Why should I buy a tube/valve guitar amplifier instead of a solid state amp?
Guitar players tend to prefer tube amplifiers because of the more ‘natural’ and ‘warm’ guitar sounds they produce. The reputation for guitar tube amplifiers has been long standing for delivering the definitive guitar sound. What now seems like a long time ago the first amplifiers that were built specifically for use with a guitar were all valve and are still in high demand today. The definition of what makes the ‘classic’ tube guitar amp tone or sound is hard to produce in a few simple terms. Many guitar players would describe the general sound as ‘warm’ because of the softer high tones and mids (middle tones) coupled with a good solid bass response. They also have a tendency to clip with reasonable ease, this became commonly known as ‘overdrive’ or ‘distortion’. This happens when the preamp or power amp stages are pushed past their usual signal level, thus allowing an overdriven audio signal sent to the speaker and causing audio distortion. As guitar amplifier design and assembly techniques improved over the years, so did the ability to utilize the speaker break up and distortion to create the more defined electric guitar sound we have become to know. The valve amplifiers that are being designed and manufactured today still use the same basic principles, all of which can be used for all musical disciplines, blues to metal, jazz to hard rock.
How do you get a good sound from a valve guitar amp?
There is a general idea that on a quality valve amplifier the tone controls should sound at its best when positioned at 12 o’clock. However, this is not always the quite right so it is important that you try different variables to suit not only the amp but you as well. There are a handful of suggestions why the 12 position might not be necessarily best. For example, pots with the resistance spot on taper for a specific design might not be available to the amp builder. Also, you must consider that the optimal settings will likely change at different volume and gain settings. Amps with a good deep bass response or those with inadequate power supplies can become overwhelmed with bass when played at higher volume. If your valve amp sounds a bit loose and mushy when the volume is turned way up, try turning the bass way down when playing at louder volumes. Bass frequencies tend to need a lot more power to play loud without causing bad sounding distortion. That’s why bass amps generally have much higher power output then guitar amps.
The midrange control on some tube amplifiers can have a large effect on the gain and sustain. For a more forceful driving, sustaining sound, try turning the midrange all the way up. Sometimes it might help you cut through the mix in a live setting, something that is often not considered in a bedroom practice setting. Keep in mind those settings that sound awesome at home or in your studio may not be everything you hoped in a live performance situation. You might find that you’ll have two or three different favourite settings depending on how the amp is being used and what the rest of the band is doing.
How do I look after the tubes/valves?
Obviously you want to look after your valve amp and get the best tone available. Tubes will need to be in good shape to do this. The smaller preamp tubes generally have a decent lifespan, 10s of thousands of hours in fact. Common noises that suggest a tube is on its way out is spluttering, crackling, ringing rattling or squealing. Often guitarists think there is something fundamentally wrong with the amp to be making these kind of noises but a simple tube change is all that is needed. The larger output tubes loose tone and power over time and should be replaced between 500 and 1500 hours of use depending on the type of tube and design of the valve amplifier.
How to find your ‘sweet spot’?
There are no hard and fast rules here but here is one trick commonly used to find the “sweet spot”. This trick works particularly well on all Fender guitars playing through Fender amps (The Juketone Royal Blood uses a Fender circuit).
First set up your amp to get the sound you would normally use at the volume you want to play at. Next turn all the EQ controls, (bass, middle, treble and presence if fitted) to 0. Turn the guitar volume up and select the neck pickup. Play an E chord at the bottom of the neck concentrating on the low E and A strings. Now sweep the Bass tone control from 0 to 10 and back a few times. You should hear a point somewhere between these two point where there seems to be a ‘hump’ in the tone where the bass really kicks in. Reduce the sweep to home in on this point and that will be the ‘sweet spot’ for the bass control. Now select the middle pickup, On a Telecaster select the in-between or middle position. Play an A chord at the bottom of the neck concentrating on the D and G strings. Sweep the Middle control the same way as you did for the Bass and again home in on the ‘hump’. For the Treble control select the bridge pickup, play a D Chord, concentrating on the B and top E strings, and repeat the procedure.
Now you should have the amp giving you the best overall tonal response across all the strings and in all pickups positions without over cooking the frequencies. Over cooking the tone controls is like over revving a car. When the rev counter hits the red line that is the maximum power output for the engine and going into the red will seem like you’re going faster but you will be just making the engine work harder than it has to. If you apply this to your amp where the ‘hump’ is the red line, then not only will you get the best tone from it, you’ll find that if you need any more bass, middle or treble then you will have some left to tweak the sound to exactly what you want. Do these checks every time you set up your amp and you will always have the optimum sound your guitar and amp can give.
What is guitar break up?
It means your clean channel will start to “break up” or have a little bit of overdrive, the more you turn it up past that point the more overdrive you get.
What is ‘headroom’?
“Headroom” refers to how loud you can turn up an amp (usually a referring to a non-Master Volume Tube amp) before it starts to break-up into Distortion/Overdrive.
What else will make my amp sound awesome?
Good quality cables and a fresh strings are easy to overlook but is essential to get the tones you deserve. Bad or low quality cables have a habit of draining and colour your tone you should want to achieve. Old strings will sound a bit dead and will not respond as well to your playing as new strings will. Our suggestion is not compromise your cables and strings just because you’re playing at home. Tone lies in every part of your setup. Understandably, a tight budget might force you to focus on other parts of your gear but get the best cables that you can afford and restring as often as you can. It will make a big difference to your guitar sound, tone, feel and vibe.