It’s normal to get confused while looking for an electric guitar amp to buy. After all, with so many different brands, sizes, shapes, and features out there, it’s kind of hard to figure out which is the right amp for you.
Here, look at the different types of guitar amplifiers and find out which one might be the one for you. Even if you already know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t hurt to go over the detailed information on all four types.
There are typically four main types of guitar amps, and they’re tube, solid-state, hybrid, and modeling. Each type of amp produces music using different types of technology.
In addition, all types of electric guitar amps come in different configurations of speakers, which plays a huge part in shaping up the sound. Knowing more about different types of amps will nudge you in the right direction.
Types of Guitar Amps Explained
Tube Guitar Amps
Tube amps are perhaps the most popular and sought-after amps among guitar players. Developed back in the first half of the 20th century, tube amps use vacuum tubes to amplify the guitar signal. They are also known as valve amps, as the valve is the English equivalent of the term tube.
Vacuum tubes are large, glass cylinders that heat up and glow orange when cranked up to the fullest. Cranking up the tubes makes the signal break up and thus it produces a smooth warm overdrive desired by many musicians.
This warm, dynamic tone is the biggest appeal of tube amps and this is why guitarists all over the world value it so. In fact, some musicians prefer the vintage, real feel of the sound tube amps produced over modern technologically advanced amps.
There are two amplifying sections in a tube amp, one is a preamp and the other is a power amp. The preamp amplifies the signal to drive the power stage. This section also comes with an equalizer, overdrive, and a few more effects. The power amp drives the loudspeaker thus producing the sound.
You won’t find the genuine tube sound from other types of amps. Sadly the superior sound comes at the cost of a lot of sacrifices. Tube amps are typically expensive, heavier, and a lot more fragile. As tubes get worn out with frequent use, they need constant maintenance and occasional replacement.
Another issue with tube amps is that the volume knob needs to be pushed to a higher level to get the full tone. To get even a normal sound the amp has to be very loud. This is suitable for big venues but for smaller events or home practice, this is not at all practical.
In terms of amenities, tube amps may be somewhat lacking but regarding sound they’re unrivaled. Fortunately, modern amps like VOX AC30 are way more sophisticated than earlier tube amp models. The trick is to find the tube amp that suits you the best.
- Straight forward use
- Gorgeous warm distortion
- Impressive dynamics and picking response
- Favorite of legendary guitar players
- Very expensive
- Heavier and more fragile
- Maintenance issue
Solid-State Guitar Amps
During the ‘70s, the massive use of transistors started a new era in the music industry. A new type of guitar amp appeared and those used transistors or semiconductor circuits to amplify the signal. Known as solid-state guitar amps, these replaced glass vacuum tubes with transistors.
Similar to tube amps, solid-state amps feature two sections, preamp, and power amp as well. Both sections have transistor circuits, moreover, the preamp section comes with equalizations, overdrive, built-in effects, etc.
The solid-state guitar amps rose up to popularity due to their practicality and affordability. They are lightweight, reliable, inexpensive, and offer a versatile range of tonal effects and alterations. As they’re built to be sturdy, they seldom need repairs and are fit for touring. No wonder solid-state amps are one of the most popular practice amps among electric guitar players.
However, the downside of solid-state guitar amps comes with their tone. It may not be as warm or dynamic as the sound produced from tube amps. Rather the sound solid-state amps create is a clean, sterile one especially the distortion. And this is a deal-breaker for many musicians.
But on the other hand, there are many guitar players who prefer solid-state over tube amp specifically for this distorted tone. Besides, amp-like Roland’s Jazz Chorus has been a favorite of many famous jazz guitarists for its crystal clear tone. Overall, solid-state is a good option for a beginner amp.
- Lightweight but durable build
- Better suited for home practice
- Not much maintenance is needed
- Relatively cheap
- Lack the warmth of tube amps
- Very limited compared to modeling amps
Tube vs Solid State Guitar Amps
As tube amps contain glass vacuum tubes, they tend to burn out over time and need frequent maintenance. Comparatively, the transistors used in solid-state amps are solid, extremely light, and reliable. There’s less chance of burnout and more consistency in the long run.
If solid-state amps have so much to give then why do some guitarists consider them as a step backward?
It’s because the tube amps are known for their rich, dark, thick sound and dynamic harmonic distortion. The cold and sterile nature of sound from the solid-state amps initially turned off a lot of guitarists. However, jazz guitarists started to see the appeal of the sparkly clear tone of solid-state amps.
The thing is, different amps suit different types of musicians. Everyone has different tastes and preferences in tone. Tube amp and solid-state amp may have different qualities, but they fulfill different demands as well.
Hybrid Guitar Amps
Hybrid amps were discovered as a solution for the tube vs solid state dilemma. Tube amps are expensive and heavy but solid-state amps lack the warmth, so the goal was to offer the best of two worlds. As a result, sound engineers started to combine two technologies and create a new and unique design out of both.
A hybrid amp has a tube design in one section and solid-state circuitry in another. The initial amps from Music Man (like Music Man’s RD-50) were designed with a tube in the power amp section and a transistor in the preamp. However, similar to Vox, most amps commonly feature a tube in the preamp and a typical solid-state design in the power amp.
This way, guitar players were able to create the warm and dynamic tone they always wanted from their guitars. Some hybrid amps like Vox VT20X took the novelty even further. Combining digital modeling technology with a tube in the preamp section and solid-state circuitry in the power amp section, the amp went to a new height. Not just great sound quality, it also offered an excellent level of flexibility exclusively found on modeling amps.
