How to Get the Best Sound Out of a Tube Amp

Posted by Matthew Wendler on Dec 14, 2015 08:00 AM

marshall_stack.jpgPhoto by Andy Neal

Electric guitarists tend to be picky about their sound, justifiably so. Besides the instrument itself, the most important part of any guitarist's sound is the amp. I know it's potentially dangerous to step into this heated debate, but I tend to lean towards tube amps for my sound over digital and solid-state amps.

Some guitarists dislike tube amps because they're not cutting-edge technology. For the most part, they lack convenient switches that offer a variety of sounds, they seem reluctant to break up, and they typically don't feature any on-board effects apart from reverb. That being said, it's pretty easy to coax great sound out of a tube amp without using effects pedals or other trickery.

The method I use with tube amps is fairly simple. I turn the volume up on the amp as high as it goes, and then use the volume controls for my guitar pickups to control the volume on the amp overall. If your amp has a master volume knob, it can be used to get a similar sound at lower volumes. However, it still sounds better (albeit quite loud) with the master volume on a high setting. Using higher volumes on your pickups will be more likely to break the amp up. However, it's also key to use the tone knobs, as they affect the distortion of your amp as well. Using higher levels of tone will result in a very clear sound, even if it's distorted. Lower tone, especially if you're using the neck pickup, will likely sound muddy. Generally speaking, I find that the neck pickup set with tone anywhere between zero and four (on a scale of 10) is too fat sounding. However, if you're using the neck pickup in conjunction with the bridge, then it can offer a nice lower end to your sound if you find the bridge pickup to be too sharp on its own.

The best settings for the amp are largely dependent on your guitar's settings. If you're favoring the bridge pickup, then you may want to favor treble on the amplifier. I find this method sounds great for many types of rock guitar. However, if you're using a less distorted sound, that method will be a little tinny. Incorporate the neck pickup to give a fuller sound to less distorted guitars, and enjoy the rich tonality you get out of the amp.

Tube amps may not be for everyone. Plenty of great guitarists and bassists use digital or solid-state equipment. However, tube amps let your instrument's unique sound through, allowing for an authentic analog sound that digital amps cannot replicate. Additionally, once you've found your amp settings, you'll have a wider range of available sounds from your guitar controls. This makes it simple to switch up your sound while playing live.

If you have a tube amp, give these recommendations a try. Having this sort of control at your fingers can make for inspired playing and songwriting.


This article was updated on December 15, 2015 to provide additional clarification in response to readers' comments and questions.


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Matthew Wendler is a blogger and multi-instrumentalist from New Jersey. He specializes in guitar, bass guitar, and bagpipes, and is passionate about writing both professionally and for enjoyment. His personal blog can be followed on Twitter at @ymiatvmi.

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