There really isn’t anything like the warm, colorful sound given off by a vintage vacuum tube amplifier. Since the beginning of rock and roll, players have come to know and love the signature characteristics of the tube amplifier. Even after the introduction of the much more affordable and much less sensitive solid state amplifier, tube amps continue to be prized and preferred over their successor for one simple reason – tone. Yesterday, we discussed the general features and components of today’s modern amps as well as their common variations. From the microprocessor infused modeling amps to the cleaner, more naturally resonating acoustic varieties, amps all pretty much work towards the same goal; take your guitar’s raw signal and transform it into an audible sound. While they might all have the same end result in common, it is how they get that job done that’s the important part. Today, we will be focusing on the origins of the amplifier as well as the touch on key aspects of tube and solid state amps, their advantages and disadvantages as well as why so many rock guitarists tend to favor one over the other. So, for those of you wanting to find out a little more about one of the more important aspects of how players get their signature sound, read on and learn a little more about how guitar amplifiers came to be as well as their crucial importance to one’s overall tone.
The History of the Guitar Amplifier
Like so many other inventions before it, the electric guitar amplifier came about through material progress as several of the principles and components used in its creation where already known about at the time. By the 1930s, most people familiar with the basic principles of electricity could tell you that the movement of metal caused a disturbance that could be made into an electric current by simply using a nearby coil of wire (electrical generators and phonographs already used this principle). During this time, big bands had become the norm and guitar makers were already trying to find a way to make their instruments louder as a guitar’s natural acoustics would completely drown out against such a large ensemble of musicians. The solution was the invention of the pickup, which was first successfully implemented by the Hawaiian steel-guitar player George Beauchamp. He, along with Adolph Rickenbacker, created the Electro String Company in the early ‘30s and after months of trial and error developed a pickup that consisted of two horseshoe magnets along with six pole pieces that would concentrate the magnetic field under each string. Their first creation of a pickup-based instrument was an electric Hawaiian steel guitar nicknamed the “frying pan.”
Electro Harmonix KT88 power tubes on a Traynor YBA-200 amp
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Even before their successful creation of the pickup, Beauchamp and Rickenbacker knew they would need a means to make sound and had already begun developing the first guitar amplifier by this time. They did so by modifying already existing Hi-Fi radios and P.A. amplifiers that could be made to work with an electric pickup rather than a microphone as well as implementing the newly introduced technology of electrolytic capacitors and rectifier tubes. This new technology essentially allowed for the production of economical built-in power supplies that could be plugged into wall sockets instead of having to use several battery packs which, at the time, were far too big and expensive for practical use. The first production-model amp was designed and built by Van Nest for the Electro String Company at his Los Angeles radio shop. Once this was done, the Electro String Company hired design engineer Ralph Robertson to work on and continue developing their amplifiers. By 1941, Robertson had designed a new form of circuitry that by then was implemented on at least four different amplifier models. These early amps were so far ahead of their competition (which weren't many) at the time that they greatly influenced, among others, Leo Fender, who at the time had a shop of his own in Fullerton, California repairing – and soon after, developing – amplifiers.
By this time, amplifiers were nowhere near as reliable or powerful as they are today. Essentially a retooled radio with a small 10 watt speaker, as the popularity of the electric guitar grew, so did the need for a louder amp. Then in 1949, in came Leo Fender who, along with his engineer Don Randall, did just that with their creation of their ‘Super Amp’ model amplifier – a 50 watt output design with 12” speakers. By the end of the’50s, Leo Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars were selling spectacularly well along with Gibson’s similar solid body Les Paul. The sheer success of the solid body design coupled with the rise of rock and roll meant huge sales for amps and in turn, many more guitar players. By the early ‘60s, players were discovering unintended tonal variations within amplifiers – namely – high gain distortion. By pushing the settings on an amp far higher than it would be able to properly translate, players were able to create a distorted, overdriven sound that would eventually define the era. As high gain and overdriven sounds were becoming increasingly popular in ‘60s rock, demand for an amplifier that would be able to better handle the output, as well as one that could be used for bigger venues, was in need. Then came Pete Townsend who asked music shop owner and friend Jim Marshall if there was indeed such a “bigger and louder” amplifier. Seeing the opportunity, Marshall eventually produced a 100 watt amplifier connected to a stack of four twelve-inch speakers that was made specifically with high gain output in mind, giving birth to the true rock concert amp.
Up to this point, all amplifiers still used vacuum tube technology and although musicians loved the warm colorations of its tone, they did not come without their flaws. For one, tubes on these amplifiers needed to be frequently replaced as they would either come loose or burn out completely. Then in the 1970s, the vacuum tube amplifier was finally being replaced by the much cheaper, stable and cleaner sound of the solid state amp thanks to the creation of the solid-state transistor. Today, both types of amps are readily available along with a hybrid of the two which use tube preamps along with a solid-state power amplifier, achieving a good mix of advantages they both deliver.
Solid State versus Vacuum Tube Amplifiers
The discussion between which of these two amplifiers types is better isn’t as simple as sound - both designs have positives and negatives from a strictly mechanical standpoint as well. If it were simply a matter of sound and tone, most rock, blues and country players would overwhelmingly side with the vacuum tube amp as it is by far the more expressive and colorful of two. Solid-state amps produce a much thinner, cold and cleaner sound that many feel lacks natural tonal personality, very similar to complaints made by those that prefer analog effects over digital. That’s not to say that no one prefers the sound of the solid state as the very same things that rock guitarists complain over are the same traits that others find as benefits, such as certain jazz guitarists that tend to favor the predictable and consistent tones created with solid state along with their ability to keep the sound clean at any volume setting. Tube amps on the other hand – specifically their tone – are directly affected by the tubes in that different tubes produce different sounds, making consistent tones much more difficult to attain, especially when you consider the frequency in which players much change the tubes. This brings us to the next part of their differences; solid-state amps are by far the more economical of the two and much easier to maintain, making them the premiere choice for inexpensive beginner level amplifiers while vacuum tubes are relegated toward the higher end tier. Also, vacuum tube amps produce much more heat and require more power to operate and while that might not mean much to a player, it means plenty of problems for manufacturers. So, which is the better of the two? That all depends on what you want and what you’re willing to deal with. If you are willing to spare no expense and don’t mind the extensive upkeep required in keeping them functional, then a tube amp is definitely the right choice for you. If you’re not looking to spend big bucks on your set up and want something much more reliable, easy to take care of and resilient, then the solid-state is a much better choice. Either way, you will surely be able to rock harder than anyone did in back in the ‘30s!