Tube Amp Buyers Guide

tube amp orange tiny terrorSo you have a guitar and you have an amp. You have been playing a few years with your solid state crate 1X 12 and you think it might be time to upgrade to a tube amp. But tube amps are scary arn't they? Really complex and hard to work with? Nope!!!!

Tube Amps

A tube amp has tubes in the signal chain inside the amp(Tubes are also called valves). Most amps will have at least two tubes. One is a pre amp tube that will boost the direct signal from the guitar before it is sent to the power amp portion of the amp. Most amps will have three preamp tubes. They are quite small, maybe 3cm tall (say an inch if you're imperial). The chances are greater than 95% that these are 12AX7 AKA ECC83 tubes.

The second tube will be the power tube. This tube will be the tube that drives the power to the speakers. Some low-wattage class A amps have only one power tube. However the overwhelming majority of amps have their power tubes working in pairs. These are the bigger tubes. These will be maybe 9-16cm high (say 4-6"). Fenders often run 6L6/5881 valves, Marshalls tend to run EL34/KT66 or if you own a 1980s one a set of 6550s. Almost all of the other amps built since will be based on an amp coming from one of these guys with the exception of Orange but again they are ECC83/EL34 configured. Class AB amps have their power valves work in pairs, in a push-pull configuration. A 50W Marshall might have a pair of EL34s say, and its 100W big brother will have two pairs of EL34s. They will both have the same 3 ECC83 preamp valves, or occasionally in a higher gain amp like a JCM900 a fourth one too.

A simplistic way to look at it is, you have a “light bulb” inside your amp that you guitar sound is going to pass through.


The advantages of a tube amp are that the tubes have a variable break up in sound and natural compression. What this means is that the tone will be smoother than other amps. A tube amp will also have more volume then a solid state amp for a given wattage. A solid state amp with a rating of 60 watts will not be as loud as a tube amp rated at 60 watts.

Tube amps generally need more maintenance then a solid state. The tubes need replacement and replacing these tubes is not an easy task. Although it can be done yourself, the buildup of power inside the amp can kill you if you are not careful or know what you are doing. Tube amps also need a moment to warm up before they reach their optimal tone.

Volume can also be an issue. Where a solid state amp might have the same tone if you are playing at 1 or 10; a tube amp will have completely different tone depending on how hard you are driving the tubes. This is hard to manage if you are trying to play quietly with a 100 watt fender twin


Tube amps are normally more expensive then solid state amps. Although a number of companies have started to produce cheaper “practice” or boutique” tube amps that run 1-15 watts, in the 100-200 price range. For a tube amp that is 15+ watts, you will be looking at a new price range from $700-$5000

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