Tube amps are fantastic on a big stage in front of a huge audience. Everything about them is epic. The wooden frames, metal grilles, huge speaker stacks and glowing tubes all contribute to a feeling of pure tonal power. They look the part, they are tried and tested staples of good rock guitar bands for decades, and they sound as big as they look too. It is easy to lose yourself in your playing when you are standing in front of a great tube amp, with any effect pedal you will ever need spread out in front of you. The sky is the limit, and for the duration of the set you are the master of your own destiny. You are free to create music with your band mates, safe in the knowledge that your trusty tube amp always has your back as far as tone and power are concerned.
This is all well and good, but unless you are part of a semi-successful gigging band, spending half of your time on the road and the other half at the local recording studio, chances are that your guitar playing more often than not takes place in the rehearsal room rather than the stadium stage under the lights in front of the screaming fans. Everybody needs to practice, and if we are to have any chance of really playing some great gigs we need to be aware of our own limitations, and work on them; to understand our barriers, and ultimately break through them.
As previously mentioned, tube amps are wonderful on a stage where you can really crank it up and make use of the sweet natural overdrive of your row of 12ax7s. But how about the rehearsal room? Are good, practical practice amps the specifically reserved domain of the solid state combo or the digital modeling studio? Do tubes have a place in the bedroom?
I have always felt that when practicing, much of your time should be spent on technique: using exercises which are designed to target and isolate weak spots in your form and improve on them as quickly and efficiently as possible. In addition, however, a significant amount of time should also be spent on setting up your rig in the best possible way for your style, and making sure that you have a well-crafted, rounded tone so that you can sound your best. This means that if you are practicing for the big stage, which has the big equipment, you should try to get your practice set up as close as possible to your eventual gigging set up. Basically, if you are planning on using a tube amp for your gigs, why practice with a digital recreation, software solution or solid state amp?
Tube amps do not have to be big and awe-inspiring every time: in fact some of the lower wattage heads can bring just as much of that natural crunch which we all know and love to the practice room, at neighbor-friendly volume levels. With a good fifteen or twenty watt tube amp, all of that great tone is at your fingertips. And thanks to the lesser clean headroom traditionally found on low power heads, you can crank the preamp into natural tube overdrive, and have all of the tone with less of the volume.
Practice amps are a very important part of the development of a guitar player; they are what we use to build up our chops and get those tricky licks under the fingers. They should in no way be overlooked or underestimated for their worth, and if you want to be able to craft good tube tone on the stage, you should first start by getting to grips with the wonderful tone of tuba amps in the practice room. Try it out; you won’t regret it!