Valve vs Solid-State Amp: Which is Better?

It can sometimes feel that no matter where we turn, we’re forced to make a choice. Beef or chicken? Window or aisle? Vanilla or chocolate? Valve amps or transistor amps? Sometimes the options are easy to decide between, but if you don’t know what differentiates each choice, how can you make an informed decision?

When it comes to selecting a guitar or a bass amp, we need to decide if we want a valve amp or a transistor amp. You’ll often hear people advocate for their favourite amp type. “Everyone knows {amp type} is the best. People who disagree need to get their ears checked!”.

While this bias can be amusing, it doesn’t help us. Not really. Before we get into the differences between valve and transistor amps, you must understand that the choice is inherently a false-dichotomy. Neither one is better than the other.

Like pineapple on pizza, “good” tone is a matter of taste. And just like the pineapple pizza debate, the people who love one amp type over the other will often be vocal about what makes their choice better.

We are going to look at the two options you will be faced with; solid-state (transistor) amps vs tube (valve) amps.

Valve / Tube Amps

Listen to music from before 1970, and it is almost guaranteed that you’ll hear a vintage valve amp. That’s because before the 70s musicians weren’t afforded the variety of amps we have today.

One of the hallmark features of a vintage valve amp is its ability to distort. Before we had stomp boxes and FX pedals to emulate distortion, musicians would crank their amp to produce distortion. By turning the volume up, you can overload the vacuum tubes in the amp, which would render that signature distortion tone that early heavy metal bands relied on.

The most significant advantage of a valve amp is the tone. If you love the sound of a valve amp, nothing will beat it.

There are, however, a few disadvantages to owning a valve amp. If you play too loud for too long, you will blow out our tubes, which can be costly to replace. Additionally, if you want the tone of a valve amp, you need to wait until your valves are warm before playing. Depending on the amp you have, this can take up to an hour. The biggest drawback for valve amps is the weight. On average, a 60-watt valve amp will be significantly heavier than a 60-watt transistor amplifier.

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Solid State / Transistor Amps

In 1947 the first transistor was invented, and it would go on to change the world. By the mid-1970s the silicon transistor had become so pervasive that a majority of technology had incorporated it.

The music industry was no different. While there is some debate, the Hagström GA-85, released in 1963, is widely considered to be the first transistor guitar amplifier. In the same year, the Gibson Starfire series was released. People were slow to adapt to transistor amps at first, but by the mid-70s, they had become a standard option.

One of the reasons that solid-state amps took off was thanks to their lower cost. Since there are no tubes involved, and transistors can be mass-produced, the price for a transistor amp is (usually) significantly more economical than a valve counterpart.

There is a logical fallacy that we sometimes carry, where we assume that less expensive means worse. With transistor amps, this thought process does not hold up. A Model T Ford will cost more than a new 1-litre Toyota – so what does price actually prove?

One of the biggest disadvantages for most solid-state amps is that when they are pushed to the max, they will start clipping, whereas a valve amp will smooth itself out.

Choosing the Right Amp: A Guide

So now that you know the fundamental differences between the two options, how do you select the one that’s right for you?

Do you like pineapple on pizza? How do you know what you like? It’s safe to assume that you’ve at least eaten both and decided, after tasting, which is better. The same principle applies to selecting which amp type is the right fit.

Unless you’ve tried a variety of both, you will be unequipped to make the right choice.

Other musicians will weigh in on the decisions.

“Oh, you like metal! You need a Tripple Rec valve amp to get that driving tone”.
“Oh, you like metal! You should get the biggest transistor amp you can find. Everyone knows that valve amps are for blues, not metal.”
“Oh, you like metal! Did you know that with modern pedals and emulation you don’t even need an amp!”

There is no single amp type that defines a genre. In fact, no single piece of gear will be the defining factor in your rig. It’s how you use your equipment that will give you a signature tone.

The only way to get an amp type that works for you is to head down to a music store and try out everything they have. If you haven’t quite decided what your tone should be, you can always start by listening to your favourite bands, and checking out what gear they use.

But, at the end of the day, both options have pros and cons. Both will work for all genres of music. The only question that remains is, “What do you want YOUR tone to be?”

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