The most iconic guitar riffs have fascinated audiophiles and music lovers for decades. Since you’re here, you’ve probably wondered how these fantastic tunes were created and amplified and wanted to understand how they came to life.
The secret lies in a small electronic device called a tube amp that we will tell you about today.
Before you crank up the volume on your guitar, you probably want to know how tube amps work and how to make the best of them while playing music. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place because in this ultimate guide, you’ll understand how tube amps work, how they are used in music, and why they’re musicians’ favorites. So keep on reading to learn more about tube amps.
How Do Tube Amps Work?
Tube amps don’t represent new technology, yet this technology is reliable and has been used by musicians to add this attractive tune to their music pieces. Although you might not be a fan of physics, we’ll have to revise some physics-related facts to understand how tube amps work and how they can have a massive effect on your guitar performance.
Electricity doesn’t travel in space, but a tube amp creates the right environment for the electrons to pass through. Using a simple yet smart mechanism, tube amplifiers add a special effect to guitars that makes music more desirable and unique.
An electron is a particle that has a negative charge, and in a vacuum, an electron will move if a positive charge attracts it. Because of this fact, scientists were able to control the movement of electrons flowing from a heated metal element known as the cathode as it’s pulled towards a positively charged element known as the anode.
So what does this have to do anything with your guitar? Here is the answer.
This movement creates a magnetic field inside the tube of the guitar amp. Inside the tube, there’s a cathode that carries a slight positive charge. Around the tube, there’s an anode or a plate that carries a high positive charge.
When heated, the cathode will release electrons that will get attracted to the anode or plate. The slight positive charge seems negative to the high positive charge on the anode.
Once connected to power, the cathode will start releasing electrons inside the tube. There’s a grid that stands between the cathode and anode to control this flow, which connects to the tiny voltages from the guitar picks.
It also creates more electrons that fly freely to the anode or plate to mirror the signal from the guitar. This action amplifies the signal, and this is why amplifier circuits can still contain dangerous voltages that can kill you, even when unplugged.
According to this principle, we can safely say that tube amps are tiny electronic components that are used to amplify or boost the electric current to improve the performance in a device, a guitar in this case. As a result, the signal from the guitar gets enhanced, which then travels until it reaches the speaker in a high volume with a special tone.
How Do Guitar Signals Get Amplified?
Now, we understand that physics might not be your biggest strength. After all, you don’t have to be a physicist to play remarkable tones on your guitar. So, let’s explain how the tube amp is used to make your guitar sound better and stronger.
A guitar amp is connected to the chassis, and the electrons flowing inside the tube come from the ground, where there’s a resistor attached to create a small DC voltage.
The resistor allows the AC electrons to flow freely when the guitar is played. The main component of a tube amp is a transformer that converts the AC input voltage to power the circuit and amplifies the signal.
Tube amps are used to strengthen and boost the signal in several devices, including stereos, radios, radars, and GPS devices. But in music, they add a resonating sound that charms all audiophiles and music lovers.
Without a tube amp, sounds won’t have this profound effect on your mind and soul, so they’re crucial in music composition as they make tones more memorable.
How to Choose the Right Tube Amp
It’s no doubt that we love tube amps, and we think that life without them would be impossible. However, they do come with some issues that you need to understand before dealing with them.
Not all amps work for all frequencies, as some can cause the input signal to become distorted and unstable. This is why you need to be careful about the range of frequencies over which the amplifier works. This range is referred to as the bandwidth of the amp.
Moreover, volumes can also distort the original signal if the increase in the input volume isn’t properly matched by an increase in output volume. In this case, the amp might be picking up another subsequent sound that causes a whistle while you’re playing your guitar.
To avoid these limitations, there are a few things that you need to consider before buying a tube amp.
Everything related to the nature of your music should be taken into consideration if you’re shopping for a new tube amp. This includes the genres you usually play, whether you play solo or with a band, and whether you play an acoustic or electric guitar, in addition to the setup of the band if you’re playing a gig.
