Electric instruments require amplifiers – if you want your audience to hear you, that is.
Which amplifier you choose is dependent on a few different factors, including the sound and tone you are aiming to achieve. Solid-state amplifiers may be cheaper and more practical, but how long do they last?
Solid-state amplifiers can last decades, depending on how well they are made and how they are maintained. Because solid-state amplifiers do not require frequent maintenance or replacement parts as often as tube or valve amplifiers, they generally last longer, are lower in cost, and are less fragile.
The amplifier plays a significant role in explaining why certain electric instruments sound better to seasoned musicians than others.
Read on to learn more about solid-state amplifiers, what factors influence how long they last, and how they are different from more traditional tube amplifiers.
Solid-State and Tube Amplifiers
Without getting too technical, an amplifier does what it says – it amplifies the sound coming from your instrument, making it louder, more vibrant, and even modifying the tone of the music.
There are various types of amplifiers, and they range in price, quality of sound, as well as portability and performance (source).
The most widely used amplifiers are tube or valve amplifiers or solid-state amplifiers – and both come with unique characteristics that create a distinct sound.
For musicians, choosing the right amplifier is an important decision, especially for electric guitar players, bassists, and keyboardists.
The amplifier choice and settings create a signature tone that experienced players depend on in differentiating their music from others.
Depending on the setting and experience level, certain amplifiers are better suited for beginners and small “coffee-house” style shows, while others are necessary for more sizable, on-stage performances with larger audiences.
Before we get into the specifics of solid-state amplifiers, we’ll quickly cover another popular choice, and discuss how each differs from the other.
Tube or Valve Amplifiers
Prior to the dominance of solid-state amplifiers in the 1970s, tube amplifiers were most widely used.
They’re also called valve amplifiers, and the terms can be used interchangeably. These amplifiers, however, are a bit more fragile with tubes made of glass.
They also tend to need replacement parts more frequently than is desirable. And, the tubes do not come at a cheap price.
The sound achieved with a glass tube or valve amplifier is distinct, however, creating what many musicians deem to be a more exact tone that results in a more complex sound with strong, even harmonics (source).
They continue to remain popular with many musicians today – and will likely continue to survive – despite the prevalence of solid-state amplifiers.
What makes valve amplifiers unique lies in the ability of the musician to create a particular sound by overdriving the amplifier, whether moderately or with more force, enhancing the harmonics differently than would result from a transistor or solid-state amplifier (source).
When overdriving a solid-state amplifier, some musicians feel an odd harmonic that causes dissonance, or a lack of harmony among notes.
The valves, in contrast, create a rhythm that drives the sound when playing with more force and simultaneously creates a warmer, more complex sound with more moderate playing.
Nonetheless, there is a reason solid-state amplifiers have grown in popularity, including the simple fact that they are more technologically advanced and yet still lower in cost, while also being more practical.
Solid-state amplifiers grew in popularity around the 1970s and differ from tube-based amplifiers in the way the sound is amplified.
With a solid-state amplifier, the music is amplified from electronic transistors, which are essentially semiconductor devices that switch electronic signals, regulating the current or voltage flow from input to output (source).
When the transistor is pushed to the limit with intense, hard playing, the sound is not necessarily as pleasant or even as that of a tube amplifier, but rather creates more distorted tones.
And, certain sounds just cannot be replicated by solid-state amplifiers – a valve amplifier, for instance, is responsible for some guitar solo classics that have resulted in incredibly distinct sounds with heavy amp distortion.
To learn more about heavy distortion with your amplifier, take a look at “How do I Make My Amp Distorted Heavy?”
The preference between each type of amplifier is widely dependent upon the kind of music and your personal preference and style.
Many Jazz players, for instance, prefer solid-state amplifiers, while others feel that the sound created by a tube amplifier is superior.
Bassists and keyboardists commonly used solid-state amplifiers, the former because there isn’t as much of a concern for extremely high tone variability.
