Amp Tone Part 3: Change Your Tubes

By this point, I’m assuming you have a tube amp. If not, please check the archives on the right, click on Amp Tone Part 1.5, and listen to the horrendous ear pain that was my playing without a tube amp……as well as some other atrocious, unforgiveable guitar sins (like being…how do you say it…’not good’, but still soloing…ya, I pretty much smashed that rule to pieces…in a bad way, not a cool rock ‘n roll way). Please, learn from my terrible tone, and save yourself. It’s not a matter of money…there are plenty of decent tube amps that are less expensive than transistor amps. And if you’re playing a solid state amp and getting killer tone, please send me clips……I’m more than willing to admit I’m wrong. (It’s just that I’m not. hehe Kidding. Just a little.)

The thing a lot of people overlook about tube amps is that to get that overdriven tone we’re all striving for, we are actually misusing the tubes. They weren’t meant to ‘break up;’ we just started doing that to them because it was the ’60’s, and the thought of doing something conventional (like using an amp properly) was akin to the thought of casting Mark Whalberg in Planet of the Apes–you just shouldn’t do it. (For the love of all that’s good in this world…why, Tim Burton…why Marky-Mark?) So they started turning them up and distorting the tubes. And we all came to adore the sound. And I’m no different. But the thing is, with every note of tone-dripping goodness, we are wearing out our tubes.

marky-mark.jpg picture by rypdal95
(That’s Oscar-nominated Mark Whalberg, in the middle, sitting on the car with the white man bandana…looking, well…white. Yep. This actually happened.)

Marky-mark2.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And this is Oscar-nominated Mark Whalberg acting his heart out, being choked by an ape. His career obviously progressed quite nicely. This actually happened, too. I think even the Funky Bunch didn’t go see this one.)

So it becomes necessary to change the tubes. If you’ve never done this, or if it’s been awhile, my guess is that you’ll be blown away by the difference it makes. It just puts life back into your amp. Your amp will sound like it’s breathing again; more fat, more lush, more space and weight behind the notes, the harmonics will sit on top of each other more cleanly, and it will sound much more 3d. It’s one of those things where if you’re used to loving your tone, but the past few weeks you just haven’t been diggin’ it as much as usual, then it’s probably time to change your tubes. A good rule of thumb is to change them out once a year…I tend to play a lot, so I try to do it once every six months. Seriously, it’s like changing your strings…it’ll make more of a difference than any one pedal ever could.

The other thing to think about is that there are very big differences in tube manufacturers. Most amps come stock with no-name Chinese tubes and Sovtek tubes. In my humble and absolutely not professional opinion, these tubes are not very good…bordering on being very sucky (almost as much as Marky-Mark…and sorry all, but I just ran across Planet of the Apes on tv, and it is just offending how dumb that movie is. Did Mark Whalberg just kiss the monkey woman and the human woman? Are they even allowed to show that?) Just as changing to fresh tubes will make a huge difference, so will changing from bad tubes to good tubes.

planetoftheapes.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Sorry. I’m having a terrible time letting this go. This is Tim Roth…in his finest film-acting moment as a monkey. Complete with the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible under-the-eyebrows glare that is his only expression throughout this whole movie, and golden lion monkeys doing their best Patrick Swayze Dirty Dancing impression on his bosom.)

The best sounding tubes I have heard are NOS (new old stock) Mullards. These are from the ’40’s-’60’s, and just sound fantastic. The NOS Amperex tubes from Holland, and the old Tesla tubes from Yugoslavia, are also both very good. My problem with these tubes has been that they overheat and break on me quite often because of their age. It’s also about 50% of the time that I buy ‘fully tested at 100%’ NOS tubes that end up having like, an hour left of life on them. So unfortunately, I’ve relegated myself to buying well-made new tubes. I’m not a huge fan of Sovteks, and incidentally, the last I heard, both Mesa Boogie and Groove Tubes were buying Sovtek tubes and re-labeling them. (Ya, I know.)

So, some of the good tubes coming out currently are Tung-Sol and JJ. Ei’s are pretty good, but didn’t seem to measure up, in my humble opinion. It was the same with EH’s and Ruby’s. But the Tung Sol’s sound really good. And the JJ’s are my personal favorite. They’re actually made in the old Tesla factories. Nice and warm, reliable, and not much difference can be heard between them and NOS Mullards. I say ‘not much’, because up until last week, I could hear a difference. Then I tried JJ’s new gold pin preamp tubes. To my ears, every bit as rich and full-bodied as some of the NOS tubes. (Isn’t it funny how we musicians describe tone like it was a woman? I wonder if female guitarists describe their tone as buff or handsome. Probably not. They probably describe it as sensitive, or as the alluring gay friend who ends up not being gay. Wow. Bet you didn’t think I could ever take tone descriptions to the place I just took them.) Unfortunately, their gold pinned tubes are just preamp tubes right now. Hopefully they’ll extend it to power tubes soon.

