Tone Tips

Five Solid-State Amps That Don’t Suck

  • By Jamie Wolfert @tonereport
  • June 05, 2014
  • 19 Comments

Solid-state amplifiers have suffered more than their fair share of disrespect. These Rodney Dangerfields of the amp world are much maligned, roundly ridiculed, and generally regarded as children's toys or cheap practice implements by the guitar playing community at large. This, despite the fact that solid-state amps have played integral roles in many classic records, and have been the main amp of more than a few highly regarded players. The problem, I suspect, is that the inherent cheapness and reliability of transistor technology makes it a natural choice for manufacturers of cheap beginner or practice amps, and most players, not having had an opportunity to play through some of the high quality, well-designed, solid-state models, only associate the technology with its worst examples. Also, the earliest transistor-based amps were indeed rather awful (at least, any time distortion was introduced) and that first impression seems to have been a lasting one. Over the past 30 years, however, and especially in the last decade, solid-state designs have improved immeasurably. In order to refute the undeserved bad reputation transistor technology has been saddled with, I have compiled a short list of some of the solid-state amp world's finest examples. To be clear, I have left digital modeling amplifiers off of this list, as the tone of a modeling amp is generated mostly from the software, rather than from the amplifier itself. This list is all analog, son. Check it:

1) Roland JC-120: The Roland Jazz Chorus is probably the only bona fide classic of the solid-state world, used on stage and in the studio by Andy Summers, Hetfield and Hammett, Robert Smith, Robert Fripp, and many others. This stereo 2x12 combo houses two separate 60-watt amplifiers, a gorgeous on-board reverb, and a hypnotically lush stereo chorus/vibrato. It has a built-in distortion circuit as well, but any JC-120 user can testify to this amplifier's "appalling" (to quote Fripp) performance with any kind of fuzz or distortion. The Roland Jazz Chorus's strength is its lovely, loud clean tone and utterly mesmerizing stereo chorus, which remains unmatched by any existing pedal or rack unit. These features made the amp a hit with jazz players, such as Pat Metheny, as well as many 80's new wave bands, whose adoption of the JC-120 contributed much to its commercial success and lasting popularity as the guitarist's ultimate clean machine.



2) Sunn Beta Lead: The Sunn Beta Lead is a dual-channel, 100-watt, solid-state doomsday device. The polar opposite of the JC-120, the Beta Lead is prized for its bludgeoning, aggressive distorted tones. It was long regarded with disdain, mostly by mainstream tone snobs familiar with Sunn's earlier tube designs, but its reliability, affordability, and bone-rattling output made it a hit with punk and metal players operating on the fringe of the underground. The most important early Beta Lead user was undoubtedly Buzz Osborne of The Melvins, whose flagrant abuse of the amp inspired Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Adam Jones of Tool, the bands Sunn O))) and Red Fang, and innumerable other modern doom and sludge guitarists to plug into this compact, unassuming head. As you might expect, Beta Lead prices on the used market have risen steadily along with its popularity.

 

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19 Comments

  1. Mick

    Great, how about 5 amps that don’t suck I can find and /or afford

  2. Shelby

    I’ll give you one: Marshall 5210 Combo.  50 watt solid state cousin of the 4210 jcm800 combo.  Made from 1980-1990.  Excellent Marshall tone.  Unique aspect?  Without the channel switch plugged in both channels run at once as their is no switch on the amp itself.  Talk about unique tones.

  3. Shelby

    Oh yeah and they can be found here and there for $100 to $200.  If Marshall burned the MG series down and reintroduced these they would destroy any hope of selling tube amps to suckers.

  4. Jamie

    Mick, Mick, Mick….every amp on this list can be had for no more than a few hundred bucks, at most, and they are all commonly found on ebay and in pawnshops throughout this great land.

  5. Richard Guido

    I used to have a Crate combo purchased in the early 80’s. It was a two channel with reverb and an extention cab jack. That thing rocked and could push a 4×12 cab and handle an MXR D+

    Though a low watt amp is had a Lucio us overdrive channel

  6. BlasphemyMadeFlesh

    Here are some more:

    Ampeg VH140c = the queen of high gain solid state amps, improved version of JC120
    Marshall Valvestate (original series, although it DOES use a 12AX7 tube for a pre…)
    Peavey XXL = besides the grey-carpet Randall RGs, the XXL is the warmest and smoothest sounding solid state amp I have ever played

    I love solid state amps for metal distortion and metal cleans but prefer tubes for blues or classic rock, all the way

  7. brett adams

    lots of solid state amps don’t suck. yamaha g100 series combos, jmf spectra, pearce, randall commander series, polytone, acoustic control corp, traynor ts series, gallien-krueger, etc. it really depends on the player and what he/she is going for. the guitarist i play with can play a solid state one day and an all tube preamp/power amp combo the next day and still get good tones with either.  personally, i prefer solid state power amps (randall rrrm 2-80, stewart pa200, carvin dcm 200, or ada microfet) and dither when it comes to solid state or tube preamps.

