Forbidden Love – The Unspoken Magic Of Solid State
If you Google ‘Solid State Amps’, you’ll be confronted by lots of apologetic articles trying to make the case for these truly unsung heroes of the guitar world – ‘Top 5 Solid State Amps That Don’t Suck!’, ‘Best Non-Tube Amps For Tone Snobs!’ and all that jazz. Before you stick your fingers in your ears and scream VALVE at the top of your lungs, do yourself a favour and read this article. What I’m going to talk about here isn’t why you should switch from your beloved AC30 to something tubeless, but instead what the best bits are, and why we’re so keen to play down these standby-less magicians.
Depending on when you came into being, the phrase Solid State makes you think of different things – The Roland JC-120, Line 6 Spider and Sunn Beta Lead are all viable possibilities. All of these amps have and still do play a pretty large part in the musical landscape, from essential bedroom items to live and studio staples, but they’re still treated like second-class citizens. Why is that?
There’s a number of reasons. Solid State amps are regarded as not as deep, rich or loud as valve amps. They’re cheaper and therefore seen as worse, often don’t take pedals quite as well, and sound a bit flimsy at higher volumes. Of course, these are sweeping statements of the highest order – if you have a look at King Buzzo’s touring rig, it’s completely tube-free, and few could accuse the Melvins of a power shortage. The JC-120 formed the spine of the New Wave movement, and although it takes pedals the way a wheelbarrow takes corners, its clean sound is amazing. Solid State amps are cheaper because they don’t require things like spring dampeners, a valve chassis, a standby switch or as much of a casing, and they’re cheaper to maintain because of the lack of hot glass. They also tend to travel better and behave more reasonably in varying temperatures, something that can’t be said of valve amps, which need a reasonable amount of time to both heat up and cool down before use or transportation.
It’s also a bit of an unspoken matter than it’s perfectly acceptable for bassists to use solid state stuff without damaging their pride. Part of the reason for this is that to squeeze 1500 or 2000 watts from a Solid State head isn’t all that difficult, and the resultant headroom and portability make a highly viable case for those in the lower registers. These higher wattages are available to guitarists, but because of the tonal behaviour of higher frequencies through Solid State at high volumes and the either/or situation when it comes to clean and dirty sounds, there’s fewer people queuing up for a shiny new Randall Warhead than a tattered, ruined Plexi.
In the past, and certainly in my experience, a lot of the scorn poured on tubeless amps was because they weren’t valve – valve was cool, and no-one likes to be uncool. When I spoke to musicians other than guitarists, the story was completely different. Keys players love Solid State amps because of their effortless clean sounds, and a large number of jazz players I’ve spoken never really considered valve because they’re not chasing bone-powdering overdrive. This brings us to an interesting crossroads.
In the modern day, units like the Fractal Axe FX, Line 6 Helix and, most famously, the Kemper, are becoming increasingly common. Kemper especially are the choice of amps for a large number of touring guitarists, sick of carting their heavy, irreplaceable amps all over the world. Having spoken to a number of colleagues on this very topic, one thing kept coming up over and over – it’s easier. Now, before you start blunting your thumbs with rage, think about it. The whole electric guitarist thing is wrapped up in big amps, volume and power, not practicality, reliability and common sense. We’re supposed to batter things into nothingness with our devastating speed, rip up the floor with our hot licks and kill the sun with our unbridled coolness, slashing at our low-slung weapons with sublime savagery, stood wide-legged in front of a cliff-face of screaming amps. Our Darwinian need for huge things and brute force isn’t satisfied with a computer the size of a dictionary effortlessly guiding our fiery licks into the PA, so we fundamentally reject it.
I was of this mind until I watched the Rig Rundowns with the aforementioned Buzzo and champions of the Beta Lead, Red Fang. Those guys were using solid state across the board and why? Because it’s easier and a lot less stressful. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that a tubeless head can fundamentally never do what a valve amp does, and although the gap is slowly closing, this is absolutely true. However, the advent of the electric guitar didn’t mean that we stopped using acoustics, as both disciplines offer viable means of musical communication. I’ve been using Solid State amps at home for decades, even gigging a couple of big ones for a time, and while I never sounded as huge as I do pumping through an all-valve 65w 2×12”, I also don’t need to use that for every setting.
It’s a bit mad to say that the heavier, more expensive, less practical option is the only one to choose, particularly when there’s a viable alternative there. In truth, I think a lot of the blame goes to amps like the dreaded Marshall Valvestate series, which drove home the perceived shortcomings of valvelessness with its wasp-calling-customer-service rage of thin, meaningless overdrive and bargain-bin clean tones, but as with all things, one cannot judge the skills of the many by the acts of the few. Without amps like the Spider, legions of young guitarists wouldn’t have had anything to play through, and with the advent of amps like the Yamaha THR5 and the now curiously-desireable Boss Katana, Solid State has begun to claw its way back into the modern day.
The guitarist is the only musician class to turn its back on Solid State, because we think of it a certain way, but the big thing that made the difference – the sound – isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps it’s time to give it a chance – valve isn’t going anywhere after all – and see what we do with this most under of dogs.
John Tron Davidson is a writer, blogger, guitarist and owner of Heavy Repping, the best damn plectrum blog on the internet.
Interesting article on the history of Marshall Valvestate here: