INEXPENSIVE VS EXPENSIVE GUITARS

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INTRO

Hey guys and gals welcome to another addition of GEAR WARS! 

This time I’m going to prove just how wrong...


  

This is certainly a hot topic in the gear community at the moment, which means there are a lot of angles to consider. Sawyer and I agree (for once!) that there are high quality guitars at a variety of price points, and I think many people would also say that’s true. So instead, we’re focusing simply on the overall benefits of buying inexpensive (sub $500) guitars versus saving up for more expensive ones. 


Are inexpensive guitars worth the money you save? Are many expensive options simply overpriced? Sawyer doesn’t think so, but let’s see if we can’t prove him wrong. 

BLADES’ BLATHERINGS

  

It’s widely thought that the quality of inexpensive guitars has improved in the last decade. With so many fantastic guitars being produced in all parts of the world, the unplayable or terrible instruments of the past have been squeezed out of the market. 


The only place such guitars are even slightly viable is in the sub-$100 price point. Whilst such guitars do still exist, it is worth remembering that – with very little research – even a total beginner can discover that such incredibly cheap instruments are more often than not of very low quality. At this price point, I’d have to agree with Sawyer and say that you get what you pay for! 


You can strike gold at such a price point, especially on the used market, and find something that’s great value. These are exceptions though, and whilst it would be unfair to tarnish the reputation of all inexpensive guitars based on this price point, I’m not going to argue that sub-$100 guitars are generally great. Let’s be real here: they’re not. 


That aside, sub-$500 guitars have shaken off many of the complaints levelled at them in the past, and even offer features never thought possible for the money. Fretwork was often a low point on such guitars, but the craftsmanship of those making them has improved with experience, and the norm is now to find not only perfectly playable guitars but a much improved standard of fretwork. Pickups were equally a problem in the past, but with new options specifically developed for the lower price points, these have seen focused improvement. Innovative business approaches, such as that of Thomann’s house brand Harley Benton, allow some incredible high-end appointments. The Fusion model, for example, features stainless steel frets and a Floyd Rose 1000, beating out the specs of some guitars four times the price. 


Brands have also learned over time how to make a great guitar at every price point, now making better decisions that lead to better guitars. Fender, have almost more experience than anyone making inexpensive guitars and make some of the best in the world, helped also by their economies of scale. 


So inexpensive guitars are much better than they used to be, and it would be unfair to simply repeat many criticisms from the past. But in and of themselves, are they worth buying, or are they only for beginners?  


One popular option is buying one to mod or to learn guitar maintenance on. By saving money on the guitar to spend on upgraded parts, it’s possible to make a fully customised guitar with all your favourite specs for less than a factory-made, close-enough model. On top of that, the knowledge you gain is invaluable and remains with you forever, along with the excitement of the experience. Even the tools purchased can last a lifetime. All of this is a lot more enjoyable – especially for those less experienced or doing something more adventurous – than nervously working on a guitar worth $3000. 

 

This is only one reason to buy inexpensive guitars though. They’re also great at what guitars are meant for: making music and being creative!


One benefit in particular is they enable players of all budgets to explore more options and learn more about the guitar, the music they play, and their developing tastes. It’s now possible for more people to experiment with a greater variation in pickups, switching options, neck carves, body shapes, fret size, bridge types and even use an array of tunings with ease thanks to inexpensive guitars. 


This is often related to beginners, but it’s an advantage at all levels. Let’s say you’re a gigging musician with two very nice American Strats. You’ve always loved Strats, and that’s your sound. Over time, you want to try humbuckers, but you’re not sure if they’ll fit with your live rig. You can get an Epiphone Les Paul to try out, knowing it will be a great guitar if you love it; you can rest assured that many pros use Epiphones these days, so you won’t ever need to upgrade to another guitar, say a Gibson. The option is just always there if you want, along with modding the Epiphone. This avoids buying an expensive guitar without knowing if you really have a place for it, and it’s small money for valuable experience and experimentation. It’s the best of both worlds, whether you decide you like humbuckers or hate them. 