Advantages of Solid-State Amplifiers
We’ve already hinted at some of the advantages of solid-state amplifiers – they’re cheaper and are technologically driven and designed. But, they’re also lighter, making them much more portable – and less fragile – than their valve-based counterparts.
Because solid-state amplifiers are made from fewer parts, and not of glass, there is less reason to worry about replacement tubes or valves and thus are less expensive at the outset, as well as over time.
A solid-state amplifier can last for decades without any reason for replacement, while a valve amp requires more maintenance.
But there are quite a few variations, and exactly how long they last will depend on multiple variables, including how they are used and the quality of the amplifier itself.
For instance, the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus Amp is the top-rated SS amplifier and is universally recognized as being the “legend” of SS amplifiers.
While higher in cost than many others, the Roland is specifically made for durability and, according to some, it is going to last you upwards of 50 years, if not more.
That’s much longer than smaller, less expensive options that are not likely to withstand the rigors of the road for serious musicians.
Other Variables Affecting the Longevity of Solid-State Amplifiers
Another primary factor in how long your SS amplifier will last includes both how it is made, as well as how it is operated.
Like many other products, how you treat your amp is going to affect its functionality and life span.
Well taken care of and used as intended is going to result in a longer life span, a couple of decades at least, with the possibility for minor replacement and repair.
On the other hand, an amplifier that is run at the highest heat and voltage setting is ultimately going to have a shorter life span.
Because solid-state amplifiers come in quite a few different styles and ranges of sound quality, price, size, and functionality, how long your particular model will last is going to depend on many of these factors – and one in particular: the capacitors.
Lifespan of Capacitors
The reality is that as with any piece of equipment, replacing parts is generally unavoidable over time, and when it comes to your solid-state amp, how long it lasts is going to depend on something called a capacitor.
Capacitors, or “caps,” are essentially responsible for storing the electricity as a power source in your amplifier, much like a battery, and they play a role in how well your amplifier sounds and operates (source).
Capacitors also come in various shapes, sizes, and ratings – some being better than others, depending on the manufacturer and type of amplifier you are using. The good news is that they are relatively inexpensive to replace.
And even if you do need to replace them, you’ll likely not need to do so for 10 or 15 years.
Nonetheless, the capacitor does play a role in how long your solid-state amplifier will run strong, giving you the quality of sound you are looking for.
But replacing a capacitor is fairly simple and will keep your amp going without any need to purchase a new one.
Heat and Power Supply – Leaving it on Versus Turning it Off
Another variable that affects how long your amplifier will last is how hot it is running, and whether or not you are frequently switching the power on and off.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, repeatedly turning the power off may lessen its longevity.
Leaving it on may actually be a better idea when it comes to extending the life of your amp. Each time you power it up, the amp needs to heat up.
The simple act of turning it on also requires twice as much power than standard operation. This will cause more wear and tear on the internal parts.
The reverse is true with a tube amplifier, however, especially because the glass tubes get so hot. In that case, you’ll want to turn it off regardless.
But for a solid-state amplifier, leave it on. If you are planning to keep it off for a while, such as overnight or a few days, turning it off is perfectly fine and a matter of personal preference.
You’ll find various opinions on whether or not you should ever turn your amp off at all.
Just keep in mind that frequently turning it off and on results in more “wear and tear” and can lessen the lifespan. Some manufacturers recommend leaving it powered on or in “sleep” mode 24/7.
While it would be simpler and more straightforward to say your solid-state amplifier will last for precisely twenty or thirty years, it’s just not practical to generalize with multiple factors contributing to its longevity.
Ultimately, though, it should last longer than a tube amplifier given the reduced likelihood of needing to replace parts as often, and the fact that it is indeed more durable.
If you invest in a high-quality amp, take care of it well, and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, your SS amplifier should last you upwards of 25 or even 50 years, if not forever.