Solid-State Sweethearts: 5 Perfect Pedal Platforms

Excepting a minority of wacky contrarians, everybody loves tube amps. What's not to love, right? The sound of saturated power tubes has proven very tough to top over the years. Hot valves set an early standard for what we sonically expect from an electric guitar, and the characteristic feel and touch-sensitive dynamics of tube amplifiers have provided an equally crucial and distinct component of the guitar playing experience since the beginning. The first tube guitar amps hit the scene in the ‘30s, and here we are some 80 years later still obsessing over them, so something about these antiquated electronic beasts must be intrinsically appealing to our ears and hands.

For all its wonderful qualities, however, a tube amp isn't always the best tool for every job. Tube amps can be heavy, expensive, and high-maintenance, and they often don't sound their best unless they're operating at near full-tilt, which can result in conflicts with bandmates, audio professionals, neighbors, audiences, and local law enforcement. And these days, many guitarists get the bulk of their sounds (especially dirty sounds) from their stompboxes, with the amp functioning less as a primary tone generator, and more as just a source of basic signal amplification and overall tone shaping. If pedals and effects form the backbone of your tone, is it worth expending all of the money and effort necessary to purchase and maintain a tube amp? For many guitarists, the answer is a resounding "no."

A solid-state amplifier is the perfect platform for the player that relies mostly on pedals for their sound. The best modern solid-state amps exhibit superb, highly detailed clean tones and will happily eat all manner of dirt pedals for lunch, thanks to typically abundant headroom and relatively neutral overall voicing. Furthermore, they are uniformly more reliable, lighter in weight, and less expensive than tube amps. Some have excellent onboard overdrive and effects, but for many pedalboard jockeys the ideal way to employ a solid-state amp is as a sort of blank canvas, waiting to be filled in with color by the array of sonic pigments at their feet. If this sounds like something you might be into, we've compiled a short list of excellent solid-state amplifiers that are ideally suited to stompboxes.

Roland JC-40

No discussion of solid-state guitar amplifiers can be complete without mention of the Roland JC-120, a timeless amp that has long held its own among tube-powered competitors, winning over discerning tonemeisters with its magically three-dimensional clean tones and legendarily hypnotic stereo chorus. The 40th anniversary of this amp was in 2015, and to mark the occasion Roland released the JC-40, a scaled-down 40-watt version of the JC-120. It has all the features that made the original so singular, but with some marked improvements, including a built-in distortion circuit that totally doesn't suck (it's quite good, actually) and a deep, lovely digital reverb. Pedal dudes will delight in how well it pairs with a nice OD or fuzz pedal, and of course the built-in chorus-vibrato circuit is unparalleled in its swirly, mesmerizing texture. Unlike the 120, the 40-watt JC is light and very compact, while also being plenty loud for the stage.

Orange Crush Pro CR120H

Though pedal enthusiasts will find an awful lot to love about Orange's Crush Pro CR120H head and its sparkling, high headroom cleans, they might find themselves abandoning a few of the dirt pedals on their board after checking out its dirty channel. The CR120H offers a true breakthrough in solid-state grind, providing a dynamic gut punch that ranges from gentle, smooth clipping to a terrifyingly throaty roar. Its sounds are reportedly based on the valve-powered Rockerverb 100, and the Orange R&D team obviously put great effort into capturing this amp's characteristics in a transistor-based circuit. The result is an extremely affordable (selling new for around 450 bucks) 120-watt head that handily competes with tube amps that cost four or five times as much. Stompbox stompers who don't give a lick about tube "mojo" and just want an inexpensive, marvelous sounding, highly versatile head in which to feed pedals should look no further.

Hughes & Kettner Edition Blue 60

Hughes & Kettner Edition Blue 60

H&K is primarily known for its glowing, blue-hued, tube-based things, like the aptly named Tubemeister series, the Tube Rotosphere, and the Tubeman preamp, among others. The company does offer a small line of solid-state products as well, though, called the Edition Blue series. The 1x12, Celestion-equipped Edition Blue 60 in particular has developed a reputation as a top-shelf solid-state combo. It is outfitted with an analog 60-watt power section and a respectable complement of digital effects, including reverb, delay, chorus, and flanger. That being said, most pedal people will probably eschew the onboard effects, as they're not nearly as flexible as a dedicated stompbox. It's cool though, because this amp's gorgeous, loud, clean tones and its penchant for elegantly translating any pedal you throw at it are what make it a next-level solid-state combo. One can easily find an Edition Blue 60 used for under 300 dollars, and it makes an excellent, low maintenance, highly portable recording, gigging, or backup amp.

Tech 21 Trademark 60

This amp was released in the late-‘90s, so one might be forgiven for assuming it to be less sophisticated than some of the newer amps on this list, but then again the Trademark 60 has spent most of its existence being way ahead of its time. It was designed by Andrew Barta, the engineer behind Tech 21's Sansamp, and as such it is basically a Sansamp in 60-watt, 1x12 combo amplifier form (A Sansamp amp. Ironic, no?). Like the revolutionary Sansamp, it can conjure up a shocking range of tones, from vintage Fender, Marshall, and Vox sounds, to more modern Mesa-Boogie-style sounds. Its ability to generate these tones entirely within the analog realm continues to amaze, especially in light of current digital modeling technology. Players with behemoth pedalboards will appreciate its formidable capabilities as a platform for effects usage, and will love the diversity of its onboard dirt and its lush Accutronics spring reverb. The Tech 21 Trademark 60 is also quite light, easy to carry in one hand, and can be found on the used market quite inexpensively.

Quilter Tone Block Series

Quilter makes the best solid-state amplifiers in the world right now, especially for players that seek the ideal platform for using stompboxes, preamps, and other outboard tone sculpting devices. The company's compact, inexpensive, and ultra-minimalist Tone Block 200 was a revelation when it arrived on the scene. It's remarkably tube-like in sound and feel, but clean and neutral enough to be a perfect "blank canvas" for effects usage. For 2016 Quilter has expanded the very successful Tone Block lineup with somewhat more feature-laden compact amps, including the Tone Block 201 and the ProBlock 200. The 201 features expanded EQ options, as well as a voice switch with settings for five different famous amp tones, while the ProBlock features extensive EQ, a limiter circuit, and a lovely onboard reverb. Both amps feature an effects loop. Like the original Tone Block 200, these tiny, 4-pound, all-analog heads can generate up to 200 thunderous watts of real world output, while also sounding warm and robust at whisper volume. They also do a remarkable job of amplifying basses, keyboards, or just about any other electronic instrument you might plug into the input jack.


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