You may also want a totally different guitar as a tool. Perhaps you mainly play a Les Paul, but need single coils, P90s, baritones, active pickups or other options when in the studio. It is now viable to cover any such need for around $500 with a high-quality instrument. 


Inexpensive guitars offer solutions and inspiration for the entire community, encouraging curiosity, creativity and discovery. And in the end, that’s the whole point of good gear.  

SAWYERS SMATTERINGS

BLADES’ REBUTTALS

SAWYERS REBUTTALS

IN CLOSING

The Tonewood War

Opening Statements

Welcome to another edition of Gear Wars. First of all, Matt and I would like to sincerely thank the Know Your Gear community for your overwhelming support. The first Gear Wars article recieved a record breaking amount of views and tons of votes. Thank You!


In this sophomore edition of Gear Wars, Blades and I go head to head over one the most hotly debated topics in the guitar community. Tonewoods. For the purpose of the article, Matt and I are only considering the electric guitar. Matt and I do not disagree that tonewood has a more substantial effect on the acoustic guitar. However, Blades actually believes the type of wood an electric guitar is made of, does make a significant difference in how it sounds. I’m going to prove him wrong.


Wow, Sawyer, this one already? The most polarizing debate in the guitar world and we’re only on the second Gear Wars! Let me just say this to start: in my research I’ve found lots of convincing arguments from very well informed people on both sides. I assure you that any harsh words or insults here are purely personal and directed only at Sawyer. If we can, let’s try to keep this one more rational than we, as a community, have managed in the past. We can try anyway.

Blades’ Blatherings

Instrument builders select wood based on many considerations: look (figured maple), resistance to wear (ebony), cost, ease to work with and so on. For acoustic stringed instruments, there is no doubt that tone is also a major consideration. This is more contentious for electric guitars, however. Some even suggest that tonewoods are just a marketing concept that falsely connects favourable woods to better tone to allow increased prices. Yet many guitarists claim there is an obvious difference in sound when using different species of wood.   


The common arguments that wood affects electric guitar tone are fairly straightforward. Although every tree and every cut will produce slightly different wood, there are general characteristics that can be measured and attributed to a wood species. These characteristics alter the way that the wood – and so guitar – responds to sound. As the guitar’s pickups sense these vibrations, the final sound coming through the speaker alters due to the type of wood. For example, alder is softer and less stiff than hard ash and so resonates differently, many attributing more pronounced low-mids to alder, with ash having the more cutting, bright highs. 


The majority of guitar builders, from the biggest brands to one-man operations, seem to be pretty much in consensus about this. Pickups, nuts, bridges and more are matched to the woods’ tonal properties; woods are matched to each other for fretboards, necks, bodies and tops to attain the desired tone; and alternative woods and combinations are tested to explore possibilities and expand tonal options. Beyond wood, builders experiment with composite fretboard materials and non-wood body materials like carbon fibre alongside bridge and nut materials to explore their distinct tonal properties. All of this would be an incredible waste of time and effort if there was really no correlation between body/neck material and tone. The experts spend a huge amount of time taking tonewood into account to make the best sounding guitars possible. 


Tonewood sceptics do raise a good point though – these might be the experts, but they’re not impartial. Of course people selling guitars want to claim their materials are superior in every way possible! Arguably, some of the woods originally chosen by guitar pioneers in the early days of the electric guitar were favourable because of cost and availability, not because of tone, so this argument could be seen as particularly damning in the past. 


It seems less so now, however. Some of the most sought-after tonewood is the hardest to get and the most restricted, such as Brazilian Rosewood. There are now woods suitable for guitar making that are cheaper and in greater abundance, yet guitar makers still gravitate to the same species again and again, sometimes at cost to themselves. Since also becoming restricted by CITES, Indian Rosewood has been dropped by some manufacturers but held on to steadfastly by others, despite the issues this creates. Even if manufacturers ended up drinking a little too much of their own Kool-Aid and believing their own marketing spiel, why would they continue the charade now, when it’s more problematic than beneficial? 


This seems especially odd when there are some very obvious middle-ground solutions, such as basswood. This is still considered to be a decent tonewood, and is very abundant and relatively cheap. Yet it is still relegated to mostly mid- and low-priced guitars. Then there are the environmental issues concerning wood in all forms, suggesting that composite materials and other substitutes might be the way of the future. If wood doesn’t affect tone, it would be in big business’ interest to fire up that marketing machine again and steadily convince us of that fact. Then they could turn around and sell us a basswood and composite-fretboard Les Paul without a discount for a bigger profit. They could argue the price wasn’t reduced because the product was just as good as before, seeing as wood doesn’t affect tone. 


This would also lay a more solid foundation for a future in which the procurement of traditional tonewoods looks uncertain. Then there’s the fact that small and experimental builders have far less incentive to keep using these materials by the sceptics’ arguments, and yet they still do use them alongside less common materials. The fact that guitar builders, big and small, still stick to their guns on tonewood doesn’t prove that they are correct, but it does weaken the idea that this is just a marketing hoax.


This could all be a self-fulfilling prophecy on a grand scale, but this also seems unlikely given the eerie consistency that wood properties match up with tonal ones. People who know absolutely nothing about how dense, hard, porous or oily different woods are report tonal qualities that follow these properties. Many feel Macassar Ebony provides snappy highs comparable to maple without knowing anything about their denseness, while the Ebony also provides a little fuller tone more similar to Rosewood, with which it shares other properties that maple lacks.

 

I can’t prove that the tonewood phenomenon isn’t a marketing hoax or that it isn’t a large-scale self-fulfilling prophecy in which people are pre-programmed to hear what they believe. But I don’t think this is about proving or disproving; it’s about finding the best explanation. There is a principle that the best explanation is the one that has to invent the fewest extra factors and is therefore the simplest one. Arguing that this is a hoax or a massive misconception seems less convincing as it requires positing a whole bunch of extra factors – guitar builders matching tonal qualities to their knowledge of wood species, these ideas being spread through artists and marketing, experts all over the world falling prey to the same information, and so on. Given the view of the majority of guitar builders, the difficulties now caused by tonewoods, and the links between tonal qualities and wood properties, the best explanation - at least for now - is that wood does affect tone. 

Sawyers Smatterings

The question posed to Blades and I is whether or not the type of wood a guitar is made of affects the way it sounds. Well of course it does! The real questions we should be asking are, how much the type of wood affects its tone, does one variety sound better than another, and finally, does it matter?


Let’s tackle the first question. How much is a guitars‘ tone affected by the wood it’s made of? I concede that two of the same guitars made of different woods will sound somewhat different in a side by side comparison. However, if you play the same two guitars in a mix, or with a live band, the difference is imperceptible. 


To illustrate this point, I recently recorded a demo of the Sixty 8 Deluxe by Lawrence Petross using a Danelectro 66. After I revealed that I had used the Danelectro, Mr Petross commented that he was surprised because he thought it sounded like I’d used my Gibson Les Paul. 


Interestingly enough, this illustration also helps answer the second question as well. Does one variety of wood sound better than another? The answer is simple. It’s all subjective. What sounds good to your ear may not sound good to mine. The fact that the Gibson Les Paul is made of mahogany and maple obviously doesn’t make it sound better than the Danelectro 66. The 66 is made of masonite, which is essentially wood chips and glue! Therefore my Danelectro is made out of a ping pong table! Yet, it sounds fantastic, and in a mix, was even mistaken for a Gibson.


Ultimately, does the type of wood a guitar is made from really matter? No, I don’t believe it does. There are too many other variables involved. The first and often overlooked fact is that even guitars made of the same kind of wood can sound different  from one another. Have you ever played three Gibson Les Pauls and noticed they each play and sound a little different?


What about the pickups, or strings? Don’t they alter the tone of a guitar? And let’s not forget the most important variable of them all. The human factor. 


