The 4 Different Types of Guitar Amps
There are four main groups of guitar amps: tube amps, solid-state amps, hybrid amps, and modeling amps. The market is full of all kinds of guitar amps, they can be classified in many ways but the most important criterion is still the technology that’s used to amplify guitar signals.
Tube amps are the oldest type of guitar amp, which use old-school technology to generate great-sounding tones and warm distortion. Tube amps are still the most sought-after amps among guitar players.
(Fender Twin Reverb pictured above).
- Superior tone quality
- Warm distortion
- Impressive dynamics and picking response
- Very expensive
- Less practical than solid-state amps
As the name says, it uses vacuum tubes to amplify the guitar signal, in the same way tubes were used in other industries, for amplifying all kinds of devices that work on frequencies below the microwaves. Some of the most common devices are military radars, UHF television transmitters, high-power radio, etc.
These days, most of these devices serve as museum pieces, but that’s not the case with tube amps. Despite the rudimental technology and numerous drawbacks, these are still the most desired amps among guitar players.
The main and probably the only reason is the tone. Simply, no other amp can deliver the feel a tube amp gives to guitar players. Also, the tone is warmer compared to other amp types, especially overdrive.
Every tube amp features two amplifying sections. The first one is called preamp and it amplifies the signal to a level that can drive the power stage. This section also changes the natural guitar tone, as it usually comes with an equalizer, overdrive, and a few more effects. The second section is called the power amp and it drives the loudspeaker, producing the sound.
The problem with tube amps is that you will have to sacrifice a lot of things to get a superior guitar tone. Tube amps are the least reliable. Also, tube performance deteriorates over time, so you will have to replace them occasionally.
Another typical issue of tube amps is the fact that you have to crank them up all away to get that genuine tube tone. Considering that these amps are very loud, this makes them not very practical for smaller events or home practice.
Due to superior sound quality, high-end amps usually use vacuum tubes. Fender Twin Reverb is one of the most popular choices among professionals.
Solid-state guitar amps are very practical and can provide very clean tones. They are lighter, more reliable, and more affordable than tube amps. However, some may find their sound a bit uninspiring.
(Fender Frontman 10G pictured above).
- Sturdy and durable
- Excellent clean tone
- Not as warm as tube amps
- More experienced players may find their sound uninspiring
During the ’70s, one of the biggest revolutions (at least in electronics) was the start of the massive use of transistors. The same technology was applied to guitar amps. The key difference compared to old-school tube amps is in transistor or semiconductor circuits, which amplify the signal instead of tubes.
Just like tube amps, solid-state amps also feature two sections, preamp, and power amp. Both sections use transistor circuits, while the preamp section also comes with all kinds of tone tweaking options, such as equalizations, overdrive, build-in effects, etc.
The tone of solid-state amps may not be as warm as the one that comes from tube amps but there is still one important advantage. These amps can produce super-clean tones, which is not the case with tube amps. Once the tube gets warm, it adds a little bit of dirtiness to the tone.
For that reason, it’s no wonder that many jazz guitarists prefer solid-state amps. The Roland Jazz Chorus is one of the most popular amps among jazz players.
However, the key advantages of solid-state amps are affordability and practicality. These amps are way cheaper compared to their tube counterparts. Also, they are way more reliable and notably lighter.
Also, solid-state amps come in a much wider output range. You can find some very affordable low-wattage solid-state amps, such as Fender Frontman 10G, which are perfect for beginners and home practice in general.
Hybrid amps are a little bit of both worlds. The goal was to offer an amp that sounds like a tube amp but doesn’t cost much higher than a typical solid-state unit. So, sound engineers started to combine two technologies, offering tube design in one section and transistor circuits in another.
(Vox VT20X pictured above).
- Tube-like sound for less money
- More reliable than tube amps
- Sounds better than solid-state amps
- More expensive than solid-state amps
- Still far away from the genuine tube sound
The first hybrid amps from Music Man featured a tube in the power amp section and a transistor in the preamp. On the other hand, most other manufacturers (like Vox) designed their hybrid amps in the way that a tube is in the preamp, while the power amp features a typical solid-state design.
Both designs sound good in their own ways, but hybrid amps like Vox VT20X go even further. This amp combines digital modeling technology with tube circuits in the preamp section, while the power amp’s analog circuit is combined with a digital power amp. Such a design doesn’t just offer a great sound quality, but also an impressive level of flexibility that usually comes with digital (modeling) amps.
Modeling Amps are digital amplifiers that emulate the sound of great-sounding analog amps like popular tube amps and some solid-state amplifiers. They offer a great variety of sounds as these amps may allow you to switch between numerous different amp models.
(Fender Mustang GT 40 pictured above).
Digital audio processing has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and modeling amps are now taken quite seriously for professional use. They are also great for those on a budget or for beginners trying to get their heads around all the different types of amps available.
- More flexible than other amp types, with a great variety of sounds.
- Excellent for home recording
- Great for beginners experimenting with different sounds
- Still lack the feel of a genuine tube amp
Microprocessors allow engineers to pack numerous sounds into a single unit, offering flexibility that no other amp type can match, not even close.
A typical modeling amp comes packed with a full load of tones. You may count on several amp sounds, which emulate legendary tube amps. Usually, there are also various cabinet tones, as well as all kinds of built-in effects, which emulate legendary analog pedals.
Modeling amps can even emulate different microphone types. Also, they usually come with all kinds of connectivity features, which allow direct connection with PA systems and direct recording. USB ports are also typical, so you can connect these amps with your laptop and do additional tone shaping.
Not so long ago, modeling amps were considered primarily as practice amps and tools for home recording, considering that the sound wasn’t particularly great. However, digital technology advances at rapid speed, and today’s modeling amps offer so realistic emulations of legendary tube amps that even most experienced players can hardly hear the difference. Of course, these amps still can’t deliver that feel and dynamics of a tube amp but I believe it’s just a matter of time when this final stage of emulation will be achieved.
The Fender Mustang GT 40 is one of the first modeling amps that come to my mind. It is affordable, easy to use, and comes packed with a full load of tones. Besides dozens of amp models (Fender and third party), it also comes with loads of effects, as well as plenty of presets created by renowned Fender artists.
If you’re looking for something more serious, something that could be a great gig machine, there are powerful amps like Boss Katana 100, which are much louder, packed with 5 amp tones and loads of legendary Boss effects.
Those would be the four main types of guitar amps. As you can see, each type of guitar amp has advantages and disadvantages and each aims at different types of guitar players.