Amp Tone Part 2: Styles of Power Tubes

In Part 1, we discussed the importance of getting a good tube amp. In Part 1.5, we heard an mp3 clip emphasizing the dire situation one finds oneself in when playing without a good tube amp (and when trying to be Metallica, with no skill and while playing a Delirious song). And I’m sure you’ll agree that the mp3 was probably the worst thing you have ever heard, and made you go running back from whence you came, screaming like a little girl who wants a tube amp. (Hmm…..that didn’t work.) Part 2 is going to be about the different types of power tubes within tube amps, and the different sounds they are capable of. Again, here’s the boring alert for those of you who are looking for posts about Chuck Norris, and why he thinks he is capable of writing a book about politics….i.e. ‘Black Belt Patriotism.’ No, I’m serious! That’s the title! So if that’s what you’re after, and I admit, that’s what I’m after most of the time, please see the post directly below this one or directly above this one.

So there are 5 basic types of tube amps:

1. 6L6-based
2. EL84-based
3. EL34-based
4. 6V6-based
5. KT88-based

Some will disagree with the last two categories, as they are compatible and comparable with 6L6 tubes. But in my experience, not only is the tone of those two types of tubes significantly different, but there are some amplifier manufacturers who have based entire amps around those two types of tubes. They used to be just differetn output replacement tubes for 6L6’s; but now they are coming into their own. Kind of like when you’re picked last at kickball all you’re life…and you’re just the replacement for when the big kid sprains his ankle or starts acting gay so he can hang out with all the girls (man, I really wish I had discovered the benefits of that earlier!). But you know that if you just wait long enough, one day you’ll get your shot. And one day it comes. Never mind that all the other seniors are off campus for lunch. You bid your time…you waited with passiomate patience. Now it has finally paid off. You are no longer picked last for kickball (and are also subsequently much larger than anyone else on the kickball field…just an added bonus for your patience). That’s kind of how it has been for 6V6 and KT88 tubes.

Now, a full tube amp will also use preamp tubes, but those are almost always the same type of tube: ECC83, or 12AX7, as they are also known. There are different types, but just lower or higher gain versions of the same tube. A lot of the amp’s tonal characteristics come from the power amp tubes.

ECC83S.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An ECC83 preamp tube. I use JJ tubes as examples because they are awesome. Well, they’re a very good-sounding type of tube, and very consistent. Probably the best sounding new production tube. The old Mullards and stuff are great, but they do tend to have short lives, at least in my experience. But mostly because JJ’s are awesome.)

Anyway, here’re the quick breakdown of the main styles of tubes in amps; and keep in mind these are broad generalizations. There are many amps (mostly by independent builders) that use different tubes for different results, dictated by how they design the circuit.

1. 6L6 Based Amps

These are probably the most common. They’re also referred to as Fender style amps. Not that Fender only uses 6L6 tubes in their amps, but they have made the majority of their amps based around the sound of this tube. It’s a big, open, clean sound, with a hint of an edge when dug into, that sounds very ’60’s blues. They can also produce some great heavy overdrive, but usually you’ve really got to crank them…depending on the circuit. Think BB King, Jimi Hendrix clean tone (although he did play through a lot of Marshall amps…his tone still is a nice example of what most 6L6 amps should sound like…basically, suffice it to say he is an incredible tonal mystery….and if anyone says, ‘I can nail his tone’…well, most of the world hasn’t heard it yet 😉 ), Eric Clapton clean tone, John Mayer, jazz stuff. Just a very classy, American blues type amp. Can really be a nice pallette, too, changing a lot depending on what guitar you plug in. In my humble experience, these types of amps tend to sound best with pine cabinets and Jensen-type speakers. 5881 is the military designation for this tube, and they tend to be a bit cleaner…coupled with a multiple rectifier type circuit, this will give some metal type sounds, such as found in Boogie amps.

6L6GCB_small.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An example of a 6L6 tube. JJ again. JJ rocks. And these are much bigger than the ECC83 tubes; in fact, all power tubes are larger than preamp tubes. But for some reason, that’s how the pictures turned out, and I’m way too lazy right now to do anything about it.)

