My Guitar Tone Evolution – From Solid State to Tube and Back Again

Tubes or TransistorsI set out today to post a quick spot about my unconventional guitar amplification rig and how each time I’m setting up for a gig I get strange and incredulous looks. Then later when I’m done playing or on a break I get compliments on my tone and questions about how I get such a full sound out of something that small. Well in my attempt to convey how I got to that point, I wound up writing a short novel on the evolution of my guitar tone and the various pieces of equipment I used to get there. For the short story I meant to tell, skip to the end. For the more quizzical and/or bored readers, please do continue to read on. It was kinda cool to remember all the gear I’ve used and to revisit my uneducated beginnings as a guitar novice.

When it comes to guitars and tone, I’m a tinkerer and a tweaker. I go through phases. Way back in the beginning I thought my tone should come from a pedal, and an amplifier was just a way to get loud. As it turns out, I was wrong, but it took me a long time to see why.

Don’t blame me; I didn’t know any better. I knew I wanted to play guitar, so I bought one and just started figuring this stuff out as I went with little to no guidance. I didn’t know enough to discern the subtle nuances between different guitar amplifiers. I didn’t understand the tonal qualities of a single coil pickup versus a humbucker. Hell, my first guitar amp was designed to be more of a keyboard or lap steel amp.Boss HM-2 (Anyone remember that old Peavy Vegas 400?)Peavey Vegas 400 All I knew was that when I stepped on my Boss HM-2 distortion pedal, shit got loud and I could bust out some poorly executed Metallica riffs!

So a few years go by and I find myself in college. Here I am with this big-ass, 200 watt solid state amp sporting a 15″ Black Widow speaker, and I meet Sean Dogar, a bass player who at the time was playing through a Peavey Classic VTX 2×12″ hybrid guitar amp with a 60 watt tube power section. It didn’t take long before we knew what had to happen.

Peavey Classic VTXWe traded amps straight up: my Peavey Vegas 400 for his Peavey Classic VTX. Dare I say we both walked away winners from that deal, and that is how I came to own my first tube amplifier. It had a tone much more suited for guitar than my previous amp, but I really didn’t know how to use it as such. I was still under the impression that the amp was supposed to reproduce the signal as cleanly as possible and all the distortion came from a pedal. I knew that this amp sounded better with my pedal than the Vegas 400, but I really didn’t understand why.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m getting ready to record an album with my first band, Mire. We were borrowing equipment to do some home recording, and I had just bought my first professional quality guitar, a 1996 Les Paul Studio. I happened to be in Guitar Center and I started fiddling around with a Boss GT-5 multi-effect pedal. gt_5_top_mainUp to this point, every stomp box I owned was Boss, so I saw this as an opportunity to get every single pedal they make, and have it all in one unit! I should be able to get every sound imaginable! Well low and behold, they didn’t have any more to sell me. I told the guy that I was recording in 2 weeks, and convinced him to sell me the floor model (at a discounted price of course!) I spent the next 2 weeks setting it up and we recorded a 9 track, all original album in a single weekend with that board and amp. I ran the output of the effects board straight into the main input and ran the amp as clean as possible. It sounded pretty cool!

That was my rig for a few years. It did the job, but that amp was quiet. Especially when you’re running it clean. Billy’s cymbals were just too much and I could hardly hear myself over them. I was doing a little better financially at that point in time too (i.e. I had a credit card), so I decided it was time to buy something a little bigger. Enter the Peavey 5150 II half stack!.

