In the history of blues and blues-rock music, the tube amp has played a hugely significant role. First introduced in the 1940s, tube amps have since proved popular with almost all notable blues guitarists, as well as guitarists across a whole range of different genres. All of the early electric blues guitarists – from Freddie King to Eric Clapton, to Stevie Ray Vaughan – have used tube amps.
For this and many other reasons, I would recommend a tube amp for most blues guitarists in most situations.
This is largely because of the sound that a tube amp makes when it breaks up. When you start to crank a tube amp, it produces a warm and organic sounding overdrive that is just beautiful. It is the sound of blues and blues rock guitar.
Tube amps also react to your playing. They are responsive to dynamics and the changes you make to your guitar’s volume controls. And this allows you to play in a subtle and nuanced way that is crucial to expressive blues guitar. When you start to add pedals to your set-up, you can extend this even further. You can think about the ways that the pedals interact with your guitar and amp, and this really opens up a whole range of different tonal options.
Finally – and from a more sentimental standpoint – there is also the historical significance of tube amps to consider. Tube amps have helped to produce the beautiful blues tones of almost every notable electric blues guitarist. So if you are interested in authenticity and you want to produce beautiful vintage blues tones, a tube amp seems like the obvious choice.
Yet as I’ll explain in more detail here, there are some instances where playing a tube amp doesn’t make sense. And in those cases, what are the alternatives? Is it possible to get a decent blues tone without using a tube amp?
Those are the questions that I’ll be answering today. I’ll be looking at the some of the best tube amp alternatives out there, as well as some of those options I wouldn’t recommend.
When tube amps don’t make sense
Before we look at some of the best tube amp alternatives, I think it is first worth looking at those circumstances where a tube amp doesn’t make sense.
This all relates back to volume, and to the fact that traditional tube amps are big and powerful. In the absence of decent PA systems during the 1960s and ’70s, guitarists needed to play loud to be heard.
Freddie King played a 100 watt Fender Quad Reverb that he cranked to 10. Fellow Texas bluesman Albert Collins did the same. And Eric Clapton achieved his early tones by playing a Marshall 1962 ‘Bluesbreaker’ amp at full volume.
In the quest to replicate these tones, a lot of guitarists encounter the issue of volume.
Most guitarists play at home. And when there are family and neighbours to consider, cranking a 100 watt Fender Quad Reverb or a Marshall Stack isn’t a viable option for many. Volume was a crucial part of how early blues guitarists created their beautiful tones. And although you don’t need to play at deafening levels to get good tones, you do need a certain amount of volume to push your amp into break up. Depending on your living circumstances, this can be challenging.
Of course, you can opt for a smaller amp (and I will cover some of the best options in my next article on this subject) but even if you do that, getting a tube amp still might not be the best option.
I actually found myself in this position for a number of years. I was living in a small apartment in London that I was sharing with housemates. It was in an apartment block and there were apartments on all sides. So every single time I tried to use my amp, I disturbed someone. I ended up just playing my electric guitar unplugged, and my amp sat in the corner gathering dust.
If you live with other people, have young children or family to consider, or have noise sensitive neighbours, then you might be in a similar situation.
In other words, if you are heavily restricted with regards to the volume at which you can play, and you always have to play quietly (and are not in a band or playing live) then I don’t think it makes sense to buy a tube amp. Which begs the question, what are your alternatives?
Tube amp alternatives
Technically speaking, there are 4 main alternatives to a tube amp. These are as follows:
- Solid state guitar amps
- Hybrid guitar amps
- Digital modelling guitar amps
- Digital modelling software
Each of these different options has its benefits. But given the circumstances of most guitarists, I think that only digital modelling guitar amps and digital modelling software offer a viable alternative for most players. This might sound controversial at first – as you can get great tones out of both solid state and hybrid guitar amps. But as with any gear that you add your set-up, you need to consider not only the benefits that it offers but more importantly, how you plan to use it.
And it is for this reason that I wouldn’t recommend either a solid state guitar amp or a hybrid amp over a tube amp. Let me explain this in a bit more detail:
Solid state guitar amps
In the early days of electric guitar playing, tube amps presented guitarists with some fairly significant challenges. In the absence of PA systems (which at this point were not yet powerful enough to be particularly useful), guitarists had to really crank their amps to be heard, particularly if they were playing in larger venues.
This caused the tubes in the tube amps to overdrive and distorted the sound. So it was problematic for those players looking for a clean tone. Playing at this volume also caused the tubes to overheat. The tubes would blow out – often during the gigs – and they would regularly need replacing.
These challenges in part led to the creation of solid state amps. These are amps that are powered by transistors, rather than tubes. And this is significant, because it totally changes the tone of these amps and the way they react to your playing.
