Are Tube Amps Still Relevant?

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The day I was born, Jimi Hendrix played a gig at the Fillmore East with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. This would later be released as a live album called “Band of Gypsys.” He was using a pair of Marshall 1959 Super Lead 100 watt tube amps. This amp might be THE iconic rock amp. Eric Clapton used one, so did Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, and of course, Eddie Van Halen.

Fast forward a few decades, and we come to a world where practically anything anyone can dream of can be put within reach. Right now I could place an order on Amazon and have it on my doorstep before I’m finished writing this blog entry. I’m using a desktop device that houses more computer power than was imaginable even just twenty years ago. People at home are 3-D printing devices that would have previously needed to be manufactured on a factory assembly line. We use a network of 20+ GPS satellites to navigate our road trips.

The world of commercial music has changed immeasurably as well. Electronic music has worked its way into every tiny crevice in pretty much every pop music style there is. We make professionally viable recordings on our laptops at home for a tiny fraction of what it used to cost, and cell phones, computers, and tablets are now the devices we listen to music on, one streamed single at a time. Whatever you want to hear is just a click away.

For those of us guitar junkies, the modern world offers such a wide range of choices, with more technology arriving daily. Custom guitars are everywhere, with whatever options anyone could ever dream up. (For myself, my level of complexity stops at two pickups and a three-way switch). We have access to modeling amplifiers that will dial in the sound of pretty much any classic amp/speaker combination that’s ever existed. You can plug these things into a computer and download presets for more sounds than anyone could ever use. When modeling technology first arrived, I thought it was really crappy. Nowadays, though, the technology has gotten so good that it’s really difficult to tell the difference between the virtual and the real thing. I can’t even begin to talk about the revolution that’s taken place in effects processing. Goodbye pedal boards, hello iPads! Or, if you’re old school like me, you have an amazing variety of pedals available to crush, modulate, loop, expand, boost, fry, poach, or scramble your sound to your heart’s content. A few clicks on the internet, and it’ll be on your front porch in a matter of days.

It’s mind-boggling, really. I wonder if the ability to provide so many different options and the push to satisfy every choice haven’t completely flooded the market. On one hand, a brief glance at any guitar magazine or major music retailer shows that there is so much out there, with more entering the market every day. But on the other, there is evidence that the electric guitar might not be as prevalent in pop music as it once was. There is a recent Washington Post article lamenting the death of the electric guitar. Sales are down by 1/3 over the past decade. Acoustic guitars since 2010 have sold more than electrics, turning the industry upside down. Even in rock music, the era of the guitar god seems to have come and gone. The once mandatory guitar solo in every song is now exceedingly rare.

Yet, in all of this change, there is a constant. In every gear list I see on the guitar magazine websites, in all of the live rock concert YouTube videos I see, and even when I hear live music being played in local clubs – there is the venerable tube amp. Classic technology lives on in a modern world.

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