Peavey 5150 II Half StackThis thing was AMAZING! It was my first all tube guitar amplifier, and holy shit did it sound good! This began the era of my minimalist approach to guitar amplification. I put the GT-5 effects pedal on a shelf and never used it again. I loved the sound of that amplifier so much that I just plugged my guitar straight into it and cranked it up! Needless to say, my Billy cymbal decibel problem was solved. I don’t think I ever turned the post gain up beyond 5 on that amp. That amp had some of the best heavy metal tones I’d ever heard, but yet if I rolled off the volume on my Les Paul, it could sound smooth and bluesy. That was when I started to gain an appreciation for the many tones of the electric guitar. I started experimenting with different pickups, different settings on the amp, different cables, and it all started to make sense. There was just one problem…

THAT AMP WAS WAY TO FUCKING LOUD! As I learned the relationship between volume and amplifier tone, I realized that in order to get the tone that I wanted out of that amp, I had to crank it up and overpower the balance of the band. Then the drummer plays louder, the bass player cranks it up, the vocalist turns up the PA, and it just spirals out of control. I saw a need to give myself control over my volume while I was playing, so I sought a volume pedal. Well, why spend $100 for a volume pedal when you can spend $400 for an everything pedal? Thus began my 2nd multi-effect pedal era. I bought a Boss GT-10, which was the updated version of my old GT-5. Multi-effect pedals had come a long way in the 6 years since I had bought my GT-5, and there were lots of ways of using it. It had it’s own amplifier pre-amp modeling, which I really didn’t understand at the time. That didn’t stop me from trying to use it.

Boss GT-10There was a problem though… in the past few years, I had started to hear the difference between crappy distortion and good overdrive. The pre-amp modeling on the Boss GT-10 sounded way more like crappy distortion. I tried using the 4 cable method for a little while so that I could have pre and post effects and still use the tube preamp section on the 5150. That was just a pain in the ass. I did, however, use it for a couple mild effects and a volume pedal. I got real used to having that volume pedal, and now it’s something I just won’t go without.

Again, as my guitar playing experience increased, so did my understanding of amplifiers. I came to a realization that a half stack is way more amp than anyone needs unless you’re playing a football stadium and can stand more than 8 feet in front of your amp. Anything less than that, and a 100 watt half stack is overkill. Besides which, hauling around a half stack is a pain in the ass. I sought out a new, more portable amplifier solution and I came upon a really great sounding 1×12″ combo amp made my Line 6 called the Spider Valve Mk II.

Spider Valve Mk II 112This was my turning point. It was a hybrid amp again. It had a digital amplifier modeling section that fed a small tube pre-amp, that fed a full analog tube power section. And the best part was, it had effects built in that could be configured to be post or pre amplifier in the signal chain, and it had a foot controller that could behave as a built in volume control. It had tube amp sound with solid state versatility! I chalked up that great tone to the fact that there was still a 12AX7 preamp tube in the preamp section, so only half of it was digitally modeled.

POD HD500Being the tinkerer that I am, I’m never really satisfied with my tone. I have to keep playing with it, so it’s constantly evolving into something else. Despite the fact that the Spider Valve Mk II sounded awesome, I wanted to explore more options. So I decided to jump back into the multi-effect pedal arena again. I was impressed with Line 6’s amplifier so I decided to stick with a good thing and try the Line 6 POD HD500. This pedal was designed to do amplifier modeling either in front of a guitar amp, or direct into a PA system. I was still of the opinion that I needed tubes so I opted to run it in front of the power amp section of my Spider Valve Mk II. Set up like this, it replaced my foot controller for the amp, and gave me more control over the effects.

Line 6 DT50 HeadI continued to tinker with the settings on the POD and came up with some really good sounds. Then I find out that Line 6 has a tube amplifier head that will switch up the way the power amplifier section is wired up to emulate different types of tube amps! How cool is that! Digital preamp modeling meets re-configurable analog amplifiers. This amplifier line is known as the DT series and the amp head that I bought was the DT50. This is part of Line 6’s setup known as the “Dream Rig.” It’s whole premise is that all of these modeling components are designed to work together to create a near limitless palette of sound. The POD HD500 connects digitally to the DT50 head and allows me to save every configuration parameter on the POD, so that I can reconfigure the amplifier and the POD multi-effect pedal instantaneously with the touch of a single button.

But why stop there! If you can model amplifiers, then you can model guitars too! The more research I did, the more cool shit I found that I wanted to buy. To complete the “Dream Rig” setup, I needed a Line 6 James Tyler Variax guitar. I settled on the JTV-89F. It has an all mahogany body with a shape reminiscent of the shredder Ibanez guitars of the late 80’s.