Tube amps that work for jazz, Latin, and blues guitarists usually create clean and smooth sounds that highlight the notes and make them more remarkable, especially in guitar solos. Other amps can be used to add more texture and body by adding a buzzing effect or a little distortion that makes music more intriguing. These amps usually work if you’re playing punk, classic rock, or metal music.
In some cases, tube amps have two different channels. One of them produces clean sounds, while the other produces sounds that have more texture and body. This way, you can switch between these two channels depending on the effect you want to create. If you’re a hobbyist, finding an amp that offers the best of both worlds will be a good idea.
The idea is to understand that an amp is not a mere electronic device. As a matter of fact, it has a personality, just like the guitar you’re playing. This is why you need to try it, feel it, and tweak it before you can decide that it’s the right one for you.
For this reason, we highly recommend that if you’re shopping at the store, you should give several amps a try. Push them a little further, and don’t pick the first one you like. You actually need to give them time, so you can properly test them to see how each one can fit the music genre you play or prefer.
If you’re still starting your journey as a novice guitarist, it might be a little challenging to commit to a specific amp. You can either ask someone who has more experience for help, or you can choose a model that has a more versatile profile, so it can provide a wide range of tones for various music genres.
Physical and Technical Specifications
The physical aspects of the amplifier make a huge difference too.
If you’re currently playing guitar at your mom’s garage, you will require a practice amp that can allow you to become a better guitarist without causing the neighbors to call the cops. However, if you’re planning to share your talent with the rest of the world, a full-stack amp that works for gigs will be a must.
The volume of the amp is measured in watts of power, as well as the speaker size. For practice purposes, a smaller amp with a power between 10 and 30 watts and a speakers range between 8 and 10 inches would be fine. This amp will create the resonating effect in a closed room whether you’re playing in class or at home. At the same time, it doesn’t exceed the limit to the point that it shatters the windows.
In a small setting, like if you’re playing at a club or at a friend’s party, you can go for a slightly strong amp. A model with a power of 50 watts and a speakers range of 12 inches will usually do the trick.
Now, let’s say that you want to push it to the maximum. If you want to be really loud or if you’re planning to play at a big venue like an arena or stadium, you should think about picking a large professional amp.
These models start with a power of 100 watts and a speaker range that exceeds 12 inches. There are really huge models that produce the strongest sounds, but you should be careful before committing to one of those as they’re only meant to be used by real professionals.
You’re probably asking; are all tube amps the same? Of course, they all work in the same fashion, but just like other electronic devices, tube amps have different strengths that you need to consider if you’re looking for a new one.
Since they’re used to strengthen sounds, the strength or effect of a tube amp is calculated in terms of the gain factor or the amplification. So if the tube amp doubles the original signal, it has a gain factor of 2. In the case of audio devices, the gain factor can also be described in decibels.
Weight and Size
While you want to indulge in your music and get lost in the tunes, it’s challenging to do so if the amp adds a huge weight to your guitar, so you have to drag it around the stage.
Think about the weight of the guitar and your physical build too. A small or a medium-sized amp might be what you need if carrying heavy equipment might strain you. On the other hand, if you’re choosing a heavyweight amp that comes with all the bells and whistles, it’s a good idea to practice holding it around so you don’t collapse in the middle of your gig.
You should also think about the material used to construct the cabinet of your amp, which houses all the tiny yet crucial electronic parts. The cabinet can be made of wood, and everything from its type to thickness will have a huge effect on how the sound resonates. Metal cabinets are also popular, so you can find one that is made of steel or aluminum.
Nowadays, tube amps come with special effects and features that add more character and dimension to your music. Effects like loop and reverb can be added to several music creations by manipulating the amp just a little. You can also get one of the amps that allow you to easily switch from clean to distorted sounds.