It is my contention that the hands of the guitarist can have the most impact on the way a guitar sounds. 


The fact is not all famous artists only use high-end guitars. For example, Jimmy Page-Danelectro, Jack White-Montgomer/Ward, and David Aurbuck-Harmony, and the list goes on.


I believe I’ve only scratched the surface of this argument. Much of the information I wished to share has been omitted for the sake  of brevity. The bottom line is that seeking out guitars with specific woods is just another search for that perfect tone. Perhaps more time practicing and less time googling will yield the tones we all desire. 




Blades’ Rebuttal

Sawyer rightly mentions that tone is linked to perception and our subjective preferences. However, this does as much to argue for the existence of tonewoods as against them.

 

A lot of us are aware of experiments that have been conducted on tonewoods. Without going into too much detail, these are experiments in which people have taken guitars that are exactly the same apart from their woods and run the signal through various devices that measure the sound in some quantifiable way, such as frequency. The findings seem to be clear: wood doesn’t significantly affect sound.


With how messy and vicious this debate can get, I really wish that was the end of it. Having an objective truth would be nice. Unfortunately, results don’t always equal irrefutable proof and science is rarely so simple.


As Sawyer suggests, tone isn’t exactly the same thing as sound. Whilst sound is something that can be measured using devices, tone is a vague concept, a slippery, immeasurable human invention. It may not even be a property of sound – it may be just a perceptual construct. Without falling head first into something pulled straight out of a bad Matrix sequel, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or matter, it just doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be obvious in the numbers that those devices produce. 


What does all of this pop-philosophical rambling have to do with how good your Les Paul sounds? Let’s take a little detour away from guitars for a second to put this in a slightly wider context. When developing the technology that would go on to be mp3 compression, the team of audio engineers and scientists wanted to make the size of music files smaller by removing data, but without compromising any of the audio quality.

 

How would this be possible? The team had to learn everything they could about human perception. They learnt which sounds or combinations of sounds would tend to be lost or skipped over in the human auditory system, and in that way found which pieces of audio data they could remove without a trace, becoming experts in this with the help of ‘golden ears’. 


But today, the mp3 is not a lossless format alongside FLAC, and is regarded as being lower quality, with many able to hear the difference. So what happened? The entire story of audio compression is a cautionary tale on the unpredictable weirdness of the human ear. The biggest problem for the scientists was that hearing varies and changes so much that it is difficult to predict and design for it in a flawless way. It is fairly simple to measure sound with machines, but not necessarily how we hear. 


The lesson should be applied in the case of tonewood, where millions of people claim to hear something that machines can’t. This in no way shows that tonewood can never be disproven through scientific method – it very well might be in the future. It just shows that the current reasoning that wood doesn’t significantly affect tone might be flawed or unconvincing. By talking about perception and subjectivity we’re moving away from the measurable and easily provable. So the cleanest explanation still remains the same: people hear differences because wood changes the tone. 


There’s still a problem for tonewood enthusiasts though. If wood isn’t affecting tone to an extent that’s clear through these machines, how could it affect tone at all? Even if we accept that tone isn’t exactly a character of sound measured in frequencies, surely something has to change for us to hear a significant difference. Otherwise Sawyer is right and it really is all in our heads. 


Well, again, Sawyer has unwittingly come to the rescue of tonewood, this time by mentioning the definite affect that the player and their playing has on tone. 


Tonewood deniers agree that different wood means different vibrations. This might still be the reason that we hear different tonal qualities, even without sound measurably changing. This is related to an equally airy piece of guitar vocabulary – ‘feel’. Talking about feel goes beyond polished frets and neck finish, becoming mixed in with tone. We could argue about what actually goes from the pickups, through the electronics and eventually out of a speaker, but the sensation of hitting notes, resonance, responsiveness, sustain, feeling notes under the fingertips – all of these are inherently related to the slab of wood sitting against your body. 