VARIAX JTV-89FNow the JTV-89F is a great guitar in it’s own right. It’s got a great neck profile, good action, a Floyd Rose locking trem (which is a lot of fun!) and really great sounding pickups. I find myself using the magnetic pickups on it way more than I use any of the modeling features. The one modeling feature that I do use quite frequently is the acoustic guitar sounds. I can, with the push of a button on the POD HD500, switch from a high-gain heavy metal sound to a smooth, mic’ed acoustic guitar sound. To accomplish something like this previously, a guitar player would need to have an acoustic guitar on a stand and he’d step up to it and play it, then step back and play the electric. Something like that isn’t very practical in a small bar setting, so it just is’t done. Well… Now I can do it without all the extra stuff.

Just one problem… guitar amplifiers aren’t designed to reproduce a mic’ed acoustic guitar sound. In fact, it sounds pretty terrible. A good guitar amp colors the sound and alters it. What I needed was something that can amplify the sound exactly as it is sent. Essentially, I need a full range PA speaker. Well, Line 6 thought of that too. By this point, nearly every piece of guitar equipment I’m buying is Line 6 because when I compare it to everything else, Line 6 gives me the most versatility and bang for my buck. After doing some research, I decided that what I needed was a Line 6 StageSource L3T speaker.

This speaker is amazing. It has 3 speakers and 3 separate amplifiers built into it, a setup otherwise known as tri-amped. It has a dedicated amp and 10″ speaker for low frequency sounds, a separate amp and 10″ speaker for midrange, and a dedicated amp and HF horn driver for the high end of the audible spectrum. All together, this thing sounds amazing, and if you close your eyes while I’m doing the acoustic guitar modeling, you’d swear I had an acoustic guitar in my hands.

StageSourceL3THere’s the catch… now that the system is set up to reproduce the acoustic guitar sounds perfectly, does the POD HD500 and the StageSource L3T powered speaker sound good enough for the electric guitar tones? Yes. Yes it does! In fact, the whole reason I started writing this was because of the number of compliments and comments I get about using this rig when I play out. I play with the StageSource on it’s side, with the kickstands out and angled upward, like in the picture here. It looks weird, and inevitably I get a comment about it every time I play a gig. Just this past weekend, I was playing a gig where there were 4 bands performing. As I was setting up my rig, one of the other guitar players came in and didn’t see an amp behind me. Thinking that I had forgotten mine, he was nice enough to ask me if I needed to borrow his! I was actually a little caught off guard until I realized why he was asking me that. When I showed him what I had, he thought it was pretty cool.

Then, the sound guy comes over to mic my amp. He was a little thrown off too. I assured him it would work and helped him set a mic in front of the midrange speaker. (a guitar represents the midrange of the audio spectrum, so that’s the speaker that’s going to do most of the work) After the gig, he came up to me and said, “I was skeptical about that Line 6, but man… it sounded good!” He even complimented me on how it balanced well with the mix of the band, as opposed to the guy playing the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier with his mid EQ completely scooped out.

I once met a keyboard player who uses guitar samples on his keyboard and an Eleven Rack amplifier modeler to lay down some rhythm guitar while his guitar player is doing leads. We talked tech a little bit before I performed and he said that he had considered the POD HD500 when he bought his Eleven Rack. After I was done, he came back up to me and said, “Man that thing sounds great! I’m starting to reconsider my decision!” Each time set up to play a gig, I get guitar players checking out my rig because it looks weird. And each time I’m done, those guys come back up and compliment me on my tone and ask more about how it’s set up.

