Tube amps are beautiful things, as any guitar player will tell you. But they’ll also tell you that to get ‘That Tube Sound,’ you’ve got to put some volume behind it. That can be a problem if you’re trying to practice your instrument without disturbing your neighbors and you’re using headphones.
You can use headphones with a tube amp, but it’s going to take some tinkering, and you may have to purchase extra gear to make it happen. There is also a real danger of damaging your amp if you don’t cover some of your bases before plugging in your headphones.
We’ll look at what you need to do and why you need to be careful and offer an alternative solution or two if this seems too much for you to undertake.
Anatomy of the Tube Amp Sound
Vacuum tubes process sound by heating a cathode, which causes electrons to fly off of it and flow through a sealed vacuum to the anode. This then converts those electrons into an amplified signal and sends it to the speakers to create a singular sound.
While a solid-state amp (meaning it uses transistors to amplify rather than vacuum tubes) amplifies an electric guitar just fine, it uses a different process and creates a different tone.
Finally, when the vacuum tube gets more signal than it can handle, it is forced to clip off parts of that signal, resulting in a trimming off of a piece of the sound’s wavelength. This creates a warm, fuzzy sound akin to distortion, called overdrive.
Overdrive is why people use tube amps, even though vacuum tube technology was rendered obsolete with the 1947 invention of the transistor.
The Definition of Overdrive
To get that overdriven sound, a guitar player has to send more signal through the amp than it’s built to handle, which means turning up the volume. If you play your tube amp with its volume knob on three, you’re not going to get that warm sound tube players crave.
You’ll have to go to six at the very least, which means a loud guitar amp.
This is why many people mistakenly believe that tube amps are across-the-board louder pieces of equipment than their solid-state counterparts. The truth is, a solid-state amp can be just as loud, but with a solid-state amp and some effects pedals, a player can get an overdriven, or even distorted sound, at low volume levels.
Headphones and Amps
If you are practicing guitar in your apartment, your neighbors will eventually tire of your music, no matter how warm the sound is. It seems, then, that if you have a tube amp and want to play it without bothering people, you need headphones.
But it isn’t that simple.
Very few tube amps even have a headphone jack on them, especially if it’s an older amp. Companies like Marshall still make tube amps, but most tube amps people use today are of the vintage variety.
If your tube amp has a headphone jack, plug in your headphones, plug in your guitar, close this web page, and go play some rock and roll.
But if it doesn’t have a headphone jack (and the odds are good that it doesn’t), you need at least one piece of equipment, but to be sure you don’t destroy your ears or your amplifier, you’ll need two.
You need something with a headphone jack in it that you can attach to your amp.
There are many kinds of audio interfaces out there, but you will have a hard time beating this Behringer Audio Interface, available through Amazon. This unit is small and relatively inexpensive, especially considering that there are audio interfaces out there that can cost much more than $100.
The Behringer interface gives you a line to run a cord from your amp into it and then a headphone jack with gain and output controls, which provides a good sound that will definitely get the job done.
Again, there are others out there, but this is hard to beat for this application.
The next thing you need that is just as important is a place to plug in the headphones because without a guitar attenuator, you can easily destroy your amplifier.
- The power tubes inside the amp generate a pull on the transformer.
- This pull creates a magnetic field, as electricity is known to do.
- The magnetic field generates a voltage in relation to the transformer’s output, which is what the amp uses to drive the speakers (called the “speaker load”).
- The speakers produce the sound you made on your guitar.
If you hook up an audio interface, it will send sound into your headphones.
But it will not turn off the speaker in your amp, which makes the headphones useless in terms of making a way for you to play your guitar without waking the neighborhood.
Perhaps you have enough egg crates and pillows to pile in front of your amp to dampen the sound, or maybe you think it would be fine to reach into the back of your amp and disconnect the speakers from the amplifier head.
This is a terrible idea.
Without the speakers connected, the above process can’t happen, but that speaker load has to do something, go somewhere. It will return to the tubes and damage them. Maybe it will harm them immediately, or perhaps it will happen down the line, but it will happen.
You cannot run a tube amp without a speaker load.
So you need a guitar attenuator, a device that tricks your amp into thinking it’s got a place to send a speaker load other than to the speaker. This way, you’re able to cut the volume of your speakers, making your headphones useful after all.
You can choose from many models, but a few from various price points include the Two Notes Torpedo Captor X Reactive Loadbox DI and Attenuator, the KLD PB-1 100-Watt Attenuator, and the JHS Little Black Amp Box Signal Converter.
All of these can be found on Amazon.
The Two Notes attenuator has two XLR inputs, which adds to its versatility, and it has a fair amount of virtual cabinets to choose from.
KLD’s attenuator is built into an aluminum alloy case. The benefit to this (other than its overall sturdiness) is that the case acts like a heat sink for the circuits inside. Also, dial it down to zero for a true bypass, meaning if you don’t want to use it at some point, you don’t have to disconnect it from your rig.
The JHS model is passive, so you don’t need another outlet in your setup to power it, and it’s really small, so you can tuck it away and not worry about tripping over it or finding a space in your rack for it.
If this is more trouble than you want to take on, or if budgetary constraints make this extra equipment out of reach, you have some choices, whether it’s abandoning the amplifier for practice purposes or using a different amp that’s solid-state and that you use solely for practicing.
Leave Out the Amp
You can leave the amp out of it altogether with Vox’s amPlug 2 AC30 Headphone Amplifier, found on Amazon.com. This affordable unit plugs directly into your guitar, and you plug your headphones into the amPlug and get a reasonably convincing tube amp sound from your guitar without any amp at all.
The unit takes two AAA batteries and, along with the headphone jack, has another jack that allows you to plug a music source into it, as well, so you can play your guitar along with the music.
Forget the Tube Amp
We have the most pragmatic approach: forget the amp. Pick up a practice amp and leave your tube amp powered down until it’s time for the gig.
Fender’s Frontman 10G Electric Guitar Amplifier will give you sound from your guitar, allow you to plug your headphones in, and keep your woodshedding to yourself. The Blackstar Fly 3 Electric Guitar Mini Amplifier offers the same perks. Both are affordable to anyone on a budget and are found on Amazon.com.
Keep in mind that when you practice, you aren’t practicing your guitar tone. You’re practicing riffs, runs, solos, new chords, and the like.
You don’t need a warm, fuzzy tube sound to do that. With an inexpensive, headphone-friendly practice amp, you don’t need to worry about all the other stuff above, and you can just practice and become a better player.
Your tube amp can run through your headphones, given some time, effort, and equipment. Some tube amps have built-in headphone jacks, but if yours doesn’t, your ability to use headphones with them requires extra equipment, such as an audio interface and a guitar attenuator.
You cannot leave the attenuator out of the equation. Doing so will damage your prized vacuum tube amplifier, so do not take this chance.
Alternatively, get a practice amp or something like the Vox amPlug. It won’t give you the tube sound you love, but practice time is for practicing, not producing the perfect guitar tone.