Jamie Stillman’s first solid-state amp was a ’70s Sunn Beta Lead, a 100-watt monster with high headroom and booming lows, capable of handling effects geared for low-end sounds and running clean at high volumes. These days, Sunn Beta Leads in good condition sell for about $500. The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne is a die-hard Sunn Beta Lead user.
When did you begin to discern the difference between tube and solid-state amps?
When I was playing drums in [Kent, Ohio-based ’90s band] Harriet the Spy, I think Joel [McAdams, a fellow band member] had a Sunn Beta Lead. I was looking for a new amp. You could find those solid-state Sunn amps any day of the week for, like, 40 bucks. It just sounded better than the JCM900 I was using at the time. Back then I didn’t really know what solid-state meant, I just knew it didn’t have tubes. The benefit of solid-state amps is higher headroom before distorting. The Sunn had that. It also just had more low end. That’s what I liked at the time. Then I sold those and got a Bassman head. After that I got a Music Man HD 130, and that’s when I started really paying attention to amps. [Editor: Early-’70s Music Man HD-130s have a solid-state preamp with a 12AX7 phase inverter tube.]
Take me through your hybrid Music Man-era rig.
I don’t remember how I found out about the Music Man. I think I was looking for something that sounded like a Fender, but would never distort—that I could just keep making louder. That is what totally drew me to it. You could run lower octaves at it and it wouldn’t blow out or distort. Then you could just keep adding more and more boost to it and it would just get louder. I never had an issue with it not being loud enough. And that’s what I think I do a lot of the time—just keep adding more and more volume.
Then it makes sense that you’d be expanding into higher headroom amps.
I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I really like solid-state amps, a lot. But now, I’m using a Marshall Super Lead and a Sunn Model T—both tube amps—which totally goes against that.
Designed to compete with Fender’s Twin Reverb, the Music Man HD-130 boasted 130 watts and four 6CA7 output tubes—a version of the EL34. But this ’70s creation had a solid-state preamp circuit. In later models, the 12AX7 phase inverter tube was also replaced with solid-state circuitry. The result was an amp with lots of headroom and clarity, and it found favor with a diverse range of players, from Aerosmith to Mark Knopfler. Today, they are available as reissues, and vintage models start at about $700—and can run hundreds more—for a combo in good condition. This road warrior is owned by Joan Jett.
So what is the discernable timbral difference between tubes and solid-state for you? You mentioned headroom and bass extension.
I’d say the headroom. The one negative thing I’d say about solid-state is that it’s flat. No matter how you EQ it, it kinda sounds dead.
Which can become increasingly apparent when you crank it up.
Yeah, I’d say so. As you may know, I made the Speaker Cranker [overdrive pedal] for the Music Man, in an attempt to make it not so flat.
For bass, I use a solid-state Ampeg SVT-450, and I love the way that amp sounds. It does what I want it to do: It sounds like Jesus Lizard.
What’s the coolest-looking solid-state amp?
I like the ’70s stuff. Acoustics look really cool. Some of those late-’70s Peavey amps look really cool too. They look like a ’70s version of the future.
With all the class D and hybrid designs tumbling out these days, do you think there will be a boutique solid-state renaissance that harks back to those classic-era designs and the ’70s aesthetic?
I’m shocked that nobody has done it. I mean, it’s not easy, but the availability of parts is higher and the cost is lower. I think that if anyone were to make a solid-state amp look cool, you’d probably sell a ton of them—even if it’s light, if it just looked like a regular amp. In the end, if you do a thing where you like to stack multiple gain stages, or if you’re trying to get louder without compressing or distorting, a solid-state amp is totally the way to go. If you’re looking for more defined sub-octave effects from your pedals, or for the pedals to sound more like themselves, solid-state is the way. It just sounds more pure. But I guess it all just depends on how you play.
As our conversation wound down, Jamie mentioned a little solid-state head that he liked primarily for its tremolo. So let’s take a look at the Teisco Checkmate CM-25.
Checkmate model line came in a variety of wattages and in both tube and solid-state editions. A rare version of the CM-25, in rolled and pleated vinyl covering a two-speaker combo, could sell for $500 or more today, while a lower-wattage Checkmate 12 with a single speaker can be found in the $100 range. Yes, that’s a tiny VU meter in the upper right corner.
Although the Teisco company is more famous for its electric guitars, the 25-watt Checkmate is no slouch. On its front panel, there are two instrument inputs with shared controls and a third input with its own volume control. The third channel is filtered for a bass-heavy sound. Volume, treble, and bass fill out the preamp dials. There’s reverb and tremolo, with the latter having both speed and intensity controls. The back of the amp sports a speaker out and an extension speaker out. There are a couple of nice appointments on this head. A tremolo rate LED indicator monitors how fast the oscillator is moving. It also has the world’s tiniest VU meter that provides an additional visual reference for how hard it’s getting slammed. The VU is impossible to see from more than three feet away, but it’s cool, nonetheless. Also, the amp is a featherweight. You can lift it pinky out like a steaming cup of tea. Teisco also made this amp with tubes in the mid-to-late ’60s.
And the sound? Sweet! Its EQ, which is global, affects all three amp inputs and allows for nice variations in timbre. The treble is the most powerful of the two controls. The reverb is subtle, but does add depth and charm at higher settings. It’s especially cool paired with the tremolo. Speaking of tremolo, as Jamie mentioned, that’s where this amp shines. There’s a beautiful sinusoidal wave shape to the oscillator, a wonderful intensity control, and a decent range of speed, so it covers a lot of ground—all the while staying in very musical territory, even when set to maximum speed. At higher intensity settings, with the reverb cranked, it really throbs as the reverb accentuates the tremolo, adding depth to the sound.
It’s not a flamethrower, though. It’s comfortable to listen to at maximum volume, but I fear it wouldn’t hang with Ol’ Brickfoot on the drums. A clean and appealing 3/4" shell frames the head. With a cabinet, the Checkmate 25 can go for about $500 and is a nice option to have in the studio.
Speaking of studios, let’s bring in our other expert guest, Ben Vehorn, a product specialist and sales rep at EarthQuaker, and an experienced audio engineer. Ben knows a lot about gear, with studio equipment and modular synths among his favorites. He has yet to choose sides in the tubes-versus-transistors battle. Tasked with making music sound great, he just uses what works best in a given situation. His lack of bias toward either camp is his strength in the matter. So, let’s see what he has to say.