And if you’ve never changed tubes out before, it’s really easy. Preamp tubes can just be pulled and replaced, as can rectifier tubes. For power tubes, make sure you get the exact same type (i.e. 6L6gc, 6L6b, EL34, etc.) or you will have to either re-bias the amp with a meter yourself, or take it to a tech to re-bias. It may not seem crucial, but you can possibly damage your amp if you don’t. If you have an EL84 style amp, those amps are 99% of the time self-biasing, which is nice. So, make sure you get the same types of power amp tubes if you don’t have an EL84-style amp, and then just pull the old ones out, and pop the new ones in. (Uh, make sure the amp is off. Seems dumb, but I in my infinite guitar wisdom have done it before. The tubes burn your hands, and it makes it a little more difficult to actually play guitar. But the tone from the new tubes sounds great!!…if you could actually play your guitar.)

I do seriously suggest changing out your tubes. It will make a huge tonal difference.

And I do seriously suggest never, ever, in the history of your whole life, watching Planet of the Apes. Just let it die. If you watch it, it will make you stupider. I promise.


14 thoughts on “Amp Tone Part 3: Change Your Tubes

  1. Do you bias on your own? I’ve always brought it in to a tech. My place charges something stupidly cheap like $20 to change and bias the tubes…. but I have to leave the amp there for 2 weeks which is impossibly long.

    I’ve heard preamp tubes only need to be changed half as often as power tubes. There’s my $0.02

  2. I’ve heard that most preamps are self biasing thus preamp tubes are easier to replace. This of course doesn’t apply to all, but seems to be the rule…..


  3. Mike–thus far, I’ve been taking mine to a tech. I’ve got a couple techs in the area here who do great jobs, and it just worked out that every amp I have needed re-biased has also needed another repair, so it’s been academic for me.

    And I’ve heard that, too, about preamp tubes. I think it also depends on how hot you run them. I tend to hear a bigger difference in preamp tubes than power tubes, but that could just be me. 😉

    Larry–Vince is right, preamp tubes do not need to be re-biased. Neither do EL84 tubes in almost all amps. And rectifier tubes don’t need it either.

    Vince–thanks!! You’re the man.

  4. Good advice but holy smokes – are you really supposed to change your tubes that often?! Having to drop a new quad set of Sylvania NOS Baldwins EL84’s in my AC30 would be around $125. My DB13 JRY 9/15 runs an EL84 AND a 6V6 circuit, so that wouldn’t be cheap either. Yikes…

  5. my amp is self-biasing but i always buy a “perfect pair” which apparently eliminates the need for biasing on non-self-biasing amps.

    re: replacement: like strings, it really depends on how much you use it. to make it less complicated I scheduled my pre-amps every 2 years and power-tubes every year or so. and you are right, it gets quite expensive. btw, i think i mentioned this before, i switched to Tungsol from JJ and I am really liking it.

    good post karl!

  6. Jeff–it just depends on how much you play and how hot you run your amps. (And also on how much you buy into anything I post…lol.) I run my amps very hot and they seem to be always on, so I can start to hear the tubes going after a few months. It does get expensive, but at least in my humble opinion, the tonal quality of fresh tubes is worth it. And good call on Sylvania tubes…I’ve used those and they have a good sound, and also might be the only NOS tubes I’ve used where I haven’t ever had one die on me.

    Rhoy–totally! I was very surprised by how good the Tung-Sol’s sounded! Didn’t you say you liked their earlier breakup, and that was why you switched from JJ’s?

  7. @karl – yes, its the earlier breakup. i like the JJs for really really pristine/crisp clean tone, but its just not me. i like my tone on the verge of break-up most times. i didn’t want to choke the amp so much so the Tungsol’s really work for my purpose, plus they do sound good.

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  9. Karl,

    I’m thinking about retubing my mesa lonestar special (el84 based amp). There are 4 power tubes and 5 preamp tubes i believe. Thought about going with a full set of JJ from eurotubes. I think it’s like 88 bucks for the regular and 118 for a full set that includes gold pinned preamp tubes. Which would you recommend? Or can i get away with just changing my pre-amp tubes for now as I have some extra mesa power amp el84s that haven’t been opened yet. Would that alone make a nice impact on my tone?

    thanks for the advice,

  10. Hey Ryan,

    Yes, just going with the preamp tubes only will make a very noticeable difference. Especially if you go with the gold-pinned. On the average, preamp tubes tend to make a bigger difference than power tubes. However, power tubes do also make a noticeable difference, and in my hopefully humble opinion, the JJ’s do sound a bit better than the Mesa tubes.
    So I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re looking to save money, and since you already have the Mesa tubes, I’d go with the gold-pinned JJ’s in the preamp, and then just wait 6 months to a year or so until the new Mesa power tubes wear out, and then get yourself some JJ power tubes.
    But if money is no issue (which, for me, unfortunately, it always is an issue…hehe), then I’d go with a full JJ retube including the gold-pinned preamps.
    Hope that helps a bit! And also, nice rig! Those Lonestar amps are some of the ones Mesa really seemed to get it right with.


  11. Karl,

    Speaking of needing to change your tubes, you ever get around to changing out the tubes in your green blues jr you picked up a few months ago? Just got some tubes for Christmas and can’t wait to see how the tone/breakup point changes (got a 12AY7 as well as a TungSol 12AX7 that I will try in the V1 position).
    Merry Christmas!

  12. Awesome! Hope you had a great Christmas, too. 🙂

    And ya, I changed out the tubes a couple weeks ago to JJ’s, and the speaker to a Weber. Killer difference!

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