What To Consider When Buying Your First Tube Amplifier

What To Consider When Buying Your First Tube Amplifier

You’re looking for a new tube amp, or valve amp as we say in the UK – but which one should you choose?

With more tube amps available for guitarists than ever before, there’s possibly a little too much choice. 

While we’ve got long-standing brands such as Fender, Marshall, Vox, Laney, Peavey, etc. We’ve also got more boutique builders entering the market, and existing boutique builders open up to large scale production in the case of Friedman amplifiers.

In this article, you’ll learn what to look for when buying your new tube amp so you end up with a guitar amp that has all the features you need. And, is capable of creating the tone in your head.

Should you choose a head and a cab, or combo amp?

First, let’s talk about the format of tube amps. Starting with combos…

Combos are nice because they’re an entirely self-contained unit. There’s no need to mess around with external cabinets or needing extra cables.

Some would say they sound better. That could be something to do with how combos resonate, with the extra space vs a comparable cab. I’d be inclined to agree but the difference, if anything, is marginal and extremely subjective.

On the downside, a 1×12” combo would likely be more difficult to lug around compared to a head and 1×12” speaker cabinet.

I learned this the hard way carrying my Marshall Valvestate combo all around my high school. 

Want to swap speakers? You’ll have to get out your screwdriver and soldering iron in most cases.

Now let’s talk about going down the head + speaker cabinet route:

With the rise in popularity of lunchbox headers like the Orange Rocker 15 and the Victory VX The Kraken, tube amps are more portable than ever before. Not to mention the amount of choice on the market.

Victory VX The Kraken
Pictured, Victory VX The Kraken. Image Credit: Tone Island.

Amp heads are ideal for those recording at home who want to use attenuators and cabinet impulse responses. 

If you want to choose a different speaker – you can just swap cabs. For live performance, you could opt for an off-brand lightweight speaker like the Barefaced Reformer 112. It’s far louder than a regular 1×12” and your back will thank you for the reduced weight.

What about for the studio? Most studios go down the route of using amp heads. They take up far less space, so they can be stacked easier. And routed to a few cabs in a live room when needed.

What about speaker type?

This ties into the head vs combo debate.

And, it’s worth considering because speakers (and cabs) impact the tone more than most people think.

Firstly, you’ve got several types of cabinets to consider:

  • Closed-back – These are the most directional and typically have stronger low-end. You’ll usually find them paired with amps geared towards heavier music.
  • Open-back – A cabinet can’t have an entirely open back, so these are really partly-open back cabinets. These are less directional and have more of a “room filling” quality to them.

Then, there are the speaker types. The brand of speaker you’ll be most likely to find is Celestian. And they have a few common speaker types:

  • Vintage 30 – These are the speakers that have defined modern metal music, or made it all sound the same, depending on how you look at it. This speaker is a little spikey in the mid-range but it’s extremely versatile. 
  • Creamback – Compared to a Vintage 30, this speaker sounds a little scooped in the mid-range but the mids are warmer and offers a more vintage tone.
  • Greenback – Typically used by the likes of AC/DC, this speaker doesn’t have the power handling capability of the Vintage 30 or Creamback, but it’s a great sounding speaker. Capable of great lows and offer plenty of punch.
  • Blueback – Like the Greenback, this speaker doesn’t have the power handling capabilities of the first two, but it’s been used in Vox amps for years. It was a popular choice for the likes of Brian May of Queen fame. Great sounding mids and high end breaks up beautifully in my Vox AC15.

There are a bunch of other speaker manufacturers, and plenty of other speaker types but hopefully this gives you more of a starting point.

If you go down the combo route, you’ll typically have one option for speaker type. However, some manufacturers like Vox offer two versions. And companies like Fender occasionally release special editions of amps with upgraded speakers.

What about power tubes?

Short version: don’t worry about them too much.

Long version:

You’ll likely see a lot of discussion online about power tubes. It’s usually one of the first things people ask about a tube amp.