  8. JD BRADSHAW

    I own a Quilter Mach 2 amplifier head that is paired with a 4 x 12 cabinet….This thing roars and has many tonal options to choose from….I love it!

  9. Bafflegab

    I am not a fan of commercially available solid state guitar amps for anything but country or jazz (don’t play metal, don’t like it for the most part) BUT I will say that in conjunction with a good tube preamp, or even a Fender Champ used as a pre (just wire up a dummy load and a dividing network across that) the Altec solid state drive in amps (they would run off DC and charge the standby batteries: you see them in old buildings for fire alarm use) with Peerless (real Peerless, not Lefoofoo) transformers can give a nice surprisngly tubey sound.

  10. Arvie Arce

    I had A Sunn beta lead in highschool. It totally rocked. Has real raw distortion like early Sabbath.

  11. Gwugluud Barcher

    Arvie A could have been describing my B-52 LG-100 head just as well, and I do remember plugging into some kind of Sunn SS amp in 1980 and that it had incredibly hard, great-sounding distortion. I have a Vox AC30 and great tube amps, but my SS Fender Frontman 212 (which looks EXACTLY like a Twin Reverb) is good even for getting roots rock and mid-60s garage rock sounds as well as effortlessly-to-dial-in heavy, end-of-the-world distortion which seems characteristic of most later-made SS amps. I LIKE the stock speakers in the Frontman.

  12. Michael

    My pick: Gallien-Krueger 250 ML Series amp. Best solid-state amp EVER.

  13. Dave

    No mention of any of Peavey’s contributions during the 80’s to the solid state amp world.  There are still quite a few of them available today.  The only problem now is that due to their resurgence in popularity, people who own them either aren’t letting go of them or are asking ridiculous prices for them. 

    One example is the Peavey Bandit 65.  These were built back in the 80’s with a 1x12 Scorpion speaker/combo configuration with 65 watts of output power.  They screamed.  They were excellent as a practice amp or you could use them in a small club venue or mic them with a PA system.  For a while I was seeing them on the Internet for under $150 bucks but lately due to their popularity, people are asking for $200.00 or more for these which isn’t worth it.  You can go buy a new Fender solid state amp that does just as well for the same money.

    The other Peavey that I really loved was my Classic Chorus 2x12.  It was 120 watt combo with built in chorus and reverb and 2x 12 speakers.  I had one of these until the mid 90’s when I sold it just because it was way too loud to use as a practice amp in my little apartment and I had no place to store it.  Now I’m kicking myself because I’ve never been able to replicate the lushness of the built in chorus on these amps with any of the chorus pedals available out there.  But as with the Bandit 65, the increase in popularity on these amps is artificially pushing the price back up on the Internet. If you can find one of these in the sub $200.00 range I’d say you are doing well if it’s in good shape.

  14. Guitar Sound Guru

    I agree with your top choices of amps. Got new ideas. I love this blog! http://guitarsoundguru.com/

  15. Eddie

    I’ve had a Fender Frontman 100R for about ten years now, and that thing screams! The clean channel is pristine, but the gain is awful. Good thing it takes to pedals well. I run an MXR Distortion III and an MXR Micro Amp for solo boosts through it and it just growls. The reverb on it is ok. It came stock with the short tank. I keep hearing about people modding it with the longer tank and that it really makes a difference. I may finally get around to that this year as it’s only like a $35 mod. This amp gets a bad rap on YouTube and guitar forums, but I think it’s badass, not to mention reliable.

    I will always kick myself for pawning my solid state Laney 1x12 80w amp I had in college in the 90s. That thing was loud af and had a really sweet OD channel.

  16. Tombob

    I’m surprised not to see something from Peavey on here. Like maybe the Nashville 400. I’ve always been fond of tube amps but I have seen quite a few guitarists get great tones through Peavey Nashville, Reno, Session and other of their higher end SS amps. Jazz and steel players love these amps and for good reason, they sound great for both. I tend to think of SS amps as light weight in general but that’s not the case with these amps though, I’ve helped load a few and the old Twin Reverb I used to lug around didn’t have nothing them weight-wise…

  17. Jordan

    I have a Marshall Lead 20 from 1986, it’s got awesome tone. I like the typical Marshall clean tone it produces and when you need distortion, this thing is just heaven for a 20 watt solid state amp, this thing just sings AC/DC and modern rock similar to the JCM 800. Check out my demo on YouTube here https://youtu.be/Sbwn47KFnQk

  18. james Sauer

    Traynor anyone? T series solid state are great amps.

  19. David Sullivan

    Orange CR-120