Both feel and tone are most likely a complex intermingling of the feeling through your hands and torso and what is picked up by your ears, something that cannot be pulled apart and sent into spreadsheets by studying wave forms. Add to this the fact that the player and the way he/she plays will affect tone, and that the feel of a guitar alters the way you play, and it is clear to see how different wood can alter both feel and tone. Feel might alter tone the same way studies show food colour and presentation affect our sense of taste. Even if mahogany and alder don’t produce different soundwaves with all other variables being equal, they will still feel different, so we'll hear a difference. Furthermore, the way they react against the body will alter how a person plays, and therefore produce a different feel and, ultimately, different tone. This might be a slightly different understanding of tonewood, but it is still wood species altering tone.

 

Conversations about perception are complex and rarely offer quick, straightforward conclusions. With Sawyer admitting that this is such a subjective discussion, the best course is to accept the subjective evidence of the senses, which means wood does, at least for many, clearly affect tone. The difference between those who hear it and those who don’t may simply be the uniqueness of each individual’s hearing. There is no better or worse here, just different. 

Sawyers Rebuttal

A hoax?! Come on Blades. The guitar industry is not perpetrating a hoax on their customers. Guitar manufacturing is a business first and foremost. Why does anyone go into business? To make money! 


Here’s the bottom line. The use of figured, and exotic woods is for the presentation of the guitar, not the sound. Does a 5A maple top sound any better than paint-grade maple? No, of course not. Much of the time wood is used to enhance the beauty of a guitar, not the tone. If it were all about the tone, then why use stains or translucent paint? 


I believe wood type is one of the last reasons a guitarist chooses a guitar. The brand, pickups, and mostly importantly the looks determine the purchase. We obviously care deeply about how our guitars look. How often do you show your new guitar to your family and friends versus play it for them?


This brings up an interesting fact. The only people who care about Tonewood are guitarists. The vast majority of music listeners don’t care, as long as it sounds good. In fact I’ve polled several of my family and friends. Not one of them have given even one thought to what kind of wood a guitar is made of. Most didn’t even know there was more than one variety to choose from.


Let’s take this one step further. I do not believe even the most discerning ear could determine what woods a guitar is made of upon hearing it in a mix. 


In fact, if you blindfolded amy guitarist, played five different guitars for them, then asked them to name all of the woods used to make each guitar, how many do you think they could identify? I’m betting none of them.


We buy with our eyes first. This has never been truer than it is today. The fact is most guitarists are now purchasing guitars online. Through this process you can see the guitar, but you can’t hear it. 


Here’s my final argument. The pickups of a guitar make up 90% of its tone. The other 10% consists of everything else, such as the bridge, nut, strings, and yes, the wood. Therefore, the wood makes up less than 10% of a guitars tone. 


I’ve been helping Phil answer emails for awhile now. I do not recall even one question about tonewood. However, we recieve tons of inquiries about pickups, because everyone knows that it is the pickups, and of course the guitarist, that most dramatically affects the tone of a guitar.



Closing Statements

  

I’m glad we kept this one (mostly) civil, Sawyer, but I have to say that it feels a little like a stalemate. I can see why this debate gets so stuck in the mud sometimes. That's not to say I agree with you though!


I’ve not proven there is no hoax or false perception. Studies in group psychology and cognitive science more than allow for that possibility. That said, taking the approach of finding the smoothest explanation, and considering everything laid out here, currently the best explanation seems to be that wood affects tone. This rules out nothing. One day, scientific evidence may once and for all put the idea of tonewood to bed. But this hasn’t happened yet, nor has it given a fully convincing alternative explanation of the tonewood phenomenon.


Yes Blades I agree this was a difficult battle. I‘m not sure a definitive conclusion can be made. If anything, Blades and I discovered there is more gray than black and white when it comes to Tonewood.


We write these articles for you, the Know Your Gear community. Now we’d like to know what you think. Who won? What side of the Tonewood War do you stand on? Please take a moment to fill out the form below and let us know your thoughts and opinions. 


