“Hey Billy…what tubes do you recommend”? This should be the question of almost every day because I get tons of emails about which tubes to use. I think a lot of players get confused with brands and numbers, NOS, etc. I like to keep it simple and use tubes that sound good to me and are reliable for gigs. So here is my take on tubes coming from a working musician’s and tech’s perspective.
First of all, for the most part lets take NOS (new old stock) tubes off the table. The original NOS tubes can be wonderful but some of them are very expensive and rare. I do incorporate some NOS tubes for certain types however as you’ll see but only where they are readily available and reasonably priced. You can find good NOS tubes if you buy from a trusted dealer like KCA NOS Tubes.
So with NOS for the most part off the table what can a working musician re-tube his amp with for good tone and reliability? Starting with the preamp tubes I like two current production 12AX7’s for my amps. I use the Sovtek 12AX7LPS and Tung Sol 12AX7. I really like the 12AX7LPS because of they have a little higher gain and a really nice midrange character. They are a bit microphonic and have an alive, “vibey” quality. You may not be able to use every one you pick for the V1 spot so you may have to experiment a bit. Second choice is the Tung Sol 12AX7 which has a nice sort of scooped midrange sound. They sound warm and sweet. Both tubes have been very reliable in my experience and sound good to my ears.
The other popular preamp tube is the 12AT7. I just go straight for NOS because I feel they sound better than the current production models and there is a decent supply of NOS 12AT7’s around. Plus they are not too expensive ($10-$15 range) and have a long life expectancy. You can even get some mil spec NOS 12AT7 types for not a lot of money ($30 range) and they will last a long time.
I have a few amps that use 6L6’s so this is another tube on the top of my list. Just a tip when buying pairs of 6L6’s or any output tubes. I always buy a quad when I need a pair. This way if I’m on a gig and a tube decides to stop working I can just pull the pair and replace them with the other pair. This does not require a bias adjustment because they are part of a quad. In my personal amps I use either the current production Tung Sol 6L6STR or the Winged C type. Both sound good and are reliable. The current production Tung Sol 5881 is a nice sounding reliable tube if you like 5881’s.
Moving on to the the 6V6’s I recommend the current production Tung Sol’s. I have had great results with these for reliability and good tone. My man Larry Rodgers of Rodgers Amps has had very good results with the Electro Harmonix 6V6’s for repairs and restoration which is another good choice.
Next stop the EL34’s. For a while good EL34’s were not easy to get. I found that many of them could not come close to handling the plate voltages and current draw of an NOS tube. I don’t really use EL34’s personally very often but have re-tubed some amps with the Winged C tubes with great results. These prove to be reliable and good sounding.
EL84’s are another story. I am spoiled because years ago I bought a few quads of matched NOS GE’s. I think they sound wonderful….my personal favorite. The current production JJ’s are pretty reliable and have a decent sound. Larry Rodgers concurs on this one and says that they hold up the longest based on his experience and sound pretty good.
Lastly there are the rectifier tubes. I truly believe that NOS is the way to go here but the price of NOS GZ34/5AR4’s are the moon (like the $200 range…..each!!). If you want the best and have the cash then the old Mullard GZ34 is about the best you can buy. But for the working guy that wants a good reliable tube then I’d say the Sovtek is a pretty good choice. I have not had very good luck with the Chinese rectifier tubes so I’d pass on them. The NOS 5Y3 and 5U4 are readily available and are not too expensive…in the $30 range so I just go right for NOS. Another cool rectifier to try is the 5V4. It is staunchier than the 5Y3 but not as saggy as the 5U4. It’s probably my favorite rectifier tube.
One last word about tube manufacture and brands. Current production tubes only come from a few places in the world. The majority of tubes are made in Czechoslovakia, Russia and China. Brand names purchase them from suppliers in large quantities. They are then screened and matched by the brand and then labeled with the brands name/logo. The brand does not make the tubes..!! The name brands all get them from the same few places on the planet that manufacture them. You pay more money for certain brands for their screening and matching. This does not mean that they will last longer however.
So that about wraps it up for my current production (and a few NOS) tube picks. I have tried a lot of tubes and the ones I listed here just work for me and these are my opinions. You may have other choices that sound and feel good to you along with providing dependable reliability which is super important. I’d like to know what you guys are using that sound good and have been reliable for you. Leave comments or email me.