Where solid state amps really excel, is in the quality of their clean tones. They often have a very clean tone, and you can really push the volume of the amp without causing it to overdrive. It is for this reason that some early bluesmen – like B.B. King – used solid state amps.
Conversely, solid state amps don’t break up and overdrive like tube amps. For most blues guitarists, this is a massive drawback. The majority of early electric blues tones were created using tube amps that were overdriving. And this is the sound that guitarists have in mind when they are trying to craft vintage sounding blues tones.
Many solid state amps have 2 channels, giving you the option to create overdriven tones. But the way that this distortion is created is quite different to tube amps. Tube amps produce a ‘soft clipping’ distortion, which rounds off the edges of the sound waves. Modern day solid state amps are built to mimic this soft clipping, but most people feel that they don’t do a very good job. In fact a lot of people argue that solid state amps create a more distorted sound that sounds thin and harsh.
Regardless of whether some of these opinions are exaggerated, from my perspective it doesn’t make much sense to opt for a solid state amp over a tube amp. If you are predominantly playing at home and volume is an issue, then if you buy a solid state amp, you won’t be using it to its full potential. In other words, you won’t be playing it loud and enjoying its loud and clean tone.
Conversely, if you have the freedom to play as loud as you want, then it still doesn’t really make sense to use a solid state amp. In that case I would advise going for a tube amp so you can get beautiful clean tones and push the amp into overdrive if you want.
Hybrid guitar amps
It is for the exact same reasons that I wouldn’t recommend a hybrid guitar amp for most players. As the name suggests, a hybrid amps combine elements from both tube and solid state amps. Typically hybrid amps are built using tubes in the preamp section of the amp, and transistors in the power section of the amp. The idea is that you get the best of both worlds. So you have the natural break up and overdrive of the tubes, and the power and reliability of the transistors.
But again for most guitarists, all of that power and volume is unnecessary.
Perhaps for this reason, hybrid amps haven’t really caught on, and they are much less common than either valve or solid state amps. Having said that, some companies – like Orange – have brought out a number of notable hybrid amps, including their Orange Micro Terror. And modern blues guitarist Eric Gales also uses hybrid amps to great effect.
Digital tube amp alternatives
That then leaves us with 2 digital alternatives to the tube amp – digital modelling amps, and digital modelling software. Amongst many blues guitarists, even mentioning digital alternatives to tube amps can be controversial.
There is a strong and persistent belief in the guitar community that the only way to dial in a decent tone is by using a tube amp. And truthfully, the sentimentalist in me takes issue with digital products. My blues guitar heroes didn’t plug their guitars into laptops and start clicking around on 2D images of pedals and amps. Nor did they use digital amps with lots of flashing lights and hundreds of different presets.
But if you are able to put that to the side, then from a pragmatic standpoint, you should be able to see that there are some key benefits to going digital. And if this is a route you decide to go down, there are 2 main options to consider: digital modelling amps and digital modelling software.
Digital modelling software
Prior to there last few months, I had never tried digital modelling software. But following some complaints from my neighbours (I guess they don’t like the sound of my Mesa Boogie Lone Star Special as much as I do!) I decided to start looking at some lower volume alternatives.
After some research I fixed on the Positive Grid Bias FX 2. Truthfully I did so with some reluctance and skepticism, but I have actually been very pleasantly surprised. The software is easy and intuitive to use, has a huge range of different amp and pedal options, and it sounds great. You get access to a bank of presets, as well as to the ‘ToneCloud’, which is a bank of options that has been created by other users.
In that sense, you can really tweak your tones as much or as little as possible. If you like to constantly adjust your tone and set-up, then you have a lot of scope to do so. Equally if you want to just dial in a nice tone and forget about it, you can do that too.
At $180/£140 I also felt that this software offered pretty amazing value for money. It has given me the option to feel like I am almost playing an amp, without incurring any complaints from the neighbours.
Bias FX is the software that I use, but some other digital modelling software options in a similar price range that I would also recommend, are as follows:
- IK Multimedia AmpliTube 4
- Line 6 Pod Farm 2.5
- Universal Audio Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe
- Scuffham Amps S Gear
To use this type of software, you will need an Audio Interface to plug your guitar into your computer. I use the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, but similar interfaces will work just as well.
Digital modelling guitar amps
The other alternative to consider, is a digital modelling amp. Broadly speaking, there are 2 sub-categories of this type of amp. The first of these are the digital modelling amps offered by companies like Fender and Marshall. In terms of their design and features, most of these look and feel much more like traditional tube amps. They use some blend of digital and analog technology, but have a range of presets modelled after other amps.
Marshall offer the ‘Code’ amp series, Vox the ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Valvetronix’ series and Fender the ‘Mustang’ amp series.
Truthfully, I would not recommend these amps. Again this is because I feel they perform a function that is mismatched with the needs of most guitarists. If you can play at volume, I would always recommend that you go for a tube amp. It will sound much better and get you a lot closer to creating beautiful vintage blues tones than one of these modelling amps.