As always, thank you for your time, and know your gear.


Contributed by: Matt Blades and M. Sawyer

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Amp wars: Tube vs solid state/Digital

Sawyers Introduction

Hey guys and gals, you all know me. I’m the guy who writes all of the History Of Gear articles. This week we are indroducing a new series of articles called, Gear Wars. Here’s the story of how I got the idea for this new series.


 A couple of months ago this cheeky fellow from England emailed us about writing an article for the website. I tried reading a couple of his articles. After I woke up I thought, The parts I was awake for weren’t that bad, I guess. So I gave him a call. That’s when things started heating up. We didn’t agree on anything! I said black, he said white. That’s when it hit me, we should do a series of articles where we debate our different view points. Then, give the Know Your Gear Community the opportunity to choose a winner. Of course, you will all side with me, and Mr Matt Blades will know once and for all, that I‘m right, and he‘s wrong. Sorry Matt.


In this first Gear War, we debate the values of tube vs solid state amps. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Who The Heck Is Blades?

Hey everyone! I guess it’s only polite for me to introduce myself before I totally embarrass M. Sawyer here. I'm a writer from the UK (the true home of rock). I’ve been a fan and subscriber to Phil’s channel for a long time now and was really excited to hear that there were articles appearing on the website. Imagine my disappointment when I found the ‘History of Gear’ series. I mean, the guy’s read a lot of Wikipedia I guess, but still. Don’t get me wrong – having played guitar since I was eight years old and being a complete gear nerd, there’s nothing I love more than learning about guitars, amps, and anything tone related. But something needed to be done. 


To keep a long story short, I got in touch with M. Sawyer and I’m afraid to say it’s even worse than I thought. I’ve heard that across the pond they don’t always develop their hearing the same as ours, something to do with hormones in the burgers they eat. Maybe that explains it. Either way, I love the channel and the community that Phil has built over the last few years, and I’m sorry that my way of introducing myself is to brutally take apart one man’s rambling. But he literally called me and asked for it!

Sawyers Smatterings

First of all, the tittle of this section IS NOT supposed to be “Sawyers Smatterings!” Who gave Blades access to the website?! I know it was you!


Anyway, on to the topic at hand.


The transistor was introduced to the world in 1947. It was revolutionary. Every product that used tubes such as TVs and radios, eventually  switched to transistors. The purchasing public accepted these changes in all of their products except for one, guitar amps. 


The first solid state amp was introduced in 1962. As the years passed, several companies hoped to cash in on the solid state market. The problem is, no one bought them! Why not?


The answer is simple. They sucked! 

Take that Blades!


In the late nineties the most hideous creation known to man was introduced to the gear world. It was the digital amp modeler. 


So Blades, you really like those things?! Maybe there’s something wrong your hearing. You should get that checked out.


Here’s the bottom line. Tube amplifiers are warmer, smoother, and more responsive than the junk Blades likes. Tube amps feel better to play through. They respond to the dynamics in your picking. Even techniques such as pinch harmonics and finger tapping sound so much better through a tube amp.


A guitarist who has never played through a tube amp before, will immediately notice a boost in their abilities. This is due to the wonderful reactive nature of tube amps.


I’m certain that one of my oppositions‘ arguments will be that amp modelers offer several different amp choices to the player. However, that makes absolutely no sense! I mean, what would you rather have? 35 modeled, thin, tinty amps that sound like absolute garbage? Or, one amp, with soft glowing tubes emanating sounds that roar, and bring your playing to life? 

I’ll take the tube amp any day, everyday.


Finally, tube amps are like a fine wine. Amp modelers on the other hand, are more like a stale bottle of Guinness beer that’s been out in the hot sun for days. Yuck!


All right Blades, let’s see what you’ve got.

Blades’ Blatherings

I didn’t name these sections! Alliteration is really more of a grade school technique…


Whether talking about transistors or more recent digital technologies, there are a couple of tube amp problems they have already solved. Tube amps are renowned for being unreliable and require servicing and the replacing of parts. For a beginner this is a nightmare, for those gigging a potential embarrassment, and for genuine pros a liability. You don’t just have to know your gear, you have to trust it too. 