The conversation is usually centered around something like; “should I go for 6L6 or EL34 tubes?”

There are many more tube types, including 6V6, EL84, KT88, etc. 

But there’s no simple answer to “which power tubes should I go for?” – the tone will depend on your tubes and the circuit of the amp. And, the differences can only really be heard when you drive the power section.

To truly answer this question, you’d need two identical amps with different power tubes and then use an A/B box to test. That’s a lot of work and will overcomplicate the decision far too much.

So, it’s probably worth forgetting about power tubes entirely and focus more on whether you like the tone of the amp.

If you want a bit of further reading, PremierGuitar has an interesting article that explains more about power tubes and their signature sounds.

Is there one genre you’ll play more than anything else?

A quick and easy way to narrow down the field is to step back and think about the kind of music you’ll play – what amps do other guitarists in that genre play?

For example, if you want a tube amp specifically for playing metal (or any type of its sub-genres), there are a few amps that immediately jump out:

  • EVH 5150
  • PRS Archon
  • Victory Kraken (VX or Super Kraken)
  • Laney Iron Heart
  • Mesa Boogie Mark V
  • Marshall JCM800 

At a slightly less extreme end of the spectrum, here are some amps that are great for playing rock music:

  • Orange Rocker 15 or Brent Hinds Terror
  • Orange Dual Terror
  • Victory Sheriff 22
  • Victory RK50
  • Friedman Dirty Shirley
  • Marshall JVM

What about if you wanted a tube amp for playing blues or jazz? Here are a few options that come to mind:

  • Fender Blues Deluxe
  • Fender Deluxe Reverb
  • Victory V40 
  • Vox AC15 (or AC30)
  • Mesa Boogie Lonestar 

But, if you want to play a broad spectrum of music, for example anything from blues to metal – that complicates things somewhat but there are still options on the market that cover a lot of tonal ground.

For example, the Egnater Tweaker 88 amp head is a tonal camelion. It offers two channels that can be set to offer clean or gain tones. A multitude of switches offer extreme tonal flexibility. EQ can be geared between British, US, and AC styles – by AC they are referring to Vox.

Egnater Tweaker 88 Tube Head
Pictured, Egnater 88 Head. Image Credit: Tone Island.

There’s an FX loop, and footswitchable boosts for each channel. They can be set to clean or gain boosts. 

And you can pick one of these monsters up for around $900 new or $400 pre-owned. 

On the other end of the budget spectrum, Mesa Boogie’s Mark V and Rectro-Verb series of amps both offer an incredible feature set and great build quality. Both have independant tube-driven reverb for each channel, switchable wattage, FX loop, and more. 

If you want more of a vintage vibe, check out the Recto-Verb and if you want more of a modern tone, check out the Mark V. They both come in several different power configurations, and head/combo versions are available.

What do you like the sound of?

Instead of looking at things from a genre specific standpoint, it’s worth considering what you like the sound of – and the characteristics of the amps that you’ve listened to on your favourite records over the years.

For example, do you like the:

  • Classic spank of a Fender with spring reverb?
  • Utter carnage of a cranked Plexi style amp?
  • Soaring lead tones of a Mesa Boogie Mark V?
  • Unrelenting savagery of a Peavey 5150 (now made by EVH)
  • Vintage-inspired chime of a Vox AC15?

Consider taking some time to listen to your favourite records – the ones with the tones you love and work out what type of amps they used.

And once you have an idea, you usually won’t be limited to that exact amp.

For example, Marshall offer a reissue of the Plexi amp head but there are a lot of amp manufacturers that offer similar sounding amps. The Victory Sheriff 22 is a good example.

Pedal platform, versatile amp or both?

A lot of players go down the route of having a simple single channel amp (e.g. Victory V40) and use it as a pedal platform.

Victory V40 The Duchess
Pictured, Victory V40 The Duchess. Image credit: Tone Island.

With a pedal platform amp, you are relying on boost, fuzz, and overdrive pedals instead of switching to a lead channel.

If that works for you, then it’s a route worth taking.