ClaptonFender.gif picture by rypdal95
(And here’s Eric Clapton rocking some type of 6L6-tubed Fender. A Tweed or a Bassman, probably. And it looks like Sheryl Crow has a 65 Amp….looks like a London. I am now justified for playing a 65 Amps cab. See, good tone doesn’t come from the sound; it comes from knowing you play the same gear as rockstars.)

2. EL84 Based Amps

Usually referred to as Voxy amps, or AC30 amps. A very interesting type of amp. The EL84 tubes are smaller, and hence breakup earlier. But they are still able to sound big and wam, just with earlier breakup. Very focused, edgey, glassy, and chimey (take your pick of adjectives). These amps also seem to take pedals very well on the average. Modern players like these a lot for their glassy ‘on the verge of breakup’ sounds. Classic players like their cranked overdrive sounds at relatively low volumes. Very biting and rock and roll, but still with fullness and harmonics. Think Brian May from Queen, the Beatles, Keith Richards, and Edge from U2. Tend to sound best with birch cabinets and Celestion alnico type speakers. The American designation is 6BQ5.

EL84.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An EL84 tube. Mmm….JJ. Now, this picture’s big again…I suck, but I’m too lazy to change.)

BeatlesVox.jpg picture by rypdal95
(The Beatles with their Vox AC30’s. What?! I didn’t use this golden opportunity to show yet another picture of Edge, with his AC30? Nope. I have a collective crush on the members of U2, but I do recognize that there is other music out there. Not quite as good of music, but hey, they’re all trying to measure up to U2’s standard. 😉 But seriously, I try not to relegate myself to just one band or style. In the words of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder when he’s the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude, ‘I diversify.’)

3. EL34 Based Amps.

Usually thought of as ‘Marshall-style’ amps or ‘British Invasion’ type amps. These tubes share sockets with 6L6 tubes, but you need to re-bias before changing out tubes like that. Plus, most circuits are designed to sound best with a certain type of tube. Big, full overdrive, but edgy and chimey as well. The cleans might be a tad sterile comparatively (up for debate, don’t kill me!), but the overdrive is huge and full with bite, too. You really want this type of amp to crank it and get its distortion. Think Jimmy Page, Angus Young, etc. Also known as 6CA7 and KT77. Tend to sound best with birch cabs and Celestion Greenback-type speakers.

EL34.jpg picture by rypdal95
(An EL34 tube. Guess what? JJ. And I guess it was just the 6L6 picture that sucked.)

JimmyPageMarshall.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And here’s Jimmy Page sporting some of his EL34-based Marshalls. And, incidentally, wearing way too little, and caught in the middle of much too homosexual of a dance.)

4. 6V6 Based Amps

These also fit in 6L6 sockets, but again, definitely re-bias before switching them out! These are like the 6L6 tubes, without the brekaup. They sound a bit smaller, and don’t breakup as big. But that can make for some amazing clean tones, and some really, really nice mild overdrive. Gibson amps have been using these for years for great clean tones. And the Toneking amps have made some incredible sounds from using quads of these tubes. Mark Tremonti from Altar Bridges, and formerly Creed, gets most of his recorded clean tones from Toneking Comet amps. Again, probably pine cabs and Jensen-type speakers would go well with these amps.

6V6_small.jpg picture by rypdal95
(A 6V6 tube example. And yep, this picture is too small, too.)

TonekingComet.jpg picture by rypdal95
(I couldn’t find a picture of Mark Tremonti playing his Tonekings. Probably because when he was in Creed, Scott Stapp made sure every picture was taken only of Scott Stapp. Seriously! Remember the video for ‘With Arms Wide Open’? All you ever see is Scott, and then by the time you finally see the band, it’s just in time to watch them disintegrate. Yep. Singers. Anyway, this is the Mark Tremonti-less Tone King Comet.)

