Before you go and shell out your hard earned cash for a new guitar tube amp, there’s a few things you should consider in order to get the best experience for your money. Even if you have plenty of experience with solid state amps, the tube variety are totally different beasts with their own set of quirks. In the end, it comes down to what you’re looking to get out of your new tube amplifier; whether it’s for practice at home or gigs on the road, a classic tone or more modern crunch. Let’s get started.
First things first, you probably want to decide on what amp wattage will best suit your needs. Tube amps sound best when pushed to a certain degree, so while a 100-watt behemoth might look insanely cool in your room, it’s not going to do you much good. If you’ll be using your new tube amp primarily for at home practice and DON’T want to anger the neighbors, a small 5-watt will fit your needs.
It’s worth noting here that a 100-watt tube amp is not twice as loud as a 50-watt tube amp—the difference between the two is only about 3 dB. Twice the wattage really comes down to more headroom. And let’s not forget the aspect of portability, since a 100-watt head will have some weight to it. Unless you can afford roadies, you need to make sure you are up for carrying it from gig to gig with the cabinet.
Tube type is another important consideration. The different types of power tubes each have a particular sound based on their characteristics. Generally speaking, a 6L6 power tube offers nice roundness, clarity, and punch compared to an EL34, which commonly has tight lows, sparkling highs, and a nice mid-range. EL84s have much lower output, but offer a smoothness and harmonic distortion similar to a 6V6, which is bluesy with nice low frequency fullness. The big and powerful 6550s and KT88s are very clean sounding with a lot of low end.
Having covered the basics of the power amp, it is time to consider the preamp. The power amp considerations are important since the power tubes affect the overall output in terms of headroom and breakup, but it’s the preamp that really does most of the tonal shaping of the amp. What we are concerned with is the preamp circuit type and what features it possesses—such as reverb, effects loops, or multiple channels.
A player that needs to rely on one amp that is able to provide varying degrees of distortion may want to consider an amp with multiple channels. Typically, there may be anywhere from one to four channels on a guitar amp. Tube amps with multiple channels offer flexibility by allowing the player to rely less on pedals for overdrive, and more on utilizing the independent gain controls for each channel of the tube amp. Most high gain amps have at least two channels—clean and gain—where the player can turn up the preamp gain and leave the master volume set at a lower level. This will allow higher distortion at a much lower volume level. Keep in mind that preamp tube break up sounds different than power tube break up, and is less touch sensitive.
While multi-channel tube amps offer built-in flexibility, a player looking for purity of tone may be better off with a single channel amplifier. It is important to bear in mind that you will color your tone by running your guitar through springs in a reverb pan, multiple channels, or jacks and cables in and out of an effects loop. Simply put, the more components in the signal chain, the more the signal purity will be altered. And when a tube amp has three preamps, a reverb circuit, effects loop, buffers, and additional gain stages—but is the same price as a less complex model—costs were probably cut somewhere.
Your budget may really be the deciding factor when considering purchasing a new tube amp. When it comes to electric guitars, it has been said that one could get a better sound with a $4,000 amp and a $400 guitar, than a $4,000 guitar paired with a $400 amp. Better is relative here, but I have to agree. To be clear, higher priced does not always equal better tone, or even better quality. I have seen amps costing thousands of dollars with a lower quality level than an amp costing a few hundred. As with most purchases, setting your budget usually involves looking at what’s available that will suit your needs—from the less expensive options up through high. So start a list of available tube amps—from the cheaper, mass-produced tube amps at the bottom through the boutique, hand-built tube amps at the top end—and then work within the class of tube amp your budget allows.
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