It’s what I typically use most of the time. I love using fuzz and overdrive pedals when paired with my Fender Strat.

But, most of the music I write is metal and pedals just can’t take the place of a tube-driven overdrive. However, the good old Tube Screamer works nicely to tighten up the tone.

Not all amps take pedals well. For example, I don’t like using my Egnater Tweaker 88 head for pedals at all. But it is incredibly flexible.

However, my Mesa Boogie Mark V:25 takes pedals beautifully and it’s tonal range covers everything from blues to heavy metal. That gives me everything I need in a single amp.

So, consider this when deciding on which amp to purchase.

How much wattage do you need?

The wattage of a tube amp doesn’t accurately describe how loud it will be, and some manufacturers will round wattage up or down.

Still, it can give you a rough idea of how loud it will be.

A tube amp sounds it’s best when cranked but it’ll lose it’s edge when you crank it too much.

That crank your Marshall to 11 Spinal Tap joke is simply that – a joke. It’ll result in bad tone and breaking your gain control when you realize it only goes to 10 (lol).

Here’s how to think about this:

Get an amp with twice the wattage than you need. This way, you should have enough headroom.

But, if you’re playing mostly clean tones – you could need a bit more to ensure you’ve got enough headroom before your clean tones start to break up.

For home use, most tube amps are probably going to be too loud. But, it’s useful to have a tube amp that you can use at home and for live use if you need it.

You could opt for an attenuator like a UA Ox if you go for a head amp. This will allow you to crank the amp without enraging your neighbours.

Another option is to use an amp with switchable wattage. For example, most of the Orange and Victory lunchbox heads have switchable wattage.

And it’s a similar case for most Mesa Boogie amps.

How many channels do you need?

If you’re going to use a single channel amp as a pedal platform, this will likely be a mute point.

But, if not – it’s worth considering.

Generally, most amps will have two channels. Some will offer mostly independent controls for each channel, whereas others will share certain controls like the EQ.

So it’s worth considering how much control you need to shape the tone on each channel.

Some larger format head amps such as the full-fat Mesa Boogie Mark V will have 3 channels with independent EQ, gain, master and presence controls.

For example, John Petrucci primarily has three different tones he uses live – full-bodied cleans, chunky rhythm tones and soaring lead tones. So, a three channel amp is exactly what he needs.

So, it’s worth considering exactly what your needs are. If you’re wanting an extra channel that would effectively just be used as a gain boost, you could simply opt for a Tubescreamer style pedal to drive the amp harder.

Or in the case of the smaller Mesa Boogie Mark V:25, you can use the footswitchable active EQ section as a lead boost.

But, the extra channel does add a lot more flexibility.

What extra features do you need in your tube amp?

There could be some other features you need in your amp.

We talked about switchable wattage earlier, but here are some other options to consider:

  • Built-in reverb (I prefer tube-driven reverb to digital).
  • FX loop.
  • Midi send + return.
  • Clean/gain boost (this could easily be done by a pedal though).

How easy is the amp to maintain?

From time to time you may need to replace some tubes. I’m not going to explain this in detail because I’m not a qualified amp tech.

It pays to be safe with tube amps – that’s why I always take my amps to someone who knows what they’re doing. And because I don’t want to risk getting electrocuted while adjusting the bias.

However, some Victory and PRS amps do come with bias adjustments on the outside of the amp – this makes things a lot easier but I’m still going to stick with taking mine to an amp tech.

Wrapping it up

There’s plenty to consider when purchasing your first (or next) tube amp. Probably a lot more than if you were to go for a digital modeller.

But, here’s a good way to approach things:

Write a list of what your new amp needs to have, and a second list of what features aren’t essential but would still be nice to have.

Use that as your starting point, then consider other factors such as the tone in your head, and what other guitarists are using in the genre of music you want to play.

Then, watch some YouTube demos, or better yet – go to a store and try a bunch of amps for yourself.

Good luck on your search for the perfect tube amp!

Featured image credit: @9_fingers_.