Posted by: worshipguitarguy | December 19, 2006

The 411 on Guitar Amp Models

Ok, you may know that guitar amps are pretty unique things… that’s because each of them have slightly different tonal qualities, depending on how they work on the inside.  

Q:  What are the different types of amps?
There are three major types of guitar amps to choose from, tube amps, solid state amps, and modeling amps:

  • Tube Amps:  Tube amps use glass “light bulb” like vacuum tubes to run their preamp and power amp sections.  (At one time tubes ran TV’s, radios, sound systems, and even early computers!)  The tone of the amp is shaped largely by the type and number of tubes the amp uses, and the amps circuit layout.  Since tube amps created the tones that shaped rock guitar, most manufacturers design solid state and modeling amps to simulate the tones of classic tube designs, with varying degrees of success.
  •  Solid State Amps:  Instead of tubes, solid state amps use printed circuit boards and electronic transformers to generate sound.  Many guitarists feel solid state amps don’t sound as good as the smooth, warm, and full overdrive of tube amps.  The exceptions are in jazz music where solid state amps have made huge inroads, and in some high gain distortion music where solid state tone is cleaner and more tightly defined.   Another class of amps called hybrid amps, contain tubes in a preamp section, which are usually run through a solid state power section.  For all practical purposes, these amps are really just glorified solid state amps and still fall under the solid state category.
  • Modeling amps:  Line 6 is often credited with perfecting the modeling amp concept.  Modeling amps use computer simulations of how tube amps respond to different tonal settings, then put all of these models (and also the models of effects) into a single amp, which can be recalled by selecting those programmed tones from preset banks.  Modeling amps let you use a Marshall style tone on one song, and a Fender Twin modeled tone on another, (without having to lug a semi truck full of gear to a show.)  At their core, modeling amps are solid state amps.  However many modeling amp users feel their amps stack up well with their tube counterparts. 

Q:  Which tube amps and tube amp types are most unique in the history of music?
Before I answer this question, I know people will ask “Why isn’t amp brand X and model Y included on this list?”  Well, it’s because there have been countless companies and models of tube amps built over the past half a century.  However, most of them follow the rough circuit design and tube layout of the amps mentioned below.  In the case of high end boutique amps, many manufacturers take their inspiration from a vintage model then introducemodifications to change their response slightly.  (For example, Matchless and BadCat amps are loosely based on classic Vox amp designs.)

So, here’s the list. Following each class are the types of music they’re commonly used in: 

Fender Blues Series, Hot Rod Series, Bassman:  Blues, Classic Rock, Southern Rock  These amps are a little warmer and dirtier than their Fender Twin counterparts.  Their toneresponds well to Strats and Teles and can be found on many blues stages.  Their tone is very sweet and smooth, (particularly with the highs rolled down.)

Fender Twins:
  Rock, Country, Pop, Blues, Surf Rock, R&B, (Really most everything)   Fender Twins are very versatile amps used in most types of music.  The clean tone of a Twin is the quintessential clean sound for a tube amp.  Overdriven Twins give you a great classic rock style tone. Twins are very popular with country guitarists (especially coupled with a Tele.)  Also, both the Fender reverb and tremolo circuit on the Twin form the foundation of ’60’s surf music. 

Vintage Marshall Stacks and Combos (JTM-45’s): 
Classic Rock, Pop, Blues, Hard Rock  Vintage Marshall stacks are some of the most recognizable amps anywhere.  Their tones tend to have lower gain levels than their Marshall Modern Plexi cousins.  The vintage Marshall tone was defined by Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, with musicians like Eddie Van Halen (early albums) and ACDC also being vintage Marshall players.

Modern Marshall Stacks (Modern Plexi):
  Punk, Modern Rock, Hard Rock, Metal, Hair Rock   Modern Marshall stacks have more gain available as well as multiple channels often including a solid lead channel.  The modern Marshall sound is all throughout 80’s Hair Rock, including Slash’s guitar work from Guns ‘N Roses. 

Mesa Combos and Stacks (Dual and Triple Rectified):
  Metal, Punk, Hard Rock, Modern Rock  In a world where classics can be half a century old, Mesas are the new kids on the block.  The Dual and Triple Rec style amps have what are referred to as multiple gain stages, meaning they can create more intense distortion tones.  Mesas are very popular with punk and metal guitar players, although some pop and adult contemporary guitarists use them.  (Santana plays Mesas.)  
Note: Mesa does make Class A and other lower gain amps, these amps are very different tonally than the Dual or Triple Rectifier models.

Roland JC-120:  Jazz, Funk, R&B  These amps aren’t seen a ton in popular music today, but they were huge in defining the sound of jazz and R&B.  The JC-120 is known for it’s extremely clean tone: In fact it’s a solid state amp, one of the few that’s on the short-list of classic guitar amps. 

Soldano Heads:
  Hard Rock, Metal, Hair Rock  Soldano amps were expensive, hand-built heads that were extremely popular on the LA rock scene during the 1980’s.  As high gain amps they were super for lead playing by guitar soloists.  Today, Soldanos aren’t as well known, still they have a very distinct and unique tone that defined metal lead riffs and solos.

