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The Beta Lead solid-state amplifier was favoured by Buzz Osbourne of Melvins, and through him his childhood friend Kurt Cobain got his hands on it. | Photo: UT Connewitz Photo Crew
The Beta Lead solid-state amplifier was favoured by Buzz Osbourne of Melvins, and through him his childhood friend Kurt Cobain got his hands on it. | Photo: UT Connewitz Photo Crew
Jan Hamerský -

10 Famous Guitarists Who Played Solid-State Amps

I often hear that it is misleading to blame the sound on the guitar alone. That it's more about talent and amps. There's no argument about the former—but it's more complicated with the latter. In fact, many musicians have made history even with the despised solid-state combo. In chronological order, I've listed ten of them who came first to my mind.

1. Keith Richards | Rory Gallagher

Selmer Little Giant 5W (1958-1964)

The solid-state amp was at the very beginning of rock’n’roll. Keith Richards liked the way Selmer’s beginner’s combo rattled when he cranked the volume to the max so much that he fiddled with the wires in the box to make the sound as strong as possible. And he was not alone. The broken combo also appealed to blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher.

2. Carlos Santana

Gallien-Krueger GMT 226A (1968)

The first thing Robert Gallien built in his garage in San Jose that sounded well was not a bass amp but a guitar one. It wasn’t until 1983 that he became known for solid-state bass guitar amps. But the GMT 226A is also famous for another reason. The year after Gallien introduced it, Carlos Santana played it at Woodstock 1969.

3. John Fogerty

Kustom 200A (1968)

Creedence Clearwater Revival, which featured brothers John and Tom Fogerty playing together, also performed at the same festival. The band survived the 1960s by only two years. John Fogerty then embarked on a successful solo career. But one memory of Woodstock remains. He still uses a Kustom 200A solid-state amp.

4. Eric Clapton | Mark Knopfler

Music Man HD 130 Reverb (1974)

Clapton and Knopfler are not King Midas’s kin, but you could still say that anything they touch automatically goes up in price. This also applies to the Music Man HD 130 Reverb. Nowadays, hybrids with integrated effects and variable output are pretty common, but in the mid-1970s there was only one. It was introduced in 1974 by the new company of Leo Fender, Forrest White and Tom Walker.

5. Mark Knopfler | Paul Simon | Andy Summers

Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus (1975)

The second technological innovation that Knopfler brought to attention in the 1970s was the so-called Jazz Chorus. Yet, the solid-state amp Made in Japan secured its undying fame on its own. In the late 70s and early 80s, it was popular in the new wave and post-punk scene. It was cheaper, more durable and provided better clarity than most contemporary tubes.

6. Adrian Smith

Gallien-Krueger 250ML (1983)

I’ve already mentioned the first GK guitar. I’ll add that one of their last ones has a good reputation, too. Adrian Smith recorded Iron Maiden’s masterpieces Somewhere in Time (1986) and The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988), playing the small but very loud 250ML combo, a bestseller of the early 80s. 

7. Dimebag Darrell | George Lynch | Chuck Schuldiner

Randall RG 100 ES (1986)

Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power or Death’s Scream Bloody Gore sound the way they do because of the amp Randall RG100ES, originally developed for George Lynch of Dokken. Thirty years later, the sound is a bit dull, but that’s not so much the fault of the band mentioned as it is of country bumpkins bands who imitate them. Using a solid-state in 1992, when many still needed a Marshall fortress to play proper metal, was not taken for granted.

8. Jonny Greenwood

Fender Eighty-Five (1987)

The red eighty-five was manufactured for Fender by Sunn in Oregon between 1987 and 1993. It made a profit on them in the same way Dave Lister in the Red Dwarf sitcom did on a bubble wrap: painted it red and labelled it ’relaxing’. The Red Knob 85 was often nothing more than a no-name combo from Ensenada, only with red knobs. Nevertheless, this once second-rate amp received an ovation. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead took a liking to it for its malleability.

9. Kurt Cobain | Buzz Osbourne

Sunn Beta Lead (1979)

In addition to the eighty-five, Sunn created another cult for Fender. Buzz Osbourne of Melvins favoured the Beta Lead solid-state amplifier, and through him his childhood friend Kurt Cobain got his hands on it. King Buzz was none too happy about it. The die-hard underground protagonist keeps grumbling about grunge—whose sound he unwittingly inspired.

10. Josh Homme

B. K. Butler Tube Works MosValve RT-2100-ES

The Queens of the Stone Age frontman likes to collect cheap old guitars of indeterminate origin, but he could hardly pull out the contours of their distinctive sounds without the right amp. He played hybrid by B. K. Butler back then when he just started in Kyuss—and he hasn’t given it away to this day. He’d be hard-pressed to find another sound this dirty.

And who would you add to the list? I look forward to your suggestions.

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Jan Hamerský
Born in 1988. When he was fifteen and deciding what to do next, writing was the obvious choice. At nineteen, he changed his mind. It seemed to him that it is history that writes stories. Then he found out that history is written by winners—he joined the losers. He majored in h…