So I’ve gone full circle. I started with solid state amplification because I didn’t know any better and it’s what I was able to obtain. I moved into tube amplification, not because I knew more about it but because the salesman recommended it to me. Then through my everlasting search for more control and more versatility, I ended up back at solid state amplification with digital amplifier modeling. It’s been a long and enlightening (and expensive) journey, and it’s not over yet. In my quest for tonal variety, I fully expect some day to have a wall full of various guitars, each with their own unique sound and feel. Underneath that row of guitars will inevitably be a row of amplifiers, again each with their own distinct qualities that have earned them a place in my palette of sound. One of my favorite quotes about guitar tone came from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame. When asked about his extensive guitar collection, he said:

I use guitars like an artist uses different paintbrushes or colors. I have Rickenbackers, Gretsches, Martins, Guilds, and other guitars that all have specific tonalities that no other guitar has. It’s nice to use those. If a guitar inspires me in any way, it’s worth it. There are songs in each instrument that I have.

4 thoughts on “My Guitar Tone Evolution – From Solid State to Tube and Back Again

  1. Great post. I’m curious how the sound and playability of the StageSource compares to the DT50. I recently had a DT50, but ended up returning it because it had a switching problem. It was the first time I owned a tube amp. I loved how sensitive it was to how hard I strummed and the way it compressed and sounded. It was completely different in response than anything I had ever played before it. I’m now awaiting delivery of a DT25. The problem I had was certain amp changes over L6 Link cause the DT50 to pop and even cut out, especially class A to AB changes which I happen to use a lot. The DT25 does not have this problem.

    • Thank you! The StageSource performs beautifully, and has become my primary rig. All the amp modeling / compression / touch sensitivity is done at the POD HD500X level, and the StageSource is basically just a very well tuned, full range flat response powered speaker. While it may never be exactly the same as playing through a sweet tube amp, it’s very close. I’ve been able to dial in some pretty sweet sounding tones with that rig. Plus the versatility it gives me in a live setting is well worth any minute sacrifice of tone I might have to make.
      Sorry to hear about your poor experience with the DT50. I too notice the popping when switching power amp topology, but that’s to be expected. I don’t think the DT25 is going to be much better in that regard. When you are rewiring vacuum tubes on the fly, you have to expect some delay while the relays switch to their new connections. They might have been smarter to have it mute the output briefly while switching the tube topology, but I found if you mute the guitar while switching it isn’t too bad.
      Anyway, glad to hear that you’re experiencing what makes tube tones so great. Rock on!

  2. Thanks for the great post. I’ve taken a journey similar to yours and I’m currently at the part where the DT25 is just not doing it for me and I’ve been wanting to try the L3T. I was curious if you connect you POD HD to the L3T via L6 link or if you just use the direct out. The reason I’m asking is because I’ve been having issues with L6 link with my Dt25 and would like to avoid it and stick with the direct out to a L3T.

    • Glad my experiences could help you out! In my experience, the L6 Link from a Pod HD to the StageSource works beautifully. I have never had an issue with it. The one gotcha that you need to keep in mind is that the speaker mode of the StageSource will get saved with the POD HD preset if you’re using L6 Link. Make sure when you save a patch, that the speaker is in the mode you want to save. There’s no place to edit this in the Pod HD, and if you save the wrong speaker mode it will get recalled and set on the speaker every time you load that patch. I used to set my Pod HD patches up without a speaker cabinet emulation, and use the StageSource “Electric Guitar” mode, which emulates a 2×12 speaker cabinet, but then I needed the StageSource to make that patch sound right. I later switched all my patches over to full range amp / cabinet emulation so that I can use them for practicing through headphones, running straight into a mixer, or as a backline amplifier without changing a thing.

      When I play live, I use the direct XLR outputs from the Pod HD to the mixer, and then from the mixer I send my guitar tone back to my StageSource L2 for monitoring purposes. If I’m using my StageSource as a backline guitar amp instead of a monitor, I usually go L6 link directly from Pod to the StageSource.

      Another bit of advice if you haven’t already purchased a StageSource speaker and you only using it for guitar, consider getting an L2 instead of an L3. The third speaker and amp built into the L3 is only used for sound 250 Hz and below. When you’re playing guitar, that whole section is practically unused. I switched from an L3 to an L2 this year and haven’t missed the extra speaker a bit. I haven’t missed lugging around the extra 20 lbs either! Now that being said, if you want to play bass through it at all (and I have with very good results), get the L3. You’ll need the extra umph on the bottom end for bass.

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