Vox AC-15, AC-30: 
Blues, Pop, Classic Rock, Brit Rock  The Vox sound is one of the most unique in all of rock.  Vox amps have a clean sound that isn’t as sterile as a Fender Twin.  Instead it has a warmth that’s often described as being “bell like.”  (This is because Vox amps are Class A amps instead of a Class AB, like Marshalls and Fenders.)  An overdriven Vox doesn’t really distort, instead its sound becomes extremely warm and creamy.  The Edge from U2 is probably the most famous guitarist whose tone is defined by a Vox amp, however musicians like the Beatles, Tom Petty, and Brian May from Queen are/were also big Vox users.  Vox amps and their cousins are en vogue right now in much of Christian/Worship music.

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Responses

  1. Useless trivia… Soldano amps actually go to 11 in tribute to Spinal Tap’s inimitable Nigel Tufnel.

  2. Ha Ha Ha, didn’t realize that Tony but I love it!!!

  3. How about a quick explanation of the differences in classes. I hear that Class A is better than Class AB, but why?

  4. Can you tell more about dual and triple rectifiers? I want to know how they’re different and how they work and stuff.

  5. Hey guys, I’ll put an add on Q&A post up tonight for both questions!

  6. Come on guys lets be realistic most modelling amps come with in 98% of the tube tone, and with the processing power these things have these days would not be surprised if they are actually better than these so acclaimed 1950 tube fan boy circuits. what has made guitar succesful is it ability to advance with technology. lets face it tube fan boys have pretty retarded guitar amp evolution and have made companies like MArshall, dr z, to name a few very very rich, these companies love it when you market their nonsense, after all they make even more money. cause plainly i don’t understand how someone can swear by a 50 year old amp or reissue, with the shear amount of processing power availabe in computer chips and advanced algorithms at our disposal. haha its like saying a valve based computer is better than one with a silicon processor, common arguement in the early days of CPU development. why would vox sell the ad series esp the one with the blue speakers at almost the same price as the ac 15 and ac 30, they know its been done, only a matter of time till people catch up to the tube nonsense

  7. To answer you nyasha, I’m just giving you my personal experience from working a ton with both types of amps.

    Modeling amps are good amps, they’re very solid with clean tones and heavier distortion tones… but personally, I’ve never been able to get a modeling amp to sound quite the same live as a solid tube amp with overdriven tones.

    Now recording is a different issue altogether… I’ve demo’ed several tracks off a Line 6 GuitarPort, and the tones sounded good.

    But I have another guitarist who plays with me, he’s used a line 6 combo with a L6 XTL. Several times we’ve A/B’ed his setup live against my Vox and pedals. We took the digital stuff and played with it for quite some time, trying to match the smooth overdrives coming from my Vox. Everything coming out of it though sounded thin and scratchy compared to my setup. In fact, he really never runs any OD sounds live because the difference is quite easy to notice.

  8. wow, this is a great post. i just got a m-audio black box and have been cracking my head to know what all the amps and some background info are. thanks!

  9. I wanted to put a plug in for an amp I’m using live lately. It’s the Crate (Yes, I said Crate) V32 Palomino (special model for Guitar Center). It’s supposed to be Class A, although some argue that it’s not really. The Crate is 1×12, 30 watts (runs hot, sounds louder) with 3 12AX7’s in preamp and 4 EL84’s in the power amp stage. The clean and overdrive on this amp are very nice, although I still use my fulltone full drive or rat for overdrive. I’ve never been too high on Crate gear, but this little thing sounds too good. I would suggest it to anybody who wanted to get a nice tube amp at a decent cost. They retail new for $499 or $599 with a speaker upgrade. Mine has a Celestion, but they now make them with a Tone Tubby.

    I own and have been using a Vox AC30CC2 or a Fender Devile 410 Reissue primarily, but I’ll be gigging with this little Crate for awhile.

    I did have one issue. This amp runs hot. The power tubes were failing after a few months. I replaced the tubes and plan on installing a fan. That should take care of that.

    Anyway, I would recommend the amp to anyone looking for boutique tube sound on a budget.

    Crate V32 Palomino at Musician’s Friend

    Chris

  10. Actually….an AC30 is AB…not class A…Vox still calls it a class A…but electrically is does not work as a class A does…but it is very close

    • iv been using a tweed deville,low to mid amp,iam doing a praise n worship project,although the deville has the respect of all stages of music,ul tend sometimes to sway to-ward the blues,thats why iam seriously con sidering a ac 30 because of the harmonics,the bell highs,but the ac 30 has certain limitations that b fruitless to reah some of the subtile peaks desired.in the deville,iam using alnco 2 pros,which makes alot of difference ,the trade off could b a sacrifice,4 instance 3rd days grad bite ye face off lead, i love that,persay to a marchall or an orange halfstack.|
      good day pickers,jmze

  11. to nyasha,

    Im not trying to be rude but you must not have a good enough ear to understand the difference between the sound of tube amps and modelers.
    I own a 50 watt vox valvetronix that i use at home and it sounds good. But for playing at church i use my 100 watt tube amp. The modeler doesnt even come close to a all tube amp. And when i said i wasnt trying to be rude, i honestly am not. Sorry if it comes across that way.

    God Bless

  12. A guitar amplifier (or guitar amp) is an electronic amplifier designed to amplify the electrical signal of an electric or acoustic guitar so that it will produce sound through a loudspeaker. Most guitar amplifiers can also modify the instrument’s tone by emphasizing or de-emphasizing certain frequencies and adding electronic effects. Vibrations of the strings are “picked up” by a suitable microphone. *

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