While the construction and design philosophy behind tube amplifiers is a complicated business, the way they work to make music is fairly straight-forward. They take in an electrical signal coming from the guitar cable, amplify it and then turn it into sound through the speakers. There are of course plenty of links in the chain that can affect your tone, but the two that have to most noticeable impact (as far as tube amps go) are the type of speakers and tubes. Today, we’ll be focusing on the latter, taking a closer look at the general sound characteristics associated with four popular power tube types.
These types of tubes are usually found in amps with less than 30 watts and feature the prototypical “American” clean tone. Fender is famous for their use of 6V6 tubes on many of their iconic amps. Amps that feature 6V6 tubes are usually said to be very musical, especially with clean tones and slightly overdriven leads. With leads in particular, the tone is described as being complex with a singing quality. Many amps equipped with 6V6 tubes are well-known for their clean tones, such as the Fender Princeton and Fender Deluxe Reverb. But with that said, there are players out there who feel that 6V6 amps are a bit too loose, especially for playing tight rhythms on higher gain settings. 6V6 amps also tend to get a bit muddy when pushed, particularly in the lower frequencies and aren’t the best at tracking quick or intricate playing on the lower strings.
Another power tube that is usually found in lower wattage amps, EL84s are very common with British designs and can be described as having a tight and chimey quality to their tone. EL84 tubes can be found on Vox AC30s and AC15s along with some smaller Marshall amps such as the DSL combo series. When pushed, EL84 amps can have plenty of bite, although some designs may feel a bit too harsh or stiff for certain players. They are also regarded as being better at holding distorted tones together than 6V6 amps. If your playing style features a lot of gain or pushing an amp to its limits, an amp equipped with EL84 tubes would be a good choice.
The 6L6 was famously featured on the amp that "started it all," the legendary Fender Bassman. This variety of tube is found on amps over 30 watts, with many falling into the 50-watt to 100-watt range. The 6L6 is well-known for its clean and fluid tones, offering everything from sparkly, pristine sounds to warm overdrive. They are also able to handle a bigger low end than 6V6 tubes without losing any clarity. Many players also appreciate their tendency to give their tone a bit of mid-range scoop. Amps that feature 6L6 tubes are also said to make an excellent canvas for pedals and preamps, featuring gorgeous, clean tones that keep your signal uncolored, allowing the character of your effects to shine through.
While 6L6 tubes pioneered the quintessential “American” amp tone, the EL34 is known for the equally famous “British” sound. Like its reputation suggests, EL34 tubes can be found on many legendary British amplifiers including those from Marshall and Hiwatt. Like the 6L6, these type of tubes are also typically found on amps over 30 watts. A lot of players generally describe EL34 amps as having a classic “Marshall tone,” offering a strong midrange and a more aggressive sound when compared to 6L6 tubes. Like its smaller brother, the EL84, these tubes work great with distorted guitar tones that require plenty of grit.
Don’t forget, tubes are only one piece of an amp’s design, with the things such as the type of circuit playing a part of the overall tone as well. Add your choice of guitar, pickups, pedals, etc, and you can see that the options are endless when it comes to crafting a killer tone! If you have any questions regarding the purchase of these or any other piece of gear, don't hesitate to talk to one of our PAL pros using the chat box below!
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