Tone Tips

Five Solid-State Amps That Don’t Suck

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

3) Randall Amplifiers: Dimebag Darrell of Pantera almost singlehandedly put Randall Amplifiers on the map, using their RG-80, RG-100 and Century 200 solid-state heads to sculpt his singularly punishing signature tone. These early Randalls, fetchingly upholstered in gray marine carpeting, were quite groundbreaking in the early eighties, largely due to the shocking amount of gain they could produce. And unlike many early solid-state amps, this gain had a smooth, musical quality that was complemented by the amp's tight, punchy low end. They also had a pristine clean sound, which, in conjunction with the meaty distortion capabilities, made these amps a big hit with eighties shredder types like George Lynch of Dokken infamy. As further evidence that these pioneering transistor amps were no joke, Don Randall, the founder and namesake of Randall Amplifiers, was previously a high-level manager at Fender, working closely with Leo himself to bring products like the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Twin Reverb, and Bassman to fruition. Apparently Don had always harbored a lingering affection for solid-state designs, and after leaving Fender he went right to work building a better solid-state guitar amp.

4) Lab Series Amplifiers: The Lab Series amps were built by Norlin, which was the parent company of both Gibson and Moog in the mid-to-late 1970's, and were intended to be a very technically advanced, high-end line of solid-state amplifiers. That concept may sound comical now, but the Lab Series amps were packed with features, impeccably built, and designed by none other than that late, great American genius, Bob Moog. Lab Series amps have excellent clean and drive tones, complex equalization and tone filtering controls, and very good onboard compression and reverb. They are known for their powerful output as well, and were some of the first solid-state amps whose power and volume was actually equivalent to a similarly rated tube amp. The Lab Series were used and endorsed by a wide range of players in their heyday, including Allan Holdsworth, Ty Tabor of King's X, and even B.B. King.

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22 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

  20. Gemma Seymour

    There are lots of solid-state amps that don’t suck, but you may have to look in unconventional places, and it may also depend on the sound you want and how you get your sound. For many modern players whose gain sounds come entirely from pedals, any good solid-state amp into a guitar cab will be great.

    My vote for amps not included on this list are:

    1. The Polytone Mini Brute. You simply cannot talk about solid-state guitar amps without referring to this jazz classic.

    2. The Ampeg VH140C. This stereo 2x12 combo appeared in 1990 as an evolution of the earlier SS140C, and boasts 70+70 W into 8 Ohms or 100+100 W into 4 Ohms, which you can get by attaching the matching SS212EC extension cabinet. It has a fantastic clean tone, reverb and detune chorus, plus a mono FX loop and a stereo FX loop, a DI output, and an accessory AC outlet. It was my first amplifier, bought new in 1990, and I still have it, though it is in need of repair. I bought this amp specifically on the strength of its preamp distortion, the best I could find in a solid-state amp at the time, because I didn’t want to deal with a fragile tube amp. The VH140C later went on to become something of a cult favourite with heavy metal guitarists.

    3. The Tech 21 NYC Power Engine 60. Granted, it’s missing a preamp section, but remember what I was saying about pedals? Two of these make a great stereo rig.

  21. Anthony

    You can get some VERY cool tones from solid state amps if you get creative…even if they’re amps that do “suck” under normal circumstances. My favorite distorted tone I’ve ever recorded was a total accident, I was running the preamp out side of the effects loop on my Fender FM100 head into my interface as a simple “silent recording for home demos” deal since I was living in a tiny apartment at the time and didn’t want to annoy my neighbors. Sounded terrible, obviously, since it was literally just the distorted preamp tone with no speaker sound. But for kicks, I took that preamp tone and ran it through some cab models in Amplitube, expecting to just find a decent/somewhat usable tone…and it made that guitar track sound better than it ever did just playing through my regular head/cab. I don’t know what kind of stars aligned to make that happen, but it’s become a tone I use on a lot of stuff.

  22. Tori

    what about some tiny tonemonsters like the Fender Mustang Mini, the Vox AC5 and the Blackstar Fly. Not for gigging unless you count busking but huge variety of tones and no plug needed as they run on batteries unless you want to plug them into ac.