On the other hand, not everyone is a fan of hybrid amps. Most guitarists prefer either a classic tube amp or a modern digital modeling amp, but not a combination of both. Although some musicians do prefer hybrid amps as those suit their music style better.
There may not be as many hybrid amps available out there as tube or modeling amps, but there are certainly some impressive options worth considering.
- A wider range of tones and effects available than a tube amp
- Real vacuum tube for authentic guitar amp tone
- Heavier and more expensive than a modeling amp
Modeling Guitar Amps
Modeling guitar amps are the next stage of evolution from the solid-state amps. As they use computer modeling to create sound, they are also called digital modeling amps.
Modeling amps are basically complex digital processors that are used to emulate the sounds of analog tube amps and some solid-state amps. They offer a great variety of tones and effects as they can switch between different amp models.
Usually, these amps are packed with various cabinet tones. Plus there are all different kinds of built-in effects available which emulate analog pedals. Not just legendary tube amps, modeling amps can even emulate different microphone types. You can get various connectivity features including direct recording, PA systems connection, even USB.
The best thing about modeling amps is the flexibility that no other amp type can match or come even close. Using microprocessors, engineers can pack a multitude of sounds into a single unit. You can get access to literally hundreds of different amp models, inbuilt effects, and presets. Guitar players don’t have to jerry-rig two amps together anymore, they can easily just buy one modeling amp.
However, the situation wasn’t so rosy before, digital modeling amps used to have a terrible reputation. Early models weren’t up to the task and were a poor imitation of the real thing. Thankfully, with advances in technology, modeling amps kept improving in quality and tone. Currently, it’s near impossible to tell apart a modeling amp from a non-modeling one (like Boss Katana 100). Even veteran musicians have a hard time identifying as there’s little to no difference in the sounds.
- Great for travel being lightweight and portable
- Excellent for practice and home recording
- Perfect for beginners to experiment with different sounds
- More affordable compared to other amps
- Older modeling amps don’t sound as good as the latest ones
Combo vs Stacks
While discussing different types of guitar amps, there’s another important distinction as well. Amps come in different configurations and that is a large factor deciding the type and quality of the sound produced from the amp.
Guitar amplifiers come in the form of combo or stacks, either it’s for tube amps or solid-state amps.
The combo (short for combinations) amps are self-contained units containing both the amplifiers and the speaker in one cabinet. Combo amps usually come with one or two speakers including controls for volume, gain, and EQ, any built-in effects, input and outputs for effects pedals, etc.
On the other hand, the stack formation has two cabinets and a head combined. The amp head is the form of amplifier parts of both the preamp and the power amp. The head can be connected to any speaker cabinet.
Combo amps tend to be smaller in size but packed with additional features. For their size and portability, many guitarists prefer them for practicing or for travel. They’re great for playing at home or small gigs, where you don’t need extreme levels of volume. But if you’re planning on playing at bigger venues, amps will require more wattage and stacks are the way to go.
There is no definite answer to the question of which configuration is better. Choosing combo versus stacks depends more on personal choices. Some prefer combo amps while some others prefer stacks. Many professional musicians use both types of amps, so you can certainly do that as well.
How to Choose the Right Guitar Amp Type
Now that you’ve gone through all the advantages and disadvantages of the four types of amps, you should have a better grasp of what you need. Instead of thinking about brands or models, think about what fits your style of music, which helps you to express yourself and represent yourself as a whole. Plus, the amp needs to be practical as well. Because there’s no point getting the instrument of your dream if you can’t use it with ease and comfort.
When choosing the right amp for you, first think about what you plan to do with it.
Will you regularly go on tours with the amp?
If you’re a traveling musician going on gigs and portability is the biggest concern, then go for a modeling amp. This is the scenario, avoiding tube amps would be best as they tend to be heavy and fragile.
How loud does your amp need to be?
Tube amps tend to produce large sounds and need bigger venues to show their full potential. But for smaller gigs, solid-state amps will be more than enough to amplify the sound.
Do you want to access many different types of tones?
In that case, going for a modeling amp is the smart choice as they are most versatile and flexible in producing different tones.
Are you planning on recording music with the amp?
In a completely controlled environment like a recording studio, tube amps have the option to reach their full potential. However, digital modeling amps are easier to record than other types of amps. It actually depends on the type of music you’re making and what you want from the recording.
Are you on a budget?
If you don’t have huge amounts of money to spare, it’s better to stick to solid-state or hybrid amps. Although, not all big-name models come with an out-of-reach price tag. There are many good quality options available at a budget price.
What is the right amp for a beginner?
If you’re a beginner, you should go for something simple. Smaller solid-state amps are a good choice in this regard. If you’re really interested in getting the tube tune, you can go with the cheaper tube amp options. Although, it’s best for beginners to look for something simpler with lower wattage.
You should also keep in mind, every type of amp comes with a different kind of configuration as well. For instance, tube amps generally tend to be heavier, but there are some tiny tube heads that can match with a small speaker cabinet.
Therefore, you should objectively compare the different types and decide which is the right fit for you.
Ultimately the choice is yours and there’s no right or wrong types of guitar amplifiers. Many old-school guitar players have found their need in digital modeling amps, while modern rockers have fallen in love with vintage tube amps.
Just remember to check and try out the amp beforehand so you won’t have anything to regret later. And even if you feel your choice isn’t the right fit for you, you can easily sell it and get another.