It’s worth mentioning versatility and convenience. Digital technology can offer almost every sound imaginable in something a quarter of the size and weight of a tube amp. Again, players of all levels can benefit from this: the beginner can find their sound; cover bands and those at jam nights can manage every style without breaking a sweat; and professionals can go through their entire back catalogue with ease. The idea that tubes are for pros and digital for beginners looks more and more like a marketing concept rather than a truth about tone. So M. Sawyer might be wrong? Well, at least he’s consistent. 


Now that those points are out of the way, let’s move onto the most important issue: sound. Sawyer isn’t alone on this – even some people with good taste think the tube amp delivers better sound every time. But I disagree. Other pro audio and music communities obsess about sound quality at least as much as guitarists. So seeing as they have almost entirely abandoned tube technology, the alternatives must be able to compete at the highest professional levels. And professional guitarists are starting to follow suit on this.


Seeing as M. Sawyer refuses to leave the past, I guess I should talk about the present and future. Even at an early stage, new digital technology is already starting to squeeze tube amps out at the highest level. Almost every Rig Rundown these days has someone using Axe FX or similar. These are some of the best musicians in the world, and tone is absolutely prioritized over convenience and cost. Those factors still apply, but these guys are endorsed by the biggest brands and have teams of people to handle their equipment. If they got the best results from tube amps they would use them, but they don’t. So many of the world’s best artists are using digital amp technology that it’s almost boring! Kind of like how it’s almost boring beating Sawyer in these arguments again and again.


What we might be starting to see is a strange reversal of the amp world. The best digital technology is very expensive, whereas there are plentiful tube amps in the mid-to-high price range that smaller gigging musicians can afford. So if I go and watch a friend perform live covers of A Perfect Circle using his Marshall, I am actually watching someone trying to emulate digital technology (Axe FX) using a cheaper tube amp. Explain that one Sawyer!


If you consider how different digital and tube technologies are at their core, their different future trajectories become even clearer. Tubes are a relatively unchanging and old technology, whereas digital is evolving so quickly it is impossible to keep up. This means that the best possible tube amp in the world has probably already been made, but the best digital amp hasn’t even been conceived.


Their development will follow the likes of mobile phones and home computers, and what these technologies can achieve ten years from now may be unimaginable. Beating the tube amp will just be a step along the way. They might be so much better that even Sawyer will hear the difference, but maybe I’m in the world of fantasy now.  

Sawyers Rebuttal

Hey Blades, you made some good arguments. Gee, I think I’m going to switch to modelers. NOT!!! I used to play through modelers exclusively. One day I had the opportunity to play through a real amp. You know, a tube amp. It was an epiphanal moment for me. The clouds were lifted and heavenly hosts began singing. Trumpets of celebration were blaring. It was an awakening. 


So, I bought my first tube amp, a used Marshall JVM 205H. That was three years ago. Guess what? I’ve done no maintenance to it whatsoever. The dribble Blades said about tube amps breaking down all the time, is a myth. Yes, from time to time, you have to replace the tubes. However, with a little maintenance every once in a great while, your amp will last you, not only your lifetime, but it will still be there for your children, and their children to enjoy. 


Let me ask you a question Blades. When you’re mobile phone stops working, do you get it repaired and continue making calls? No! You pitch it and buy a new one. Your beloved digital modelers are nothing more than overpriced cell phones. When they suddenly stop working, and they will stop working, you’ll have to pitch it and shell out another $2000 to $3000 for yet another lifeless monstrosity, that will also, eventually break. I thought you British folks were supposed to be smarter than us. I guess that’s a myth too.