In some cases, you can find an amp with an equalizer control for every channel. This will give you more control over the sound effects as you can precisely fine-tune the volume and distortion.
These digital features might seem appealing, but if you’re a novice guitarist, you don’t really need to spend a huge amount of money on an amp that comes with those. Instead, they will be more suitable for someone who plays guitar for a living because they will be able to understand the full potential of the amp.
Using the Tube Amp Safely: How to Warm it Up
Before using your tube amp, you need to give it time to warm it up, so you can use it safely. This will allow you to maintain a good tone with your guitar and will guarantee that the amp is working the way it should.
Warming up the amp will make it easier to control, especially with harsher and more challenging notes, as the amp will allow you to control the tones effortlessly. It is a must if you have an important gig or want to impress everyone with your musical performance.
In general, you need to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes warming up your tube amp before pushing in full throttle. In most cases, your tube amp will arrive with special instructions that tell you how much time it has to be warmed up before it can be safely used.
However, exceeding this time specification is actually a better idea. Even when they’re not warmed up, your amp will work fine for a while, but after some time, it might seem like it has a mind of its own. A thorough warm-up of your tube amp will guarantee a flawless performance for a longer period.
You should leave the amp on standby mode until it has warmed up properly while you’re preparing the stage or managing any other details before the rehearsal or gig. If there’s no standby switch or mode, you can power it on but leave the speaker inactive to engage the tubes.
By doing so, your guitar will sound its best and give you the right tones throughout the whole music performance, regardless of how long it is. Half an hour or so of warming up can set the difference between a remarkable and disastrous performance.
How to Protect My Tube Amp
Now that you know that your tube amp is a crucial component of your guitar or any electronic device that you want to boost, you probably want to know how to get the best of it. Here are a few tips that can help you protect your tube amp and guarantee better performance.
- Never drop or wet the tube amp. Remember that it’s made of sensitive components that can easily get damaged.
- Be careful with switching the power off and on. A sudden change in electric power can cause power supply damage.
- Don’t run the tube amp with no speaker plugged into the guitar.
- Keep an eye on any signs of high heat. Seeing smoke or feeling the heat means that the tube amp isn’t working the way it should.
- If a fuse burns, don’t replace it with one that has a bigger amperage, as this can cause another vital component inside the amp to burn.
- Make sure that the air vents aren’t blocked, as this will allow the heat to build up and eventually ruin the tube amp.
- A red glow on the ends of the filaments shows that the internal plates are about to melt. Although the plates are usually scorching, they should have an orange glow. Red shows that they’ve reached maximum heat, and in this case, you need a professional to have your tube amp checked.
Tube amps aren’t new, but they never stop impressing us. Using brilliant yet straightforward technology, tube amps work to change how the music feels and sounds. Before choosing one for your guitar, you need to understand how to pick the right amp and how to protect it, so your music will always sound just the way you like it.
Want more? Check out:
- Beginner’s Guide to Vacuum Tube Amplifiers
- Top 5 Most Affordable Tube Amp Models
- So You’re An Entry Level Audiophile
- Best Tube Amp For Turntable
- The Most Popular High End Tube Amps
For additional information about the topic of the inner workings of vacuum tubes and tube amps, here are some resources I hope you find helpful:
- Explaining Vacuum Tube Amps from nuvitron.com
- Vacuum Tubes: The World Before Transistors from engineering.com
- Guitar 101: What Is a Tube Amplifier? Learn the Difference Between Tube Amplifiers and Solid State Amplifiers from masterclass.com
- Amp Anatony: How Power Tubes Affect Your Tone from sweetwater.com
- Tube Amp FAQ from londonpower.com
- How Do Guitar Amps Work? Simply Explained, Easy To Get from rockguitaruniverse.com
- Vacuum Tube Basics from thetubestore.com
- How Vacuum Tubes Work from hifichicken.com
- How Fender Amps Work from fenderguru.com
- Safety Tips For Working On Tube Amplifiers from aikenamps.com