If you can’t play at volume, then I would recommend going for one of the digital software modelling options listed above. Not only are they cheaper than these amps, but they also take up less space and are more practical. You can also use them with headphones. As such you don’t have to worry at all about the volume at which you are playing.
Kemper & Co.
The second type of digital modelling amp, is that offered by companies like Fractal Audio, Kemper and Line 6. All of these brands have produced modelling and profiling amps with great success. And over the last few years, they have made huge progress in the quality of the tones they offer.
These digital modelling amps are unlike any of the amps listed above. They are totally digital and are built to replicate the sound of the different tube and solid state amps they are profiling.
There are a number of these different amps, but some of the most popular are:
In comparison to the other digital modelling amps listed above, these are very high end options. Technology has advanced a lot, and in many respects, the sound of these digital amps is almost indistinguishable from the original tube amps they are profiling. In fact some of these amps are even proving popular amongst blues and rock guitarists. Modern blues rock guitarist Kris Barras is just one notable player who uses a Kemper. And he does both on stage and in the studio.
Compared with some of the other options listed here, these profiling amps offer a lot of versatility. You can play them silently through your headphones at home, or plug them into a PA system or speakers.
Digital vs. Analog options – pt. 1
In my opinion, there are a number of benefits to digital amp technology, 2 of which are significant.
The first of these, is that with a digital amp or modelling software, you get a lot of different tones and sounds. You can dial in the sound of a small Fender combo 1 second, and a cranked Marshall stack the next. And you can do this relatively inexpensively. Even if you decide to opt for a Kemper or Line 6 Helix (both of which are more expensive) you will have hundreds of different tonal options at your disposal. So in this sense, they offer very good value for money. To try and recreate the same range of tones with a tube amp and pedals would be prohibitively expensive.
The second reason – and this is why I think some digital options do offer a viable alternative to tube amps – is that you can play them at almost any volume and still get a good tone. This is significant. To dial in a beautiful blues tone with a tube amp at a low volume is not easy. And given that a lot of guitarists have to be mindful of their volume the majority of the time, this is worth noting..
Digital vs. Analog options – pt. 2
Despite these benefits, there is a big problem with digital options. And it is this – digital amps are not tube amps. This is of course blindingly obvious, but it is a problem that is insurmountable for a lot of guitarists. And this is for 3 reasons:
Firstly, digital options are only ever judged by how they sound compared to real amps. The Kemper caused such a stir when it was released, because it actually succeeded in replicating the sound of the amps it was profiling. But when looking only at tone – and not at convenience, practicality and versatility – digital options tend to come up short. High quality digital options do a great job of sounding like a vintage tube amp. But they aren’t the real thing, they are merely mimicking it. And in this way, digital options often feel like second best.
The second problem with digital options, is that they don’t feel as good as playing a tube amp. I am very happy with the Bias FX. It was amazing value for money and sounds great. Most importantly, I can play it at any time of the night or day, worry free. Yet it just isn’t the same as playing through a real amp. I don’t feel the same playing it. And I don’t get excited about it in the same way I do when I’m playing an amp. To me it is the difference between having a conversation on the phone with a loved one and meeting them in person. The essence of the experience is the same, but the feeling is different.
Finally, I do still believe that it is very difficult for digital products to emulate the sound of a tube amp breaking up. I have played a number of digital products and most of those listed in this article. I have found that they have both great clean tones and great distorted sounds. But I have never heard or played any digital products that can recreate the sound of a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan with proper authenticity. They just can’t seem to replicate the sound or feeling of a tube amp on the edge of overdrive.
Taking a practical approach to tone
Playing the blues is all about feeling and emotion. To be an effective blues guitarist and play at your best, you need to have a tone that inspires you. But in the search for the perfect blues tone it is important to remain pragmatic. You want to have a rig that inspires you and brings you joy. But you also want to have a rig that you can play and practice with.
And this is where you have to look at your personal circumstances to decide on the best option.
If you can never play at volume, it might be worth looking at alternatives to the tube amp. And in that circumstance it might be worth looking at one of the higher end digital options – like the Kemper or Line 6 Helix.
If you can sometimes play at volume, then I would recommend using a cheaper digital software option for the majority of your practicing. Then I would invest in a decent tube amp that you can play once or twice a week and let loose.
If you can always play at volume – then get yourself a decent tube amp and start cranking it!
Finally, if you can play at a reasonable volume, most of the time, then I think it makes sense to look at a smaller and lower watt tube amp. This will help you to dial in beautiful blues tones, at a lower volume. This is a whole different topic, and one that I will cover in much more detail in my next article on the topic.
So keep an eye out for that. In the meantime though, if you have any questions or if there is anything I can help with, please do let me know. Just send me an email on [email protected] and I’m happy to help!
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