Five Solid-State Amps That Don’t Suck

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:

Roland JC-120

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.

Sunn Beta Lead

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.

Randall Amplifiers

Randall RG-100 Classic

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.

Lab Series Amplifiers

Lab Series L3 1x12 Combo

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.

Quilter Labs Amplifiers

Quilter Tone Block 200

Quilter Labs is a company that is truly at the forefront of modern solid-state guitar amplification. While most of its competitors are focused on digital modeling, Quilter is keeping it real, so to speak, with innovative, analog, Class D solid-state designs. Quilter's specialty is building small, lightweight, highly portable amplifiers with excellent tone and tons of output. The Tone Block 200 (reviewed in Tone Report issue 15) typifies this design concept, with a whopping 200 watts of loud packed into a rugged housing that's about the size of a dual-channel overdrive pedal. It is an absurdly compact amp with simple, useful controls, and it makes an incredible platform for the pedal geek, due to its abundance of clean headroom, flexible contour control, and solid tonal foundation. If any company today can make solid-state amps respectable, it's Quilter Labs.

The non-sucking solid-state amps I've listed here are but a few of the many fine examples in existence, including both obscure vintage models and current production units. The key to understanding and loving these rugged, reliable, and unique tone tools is not to continually compare them to their valve powered brethren, but to evaluate and appreciate them based on their own strengths and merits. These amplifiers deserve respect, and despite decades of disdain, ignorance, and abuse hurled their way, these transistor-souled sonic misfits will have their day.

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