Warm, saturated, clean and distorted tube powered guitar amps are considered by many guitarists to be the Holy Grail of tone. Early transistorized amps of the 1960s sounded harsh and their negative reputation has continued to this day, in spite of many design advances and the introduction of both digital and analog modeling.
While the sonic preference for amps powered by 6L6, EL34 and EL84 tubes has kept a mid 20th Century technology in an otherwise defunct manufacturing industry alive in China and Easter Europe, a surprising number of transistor powered Solid State Amps have surreptitiously made their way into music history.
The Vox Super Beatle amp and the Standel were two of the earliest Solid State models to boast sounds of sufficient professional quality to be used by major artists. Super Beatle amps were used by the Beatles and are still favored for some recordings by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell to this day. The Standel amp was favored early on by the legendary Chet Atkins and found its way, bizarrely, as the iconic Summer of Love sound of Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar solo on Jefferson Airplane’s iconic Somebody To Love.
The swampy sounds of John Fogerty’s rockabilly derived Creedence Clearwater Revival hits came courtesy of Kustom Tuck n Roll 100 watt stacks with built in fuzz and other effects. The shiny naugahyde padded exteriors were a visual departure from the Tolex vinyl used by Fender and Marshall.
Famed for their bass rigs as used by Jaco Pastorius, John Paul Jones and John McVie among others, Acoustic Control made heavyweight 300 watt amps that filled arenas and were an alternative to Ampeg’s SVT. However, their underrated guitar amps were favored by Robbie Krieger of the Doors, Frank Zappa, and blues titan Albert King, who toured with his monstrous Acoustic stack until his death.
While the Norlin era is considered the lowest point in Gibson’s 120 year+ history, the Gibson Lab series amps were an interesting creation that combined Solid State transistor power with Moog electronics. Considered a commercial failure at the time, Lab Series amps became a favorite of the late B.B. King and was the secret weapon for years of Ty Tabor, the guitarist for King’s X.
Originally designed for accordion amplification, Polytone amps took hold in the 1970s among jazzers like George Benson and Jim Hall to become a staple in jazz clubs around the world.
Queen’s Brian May, an astro physicist who built his own guitar, recorded many of the overdubs on classic Queen records with a jerry rigged solid state amp setup powered by a dry cell battery that he built with bassist John Deacon called “The Deacey”. The design was later borrowed by Vox for a limited edition May signature amp.
Throughout the decades, solid state amps by H&H, Sunn, Yamaha, Peavey, and Pignose appeared on major recordings by a cross section of glam rock, punk, jazz fusion, gospel, country, R&B, and other musical genres: T. Rex, Be-Bop Deluxe, The Mekons, Mike Stern, Eric Clapton, Craig Chaquico (Jefferson Starship), Glen Campbell, and many others.
If we fast forward to today, modeling amps with analog tone stacks, such as Tech 21 Trademark and Peavey Vypyr (based on Peavey’s Transtube patent) offer lightweight and maintenance free alternatives to tube amps that may appeal to players who are seeking different sounds. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos is a Tech 21 fan, and Peaveys were used by Luther Dickinson and Robert Randolph for their project with Martin Medeski and the North Mississippi AllStars – The Word.
With the improvements in technology, new solid state amps from Orange, Fender, Vox and Blackstar have received excellent reviews and have become popular for many apartment dwellers, due to their light weight and headphone, MP3 and USB jacks for computer recording and private practice.
Line 6 amps are among the most popular of digital modeling amps and their huge gain sounds and low price points have spawned a loyal following among young shredders. Surprisingly, the programmability of Line 6 amps, which share many sound processing aspects in common with their multi FX pedalboard cousins, such as the Helix, are often overlooked. Prog rock pioneer Steve Howe of Yes and Asia swears by his Line 6 Vetta Amps, as he has customized programs for his massive guitar collection and tours with them around the globe, secure in the knowledge that if an amp goes down, another one can quickly download his programs and supply all of his sounds for the next concert without any hardware headaches. He notes that Solid State and modeling amps need to be tweaked depending on the particular guitar being used for optimum tone, since they are more finicky and less “plug and play” ready as tube amps.
Roland’s latest offerings, the Blues Cube series, were designed in conjunction with Eric Johnson, renowned for his sensitivity to tone (he hears the differences between battery strengths for his Fuzz Face pedals!). The Blues Cube amps offer tones that rival many tube amp models and Johnson’s endorsement is being taken seriously by many tone connoisseurs who would normally ignore these amps.
While the vast majority of musicians prefer the warmth and tonal complexity that tube amps continue to deliver, solid state amps have made great strides in their progress. Their improvement leaps in tone and versatility make them a legitimate alternative choice instead of a merely a financial based compromise and sound sacrifice as might have been in the past.