5. KT88 Based Amps

These for years were thought of as mostly an earlier-breaking-up replacement for 6L6 tubes. Also known as 6550 tubes. But lately, some amp designers have been basing circuits around them. Divided by 13 has made an amp based on this tube, the RSA23, which is supposed to have kind of a mixed sound between an EL84 based amp and a 6L6 based amp. Big cleans if you want them, but earlier breakup with a chiminess. These tubes are really seeing more and more popularity. Jason Orme from Alanis Morissette uses these type amps, and his tone is spectacular. Let’s say probably birch cabs, and maybe a low powered Jensen, or high powered Celestion…like a couple G12H-30’s or something.

kt88.jpg picture by rypdal95
(A KT88 tube. Whoa! This picture is really big. Sorry, guys!)

JasonOrme.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And here’s Jason Orme. One of my absolute favorite guitarists. No one knows his name, but his tone and layered, minimalistic, melodic, and supportive guitar playing are just incredible. You can see his KT88-based Divided by 13 amp in the background.

Again, these are all generalizations, and many independent builders have made huge strides in creating their own sounds using these tubes with original circuits. But on the whole, this is a good starting point for how to choose what type of amp you want to get a certain sound that you have in your head.

And again, sorry for the boringness. I was trying to inject this with some humor, but my wife is watching The Simpsons in the other room, and it’s really hard to concentrate. Principal Skinner just told a teacher that the children have no future but the children were actually listening. (!) Sitcom plots! But Simpsons are really funny. Just think…if she had been watching Arrested Development, this post never would have been finished.

Okay, Part 2 has kind of been a reference. Part 3 will go into circuit boards and handwired amplifiers, and Part 4 will go into tips about how to set your amp to make it sound its best. Ya, I know, all this from the guy who played out of a Crate amp with a BC Rich, as evidenced by a horrifying mp3 a few posts back. Granted, I have progressed past that (let’s hope), but I still don’t know everything…which is painfully obvious, if you’ve read more than a few posts on this site. But take this info for what it is, a pallette and a research backdrop to perhaps offer a little bit of help, or research, or confirmation, for you to create your own tone.


15 thoughts on “Amp Tone Part 2: Styles of Power Tubes

  1. Excellent. I take this as your rebuttal to my compressor post.

    Great post, directed research and clear, yet narrative thesis points.

    A++ would do business again

  2. Awesome! Thanks. I’ve been meaning to learn the difference between tubes. Good overview. Gear is never-ending. I finally am happy with my pedals and variety of guitars… now I’m getting into amps. I don’t know what’s after that but I’m sure I’ll figure it out, haha.

  3. Les Paul–thanks, man. And no, this post was in no way realted to your compressor post. That was a very good article, and just because I’m not a compressor guy (at the moment), doesn’t mean I enjoyed it any less. Good times.

    Rhoy–yes, JJ’s can tend to be very clean, which is what I like about them. And although the 5881’s are supposed to be just a military designation for the 6L6 tubes, they do tend to break up a bit more easily, in my humble experience.

    Mike–hehe Yep! The tonal journey is never over…once you get the perfect amp, you’ll realize that you need a different overdrive, and then a new delay to react better with the overdrive, and then new pickups to clean up in the delay….hehe etc. Well, at least that’s how it is with me. Ah, I love the tone chase!

  4. Hey man – I second the JJ’s as the best and most consistently great tubes out there. Plus their customer service is ridiculous! I’ve emailed them several times with an amp or pedal name and asked “What should I get?” The results were always spectacular…

    You probably know this but while The Beatles would record with AC30’s, they wouldn’t play with them live as they were horrendously unreliable during that era. They were prone to catching on fire, so they would actually run Fenders inside of hollow AC30 shells!

  5. Right on! It’s great to hear more good things about JJ’s. They’re pretty much my go to right now.

    And actually, I did not know that about the Beatles! That’s a really, really cool piece of trivia. It doesn’t surprise me, though…unfortunately, their live act seemed to be a bit commercialized; which is a shame, because they were amazing musicians.

  6. 6V6 Tubes are in some popular Fenders, too. The 22 watt Deluxe Reverb, the Princeton Reverb, and the
    5 watt Champ with its in-your-face recording tone.

    EL84s are in the Fender Blues Jr.

    There is an Egnater model that has 6V6s and EL84s with a blend knob. I’d like to try that just to hear the differences.

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