There’s a reason why tube amps have remained popular after all these years. Despite their relatively high price tag and an overall delicate design that is firmly rooted in mid-20th-century technology, nothing beats a tube amp when it comes to creating stunning high-gain tone. Whether you’re looking for smooth sustain and compression or fat and crunchy distortion, the signature sound of a tube amp remains the holy grail of guitar tone. Today, we’re going to look at a few tips to that should help you properly care for those delicate yet beautiful tone machines and give them the best shot at a long and happy life!
Handle With Care
While the technology that powers these tube amps has definitely been refined since their introduction, their basic components have remained largely the same. The number one rule of maintaining a tube amp is to treat it like you would an old, vintage instrument; gently and with care. The plates and filaments in power and preamp tubes won’t tolerate getting knocked around a lot. A few hard bumps or even rough handling can also cause the sockets to loosen which will result in unreliable performance. Most of the damage caused to tube amps happen during loading and unloading for a gig rather than during one, so pay especially close attention to how it’s being transported.
Use The Standby Switch
Most tube amps come equipped with a standby switch and it actually serves a very important purpose. It keeps a low-voltage current running through your power tubes, keeping the full power of the voltage from reaching them until they’ve had enough time to warm up. Tubes have to be really hot before you can put a strong amount of electricity through them and it takes a minute or so for them to reach their proper operating temperatures. If you turn a tube amp on and immediately crank it to full volume before they are ready, you risk damaging your amp. By using the standby switch properly, you will prolong the life of your tubes.
No matter how well you treat any piece of equipment, there's no guarantee on how long it will last before it fails. The same is true of tubes. A new one might suddenly fail early in its life while another might last for years, even decades. Luckily, there are a few telltale signs you can look for that will let you know if one or more of your tubes is on its last legs. If you notice that you have to dial up the gain or volume to higher settings than you used to for the same effect or that your amp is not generating the presence, old tubes are the likely suspects. Other signs include random electronic buzzing and pops or even slight microphonic squeals that don't go away as soon as you power down.
But with that said, tubes can sometimes fail on you without warning and the last thing you need is for that to happen in the middle of a gig. If you use you amp often and like to play at high volumes, changing your tubes about once a year or so is a good habit. If you only occasionally use your tube amp, you won't need to change them nearly as frequently. Think of your tubes like guitar strings -- the more you use them, the more frequently you should change them in order to get the best performance from your amp.
Replacing Your Tubes
For the most part, you’ll want to stick with the tubes recommended by the amp manufacturer. That said, some amps such as those by Randall come with built-in biasing controls that let users switch out tube types. But if your amp doesn’t have this function and you’re dead set on swapping out those 6L6s for EL34s, it is highly recommended that you see an experienced amp tech.
While using the correct measuring tools is always the best way to go, a visual inspection of your powered-up tubes can give you a good idea if your amp’s biasing is at least in the right ballpark. Tubes that are emitting a soft amber to orange glow are most likely getting the right amount of current. On the other hand, if your tubes are glowing purple or blue, it's a good bet that they're not getting enough power.
Some tube manufacturers such as Groove Tubes sell matched tube sets that have been tested to ensure similar electronic characteristics. Since power and preamp stages equipped with mismatched tubes can negatively affect your amp’s sound, a matched set is a good investment.
A tube amp is a prized investment and an integral part of a player's toolset. Take care of it, and it will take care of you -- your tone at least! If you're looking for replacement tubes or even a new tube amp, we offer a wide selection of amps and accessories at amazing prices. You can check out our entire selection of guitar amplifiers and amplifier accessories by using the links below! If you need more help finding what piece of equipment is right for you, don't hesitate to chat with one of our PAL pros by using the Contact Us box below.
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