiers are encased in plywood cabinets. The dynamics, operating voltages, wiring, interfaces, and construction work together to produce harmonically rich sounds, and it’s all based on sound (excuse the pun) technology. In an earlier post, I posed the issue, “Is the love for tube guitar amps purely sentimental, or does it have a solid basis?” The science certainly holds up in the case of vintage guitar amps. Another query was how they managed to do it so right the first time. Is it heavenly because it was the only technology accessible in the late 1950s? That certainly sounds like that (I can’t help myself).
Unfortunately, the expense of owning a boutique guitar amp built to the specs of a good vintage amp is prohibitively expensive for simple mortals like me. Still, then I’d never use its full potential. Still, it saddens me to see skilled guitarists setting up with arrays of pedals and interfaces. If you can afford it, relish the rich sound.