So, you are looking to get a new tube amplifier. Here is what you should consider before your first big purchase. Perhaps you’re just starting out, or you’re switching over from solid state into your first real tube amp. There are some things to consider before you just walk into a shop and buy the first thing you see that looks cool.
In my opinion, there is no better sound than a guitar being cranked all the way up through an old tube amp. However, that’s not to say that there are not good solid-state amps out there either, because there are. One of my favorite amps (that I wish I had never sold) was a solid-state Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus. However, I wanted something with more warmth and transparency, so I swapped it out for 1968 Fender Bassman, and have not looked back since.
Solid-state amps can be great if you use a lot of pedals and want your tone to be as sterile and unaffected as possible. However, tube amps add color and character to your sound that will breathe life into your guitar tone. When I’m selling someone an amp, I ask him or her the following questions; that way, I’m positive they’re getting exactly what they need. Below are things that you should take into consideration before walking out the door with something, or buying online.
How Many Watts?
First, you’ll need to figure out how much power you need. If you’re playing at home and doing a lot of recording, you don’t need much. If you’re going out on the road, then that’s a different story. However, a lot of guitarists think they need 120 watts to play 1500 cap rooms, and truth is, you don’t need that at all.
So for the player who is mainly at home, or at small clubs, I recommend getting an amp between 4-22 watts. But ask yourself: do you need a lot of headroom? Do you want an amp that breaks up at low volumes? There are a lot of great amps now that are lower than four watts and are great for home use. Of course, if loudness isn’t really an issue, you can get an amp that’s 30 watts or more, but it’s going to be pretty damn loud for your neighbor. If you have a dog (like me) who can’t stand even a high string being plucked on an acoustic, then he/she really won’t like that Marshall full stack, or even a Vox AC30, for that matter.
Now if you’re out on the road and playing various different rooms every night, then you’ll need to consider something different. You’re going to need something with more headroom, especially if you don’t hire a sound guy. Chances are the front of house guy will tell you to turn down and you’ll be screaming at he or she to turn your monitors up. Well, first and foremost, my advice would be to be nice to the poor bastard that has to hear you complain that you can’t hear anything. He/she won’t do a damn thing for you if you’re being a jackass.
Personally, I like 50-watt amps on the road. The tubes get hotter and they break up quicker. I like headroom, but too much for me will alter the tone in a bad way. 30 and 50-watt amps are great for venues of any capacity. If you must make a statement and need to be the loudest band to ever play Madison, Wisconsin, then that is your choice. But with that said being the gear nerd that I am, I do love when there is a band playing with a wall of amps behind them (all with speakers in them, preferably). A great example would be J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. He plays through two 100 watt Marshall full stacks behind him and a Hiwatt 120-watt full stack between them. Pretty impressive, and yes, he actually does play through all of that. But you are not J Mascis, so you shouldn’t be lugging all of that gear around pretending that you might be him. Also, why put yourself through the torture everyday of stacking up amps and running a million cables? Keep it clean, and keep it simple. Unless of course you can afford a guitar tech and roadies, and if you can, then you shouldn’t even be reading this article.
Why Do Tubes Matter?
Well tubes matter because you’re buying a TUBE amp. The different types of power tubes have a different sound based on their characteristic. This is something that is very important to consider when buying. Generally, a 6L6 power tube gives you clarity, punch, and a nice roundness compared to an EL34, which has tight lows, sparkly highs, and great mid range. EL84’s have a much smaller output, but are very smooth and have great harmonic distortion much similar to a 6V6 power tube, which has a thick lower frequency, great for blues. KT88’s and 6550’ are big and powerful sounding: very clean with a lot of low end.
The preamp section of the amp is very important much like the power section. As I covered, the power section gives you the overall output in terms of tube breakup and headroom. However, the preamp section does most of the tone shaping. What you should be concerned with is what preamp type the amp is, as well as what features it possess such as an effects loop, multiple channels, reverb, and vibrato/tremolo (often thought of as the same thing, however not at all. Read more about that here).
If you need to rely on one amp to give you all of the sound you need without using pedals, then you should put a lot of focus into this particular matter. A typical amp will have anywhere from one to four channels. I personally rely on pedals for my overdrives and distortions, therefore I use mainly single channel amps live. But if you need varying degrees of distortions and clean tones in one amp, something like a Mesa Boogie would be more up your alley, a lot of those amps have varying distortion channels as well as one or two clean channels, even.
Your budget is always a big deciding factor when purchasing an amp. It’s often said that you will get a better tone with a $3,000 amp going through a $300 guitar rather than a $3,000 guitar going into a $300 amp. But you don’t need to spend $3,300 to have a great setup. It’s a good idea to test out as many different amps as you can to find out what tubes you like better than others, as well as speakers, and preamps. I would say try anything and everything, even if it’s out of your price range. You will have more on your palette as far as what sounds are out there and what you like. This way, when you narrow it down to that one amp, you will know it’s exactly the right thing for you.
For my last tidbit of advice, I recommend talking to a local amp repair tech. Nobody will know more about buying a good amp then them. They see and work with all sorts of different styles and brands. A lot of the newer amps are made with cheaper parts because those companies have cut a lot of corners to give you an affordable amp. Ask around, listen to what they have to say, and take what you’ve learned into consideration when buying a new or used tube amp.
I hope this helps in some way when you come to buying a tube amp. Consider what it is you need in an amp and narrow your search down to just that. Let your ears be the final judge, and don’t let anyone else persuade them otherwise.