In the past few years or so, there have been countless discussions about whether digital modeling amps are better than tube amps. Everyone from enthusiasts up to pro guitarists weighed in on this one. Things got a bit complicated when some of the famous guitar legends shared their views. Some of them, like John Mayer, even began using Kemper for live shows. But while this approach is definitely more practical, Mayer recently revealed that he’s not completely convinced by their replication of the warmth and the dynamic response of tube amplifiers. But, on the other hand, Steve Vai got closer to the modeling amp “clan” after getting the chance to use stuff like Axe-FX and Kempers.
Generally speaking, it seems that a huge portion of guitar players are still not convinced and are relying on the good old tube amps. Sure, this is open for discussion, but we won’t get into the topic now. What we want to discuss here is how to get that true tube amp tone without spending your life savings. Some might get into simple and cheap solid-state amps, but these are never able to achieve the same effects as valve-driven products. Some might try their luck with so-called hybrids, amps with tube-driven preamps and solid-state power sections. While the hybrids might get a portion of the tube feel, they still don’t fully achieve the desired effect. Does that mean that we’re only left to fantasize about tube amps if they go over are current budgets? Not really.
While most of the quality tube amps from all the famous brands reach prices well over $1,500, there are still some great products in the lower price range. These might not be so well-known among guitar players, so we figured we could shed some light on the topic and find out more about great tube amps below the $1,000 mark. It’s still kind of expensive, but stick around and we’ll introduce some surprisingly cheap but great tube amps, even below $500.
It’s funny how Marshall still manages to surprise us with their quality of tone, especially if we’re talking about cheaper stuff. While there’s still some of that recognizable British tone in there, DSL40CR is more for those modern tone lovers. Its 40 watts of all-tube power is more than enough for live gigs, anything from smaller to mid-sized venues.
The tone is shaped through four ECC83 tubes in the preamp and two classic EL34s in the power amp. There are two channels on it, called “classic gain” and “ultra gain.” With the classic channel, you get anything from sparkling cleans up to some serious warm and saturated crunch tones, perfect for bluesy hard rock stuff. This channel gets some additional versatility with its clean/crunch switch.
On the “ultra gain,” you can achieve those screaming leads and chugging heavy riffing tones. More options come with the OD1/OD2 toggle switch that adds a different color to the distorted tone. Both channels have individual master volume and reverb controls, while the EQ, presence, and resonance controls are shared.
If you’re someone who loves vintage, overdriven tone of a clean amp, this is definitely an amp to set your sights on! Although this amp only has 15 watts of power, you can get some loud tone out of this small amp thanks in part to the 12″ Jensen speaker, three 12AX7 preamp tubes and two EL84 output tubes. While the clean channel is gorgeous, you can blend in a fatter tone thanks to the “fat” switch that adds in some more mid-range tone, great for riffing on your favorite blues tracks. When not plugged in, it’s also a stunning fixture in any home due to the beautiful lacquered tweed exterior, leather handle and vintage-style brown and gold grill cloth adoring its exterior.
If you’re a gigging musician who needs a tube amp with tone versatility, the Blackstar HT Club 40 is a fantastic choice! Boasting 40-watts of power, two EL34 power tubes, and two ECC83 preamp tubes (the European equivalent of 12AX7s), you’ll be able to get clear tone regardless if you’re playing at lower volumes in a small club or need to crank it for a massive audience. Blackstar made a point to outfit these amps with 2 channels and 4 modes so you can bounce between two different types of clean tone (“boutique” and “modern”) or two different overdrive tones (“classic” and “full-body”). One of the more interesting features on this amp is Blackstar’s ISF control which in tandem with the bass, middle, and treble knobs, you can blend between tones that are characteristically “American” or “British” based on which way you turn the knob. Without a single pedal plugged in, your options for sounds are limitless, making this a great amp for the guitarist who needs an amp that can do it all for any show!
While Paul Reed Smith has been known for making some of the most beautiful looking and sounding instruments in the industry, his and his company’s engineering know-how have proven to excel similar within their amp line. One notable amp is their PRS Sonzera 20 which is a 20-watt tube amp that captures the classic sounds of some of the most popular amps from the 60’s and 70’s. With two distinct channels (each incredible in their own right), you have tons of options of crafting your tone so you can make them each sound like two different amplifiers perfect for switching between for different parts of a song or different songs altogether! PRS made a point to think of every nuance with this amp so you always get the best tone: an effects loop so you can use your favorite modulations/filter/time-based effects without coloring the amps tone, as well as a global reverb so your tone has the effect without changing the tone of the amp. Overall, this amp is fantastic for playing/recording at home and can easily stand on its own on any stage.
If you love the sound of an original Marshall amp without emptying your wallet for a vintage version, the Origin ORI50C is a perfect, small-enclosure amplifier for any Marshall fan! between the three ECC83 preamp tubes, the EL34 power tubes, and 50-watts going through the Celestion G12N-60 Midnight 60 12″ speaker, this amp delivers superior clean tone and awesome overdrive when turned up. Although it only has one channel, you can manipulate it to be Normal or High Treble, depending on your preference thanks to the Tilt control. Although it’s a tube amp of which can be notorious for trying to play in a quieter setting, the Powerstem technology allows you to switch between high, medium, and low power mode so you can play in a loud stage setting or quietly practice in your bedroom. Bonus: a footswitch is included so you can the gain-boost with the press of a button, great for changing your tone for your solos!
Blackstar’s Studio 10 is another vintage-style piece, although it includes a bit more features than just a volume knob. It comes in two different versions, named after the tubes and the styles they represent. The 6L6 is more of an “American” vintage amp, while the EL34 model replicates those British vibes of old Vox and Marshall amps.
Both of these amps have the same controls and specs. They have 10 watts of power, one 12AX7 preamp tube, and one power tube – either 6L6 or EL34, depending on the model. It is a single channel amp, but there is an overdrive option on it.
This wouldn’t be a complete list without at least one Vox amp on it. We all know how their iconic British tone changed the way we listen to rock music. So if you prefer this classic bright and “grainy” sound, then AC15C1 is the right thing for you.
You can use it either in its “normal” mode, or you can plug into the “top boost” input for some overdriven and seriously bright tones. Of course, since it’s vintage-oriented, you’ll probably need a bit of time to get used to some of its features. For instance, its 3-band EQ is not that simple and is more “dynamic” compared to conventional ones. If you tweak the high-end, it also alters the amount of low-end in your tone.
The signal goes through three 12AX7 tubes and two classic British EL34s. The whole output goes through one large 12-inch Celestion Greenback that adds its specific flavor to the high-ends.