EL34 - Different Power Tubes and Their Signature Sounds

The Different Power Tubes and Their Signature Sounds

September 23, 2016 10 Comments

Swapping out a set of power amp tubes for another can change up your tone in a subtle but significant way. This article will highlight the basic tonal characteristics of common power tubes and help you find the right one for you. Please note that swapping out tubes is a process that is best left to an experienced amplifier technician- the amount of voltage present can be lethal if they are not discharged correctly.

 

Using Matched Power Tubes

When switching out power tubes, you should always try to use a matched set - that is, power tubes that are sold in a set together. Even when they are manufactured in the same place using the same process, they have natural variations in their current draw. For this reason, manufacturers test the current draw of each tube and match them as closely as possible with others. And always get your amp biased when changing the output tubes.

 

The Signature Sounds of Different Tubes

EL34: A classic choice for rock and gritty blues, the EL34 is characterized by its pronounced, aggressive midrange and tight lows. Four EL34s are used in the power sections of Carvin Audio’s X100B and Steve Vai Legacy heads to help give them their signature crunch, bite, and definition.

X100B 100W Tube Amp Head

X100B 100W Head

EL84: This is the lower power little brother to the EL34 and breaks up more noticeably, producing a warmer tone at lower volumes. It also has a more prominent, punchy high end with more clarity and shimmer in the treble frequencies. The Carvin Audio Belair 2X12 is equipped with four EL84s for its thick, rich sound.

6L6GC and close brother the 5881: These are known for their higher perceived headroom and their ability to stay cleaner longer. Not nearly as gritty as the EL34 or EL84, these are great for a squeaky-clean sound that’s fairly neutral across the frequency spectrum. The speaker used may make a more significant tone difference. The “GC”, sometimes dropped or shortened when referring to this tube, indicates the glass container or top. The original 6L6 had an all metal top instead of glass, like many original tubes had. The 5881 was the 25 watt version of the 30 watt 6L6GC, but this difference has been blurred in modern manufacturing with some companies labeling these two interchangeably. A side note: the speakers used in the classic amps noted for using 6L6s are very different, so don’t get caught thinking your British rock tone will change to American tone with just a power tube change.

6550: The 6550 is a different kind of beast and much higher wattage. This one doesn’t see much use in guitar amps today, but its warm, full, and powerful output places it right at home in bass amplifiers with over 100 watts.

Note: Not all amplifiers can change to different types of tubes, and many types are not possible to be interchanged without a circuit change. Just because the socket fits does not mean the amp is designed to work with that tube. So, before jamming in different types make sure your amp works with them. Several amps have switches for EL34 and 6L6/5881 tubes. Be sure the switch is in the correct position. The wrong switch setting could damage your new tubes and possibly your amp.

Of course, your amplifier design is just as important as which power tubes you choose. Usually the amp is designed around a specific output tube type, so it may not be exploiting all the benefits of another type. If you want to experiment with your tone and switch up your sound without switching amps altogether, trying different power tubes is a great place to start.



10 Responses

Trevor Srewop
Trevor Srewop

September 25, 2016

What do the names and numbers of the various tubes mean, if anything? There seems to be little rhyme or reason to them (excepting family relations such as EL34 and EL84).

Art Stuckman
Art Stuckman

September 25, 2016

Cool article and very informative!.

Gil
Gil

September 24, 2016

Thanks! Good Info!

Scott Weiter
Scott Weiter

September 24, 2016

Don’t forget about the KT88’s. I loved swapping those into the older Marshall’s that were shipped with 6550’s. Gave the amp a bit more bottom end. They are also great for bass amps, SVT’s love them!

Steve McDowall
Steve McDowall

September 24, 2016

A very informative and inciteful article. As old as I am and as much as I have read about tube technology there is always something more to learn. I didn’t realize that the EL 34 and 84 were " related " although I have amps that use one or the other. Very cool!
Keep the articles coming

Thanks , Steve

Jarrett
Jarrett

September 24, 2016

Good article. But no 6v6’s? That little tube has etched its way into tube amp history and has its own “deluxe” following as well.

Kirk Smith
Kirk Smith

September 24, 2016

Hi-fi enthusiasts will fight to the death for a set of properly matched power tubes even to the point of pulling them out and rematching them before every listening. However, there is a school of thought that posits that some of the secret sauce that makes vintage amps sound like vintage amps is the asymmetry between the tops and bottoms of the waveforms due to components (tubes, transformers, caps, resistors, etc.) that have aged randomly rather than perfectly symmetrically. If you subscribe to this particular sect of tonal shamanism, you might not WANT perfectly matched tubes. I’m not recommending that you don’t match them because I don’t personally know what might happen to your amplifier over time with wildly mismatched tubes—-I’m just sayin’. I saw an interview with the ACDC folks where they said that they intentionally run their amp bias a hair over the edge ’cause they like the sound—-and it does take its toll. But they pack an amp technician with every tour who takes care of the aftermath on a daily basis. So, intentional power stage asymmetry may also be only for the already-rich-and-famous.

One instance in which you get some natural asymmetry in your waveforms without violating design parameters is in single ended class-A amplifiers. This is what a Fender Champ is, or maybe the baby Supro that Jimmy Page recorded the early Led Zepplin albums with. Single ended class-a (SECA) can’t be scaled past about 25 or 30 watts without going over 70 lbs per unit. They require a lot of iron and consume a lot of power for their relatively modest output power. Joe Robinson, for one, uses nothing else.

So you know.

M. Bannon
M. Bannon

September 24, 2016

My tonal challenge with my Carvin Nomad overdrive channel is excessive bass. I rarely have it set above “1” and even that is more than other amps. Will a tube change rectify that?

Ron
Ron

September 24, 2016

Good article. You should point out that the V3m also has EL84’s. I love mine. Also love my Marshall EL34’s, but for the different reasons your cogent article pointed out.

Sprout
Sprout

September 24, 2016

Hi,
I’m using a Peavy Blues Classic amp from the early 1980’s .serial number 00-06361373. 120 VAC 60 hz – 200 watts. I like playing Blues & rock. What model of tubes would you recommend ? Also, I’m using Gibson Classic 57 pickups on a few of my guitars .

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