Tube amplifiers aren't just for audiophiles

Electric guitarists' love affair with tube amplifiers dates back to the birth of rock music.

The backside of a Blackie Pagano guitar amp. Blackie Pagano

Vacuum tube technology goes all the way back to the first decade of the twentieth century, and tubes were integral to the development of radio, television, home/professional audio, radar, telephone networks, medical test instruments, and early computers! The transistor was invented in the late 1940s, but widespread use was only reached in the mid-1960s. Transistors nearly obliterated the tube home audio market in the 1970s, but audiophiles and guitar players never gave up on tubes. Audiophile and guitar tube amps are still hugely popular, precisely because tube gear sounds different -- richer, warmer, more full-bodied -- than transistor amps. Those amps are, for the same output power capability, smaller, lighter, and cheaper than tube amps.

When I spoke with my friend Blackie Pagano about why tube guitar amps are enjoying continuing popularity he said, "Rock music was invented with tube amplifiers, the amplifiers are musical instruments, and their distortion became in integral part of the sound." So much so that Pagano thinks that 99 percent of transistor guitar amps are designed to sound like tube amps. Pagano again, "Tube distortion is in the DNA of rock and roll."

According to Pagano new tube guitar amps far outsell transistor models in the $500 and up categories. Tubes have that special mojo guitarists can't get with transistor amps. Yes, the new breed of digital processing amps can try to emulate the sound of tubes, but they never really get there. That's why the 100+ year old tube technology is still the preferred choice among young and older players, and they're always bringing Pagano vintage amps from the 1950s and 1960s to have them rebuilt. While Pagano also designs and builds new tube and solid-state amps, most of his day-to-day work is repairing old hi-fis and instrument amps.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

New tube guitar amp prices start around $500. A complete list of tube amp makers is too long to include here, but Boss, Ibanez, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie, Peavey, and Vox are still proudly making tube amps. Fender has their 65 Princeton Reverb ($1,299), which is part of their Vintage Reissue Amplifier Series. There are also "boutique" builders hand-making new tube amps.

Older amps in good condition fetch high prices, precisely because lots of today's players crave that juicy distortion they can only get from vintage amps. Amps 50 to 60 years old in good condition are worth a lot more now than when they were new, the best tube gear maintains its value, it's a great investment.

I'll look at what's up with audiophile tube electronics this coming weekend. The 100-year-old tech is still going strong.

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