Now I will acquiesce to Blades on a couple of his points. Yes, digital amps are lighter and easier to use for touring, or jamming with friends. Yes, artists such as Metallica now tour with digital modelers. However, here’s the most important point that Blades failed to mention. When in the studio, all of those same artists go back to using tube amps to record with. Now why is that Blades? Because the sound and playability a of tube anp is far superior. When playing live who cares how it sounds. At those loud decibels your ears can no longer differentiate between what sounds good, and what sounds bad. Gee Blades, I bet you could have looked that up on Wikipedia! Which for the record I do not use as a source for my articles thank you very much! 


Going to a rock concert isn’t like going to the symphony. No one cares about the quality of sound at a rock concert! Your there to have a few drinks, and have some fun. If you want good tone, you buy the album. Where they used real tube amps!


Blades also mentions that other pro audio communities have happily accepted digital junk. Well surprise surprise, he’s wrong once again. Perhaps if you’d read my articles as you purported, you would have discovered that there has recently been a huge resurgence in tube preamps within the audiophile community. They are selling like hot cakes. Why? Because once again, they sound better!


Lets deliver the final blow. A tube amp vs a digital modeler, is like an electric car vs a Ford Mustang GT. The electric car, like the digital modeler, is lifeless. It has no soul. It’s just a tool. Like a wrench. However, the Mustang has soul. It’s powerful, responsive, and the roar of its engine pounds in your chest. Driving the Mustang is thrilling, and makes you feel alive. Tube amps breathe that same power and life into the hands of the guitarist. 


Face it Blades, you lost!!!

Blades’ Rebuttal

Fair enough Sawyer, I’ll agree that the way tube amps respond to dynamics in guitar playing is fantastic, but there’s still something skewed here. Again, I think some of these points are about market perception rather than actual tone. Solid state and digital were first developed to be low cost alternatives to tube amps, and at times it seemed brands were racing to make the cheapest amp possible, not the best. I think we should discount the less-than-impressive history of solid state amps, as it’s only very recently that companies have focused real time and money on making the best amps possible with these technologies. But I guess if you’re stuck listing dates from the past you might struggle to see that, huh Sawyer?

 

Following that, transistors may have been around longer, but relatively speaking a lot of digital amp technologies are still in their infancy, and it’s these technologies – not transistors – that are delivering the best results.


And even if we don’t want to discount non-tube history, Sawyer has still generalised a little too far. It hasn’t been all bad for these amps. When Peavey released the Bandit at NAMM in 1995, industry professionals of all kinds failed to tell the Bandit apart from a tube amp in a blind test. So even older transistor amps can fool the best of the best when they’re made to a high standard, with proper R&D and higher grade components. 


But maybe I’ve been listening to Sawyer too long, because I’m starting to fall into his way of thinking. He’s framing this argument like so many do, making tube amp sound the standard for good sound and equating the two. In this way, you’re already declaring tube amps the winner. At least for the present – in ten years, I bet no one will be able to tell the difference between tube and non-tube. But beyond that, we need to reframe this whole issue. It is about what sounds good, not what sounds similar to what.

 

Currently good tone means ‘sounds like a tube amp’, but the power of digital may be to open up new sonic possibilities and completely rewire our whole concept of good tone, and ‘like a tube amp’ will only be one part of that. When you buy an ESP Eclipse with EMGs you don’t complain that it doesn’t sound like a Les Paul. It’s a totally different approach to tone that reforms the entire definition of what ‘good tone’ even means. Although another reliable definition of ‘good tone’ might be ‘whatever Sawyer says is bad’. 

In Closing

Well Blades, it’s been a real joy kicking your butt. I just wish it weren’t so easy!


Trying to get the last word in without me noticing, Sawyer? Typical! I'm not sure what article you were reading to come to that conclusion. How about we let the good people of the Know Your Gear community decide the winner?


Hey Blades, for once you have a great idea. Below is a contact form available so you can share your opinions on this, our first Gear War. You can also choose a winner in the “Who won?” Section. 


So who will it be? Sawyer, or Blades? The winner will be announced next Friday on the home page.


As always, thank you for your time, and know your gear.


Contributed by: M. Sawyer and Matt Blades

Gear Wars

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