Grudge Match: 6L6 Vs. EL34


Grudge Match: 6L6 Vs. EL34

by Marc Johnson for

As I was sitting up at the front counter, perusing through the local entertainment publication, a coworker walked up and interrupted my reading with what quickly turned into a point of animosity between us for several years. Following is the gist of that conversation:

Coworker: “I ordered some of these new power tubes.”

Me: “Good for you.”

Coworker: “Are you listening?”

Me: “I’m really trying not to.”

Coworker: “They cost twice as much as the Sovteks that we usually keep in stock.”

Me: “I’m still trying not to listen.”

Coworker: “Do you know what’s so special about them?”

Me: “If they’ll keep people like you from bothering me, then I’m sold.”

Coworker: “Their 6L6s are made of a harder glass.”

He might as well have stuck a knife in my head.

Me: “I’m sorry. Could you please repeat that?”

Coworker: “They’re made of a harder glass.”

Me: “Are you out of your #$^$% mind?”

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What followed was a bloody argument that has since become a mainstay at our shop for the past four years. Does tube type really make that much of a difference in tone?

At this point, many audiophiles will be reaching for their pitchforks and torches. Before things get out of hand, let me explain.

There are so many other factors that are involved in the sound of your guitar, that tube type doesn’t matter as much as most people think. Just imagine the chain of command when it comes to your tone. You pluck the string, which gets pulled into your pickups and pushed out again as a line level signal through a guitar cable into the front of your amp. There are so many factors, no matter how negligible they may be, that have already affected your sound. And we haven’t even reached your precious tubes yet! Everything from what type of pickup you use to how hard you pick is going to affect your tone. Tube type is only a small factor in a whole slew that will eventually make up your sound.

As most of you already know, the general rule of thumb is that 6L6s are a “modern” tone while EL34s are a “British” or “Classic” tone emblematic of old Marshalls. I’m not even sure what that means. I wouldn’t consider a Fender Twin a “modern” sounding amp, but it’s got 6L6s. And, honestly, a Bogner Shiva with EL34s sounds about as “British” to me as a bottle of Budweiser. Let’s face it. Amp manufacturers build their amps to sound a certain way. That’s their main selling point! And no matter what tube they put in there, the sound is really going to come from how the thing is wired.

Many audiophiles will disagree with me, but they’ve trained themselves to notice these subtle differences between these types of tubes. It’s like my ability to distinguish the difference in sound between an Em9 chord and an Emadd9 chord. Sure, I can tell, but I’ve had four years of school to teach me to hear the difference between those two chords. And, at the end of the day, who gives a flying crap what the audiophiles, or me for that matter, can or can’t hear? It’s what the guy who’s playing hears that’s important.

My students are always asking me what type of tubes they should get, EL34s or 6L6s. The answer I give them is always the same: “How in the hell should I know?” I tell them to go ahead and play a bunch of amps, and, whichever one they like the most, buy it. And maybe that’s the crux of it all. If you like how the damn thing sounds, buy it. It’s that simple. If it has 6L6s, great! If it has EL34s, who cares? It’s all about what sounds good to you.

Although, I understand that tube preference can be like a religion for many guitarists, and I guess that’ll make me a heretic for saying all of this, but I cannot say that I hear a profound difference between one tube and the next. Granted, I hear some subtle difference, but I hear more of a difference between new strings and ones that I have had on for a bit too long. I don’t know if the difference in tubes will ever be the be-all end-all of my amp purchases. Truthfully, I’m not even sure what the hell I’m playing through right now!

If you’re still not convinced I know what the heck I’m talking about, check out The Tone King’s blind taste test here:

Click Play to watch below, or visit the link directly on YouTube :

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Filed Under: Amps

About the Author: Marc published his first novel Becoming in 2010. It’s a kick-ass book with monsters and dreams and stuff, and you should buy it. Since then, he’s written thousands of articles for, many of which have been picked up for circulation by manufacturers and other news outlets. His next book, Drugs and Pancakes, should be available early 2014 if his alcoholic editor can find time to work on it in-between destroying his liver and screaming about punctuation. He graduated from Roosevelt University with honors, which means that he’s not as dumb as he looks. He’s been playing guitar for over 25 years, which is almost twice as long as most of his students have been alive.

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  1. Ethan Landseadel says:

    wow, ok it was pretty easy to tell which is which……el34’s had significantly brighter mids. Im pretty shocked you couldn’t tell the difference.

  2. Chris says:

    I would be really interested in hearing this test using a class A/B amplifier. To me class A amplifiers always sound great when practicing but never cut the mix at live volumes like the class A/B amps.
    I find it interesting that in this test I really don’t hear a clear winner but when I A/B my 6l6 amps with my EL34 amps I prefer the stage feel of the EL34 amps.

  3. Charles says:

    Blindly, I like #3 the best. I’m a blues guy and like the warmth/darkness of the valve.

  4. Tim says:

    I always find it interesting when someone tries to invalidate a claim as well established as the tonal differences between tube types. There are several such videos and articles out there and in each case they make their point by using the muddiest, most nondescript tones they can find making it impossible, based solely on that single sound byte, to disagree. I used to own a Koch Multitone (fantastic amp) which could take any octal base power tube. Naturally, I tried a few different tube types to see what the difference was. I tried EL34’s, 6L6’s, KT66’s and 6550’s. Each tube type produced a significantly different tone. Even mixing tube types, like 2 6L6’s with 2 KT66’s, produced new tones not possible with other tube combinations. Switching from 6L6 to KT88 tubes produced such a drastic change that it didn’t even sound like the same amp. Switching pre-amp tubes had the same effect. I couldn’t even listen to the Multitone with a 12ax7EH installed, but a 12ax7A or 12ax7C both sounded great in their own way. This is what happens in a properly designed amplifier.
    The last time I watched a video like this, it was from a Tube Screamer clone pedal manufacturer claiming there was no sonic difference between various op amps. Being a pedal manufacturer myself, I can say that there is a vast tonal difference between various op amps. Even between a JCR4558D and an RC4558P there is a difference, just as there is between a TL07x and TL08x. But in the case of a Tube Screamer, most of the signal is dumped to ground through a large capacitor, creating a very muddy signal which, when fed into a darker amplifier, provides the perfect basis for someone to argue that there is no sonic difference between the op amps. In the above video, it sounds as if the signal is going through a Rat or other fuzzy distortion pedal. Perhaps if he had used less distortion or played through a better amplifier – one which performed better under heavy distortion – we would have heard the differences more clearly. Making such a comparison with this amplifier this heavily distorted is tantamount to putting bicycle tires on a Farrari and a Toyota and saying there is no appreciable difference in performance.
    I think this article would have been better written as an argument strictly on subjectivity, rather than trying to refute what decades of guitarists have proven to themselves. There is a big difference.

  5. TT says:

    I’m not really sure what the author is getting at in this article. It sounds as if he’s saying that tube type doesn’t make much difference in the overall tone a guitar player is looking for. The author states that he hears more tonal difference between new and old strings than between 6L6 or EL34 power tubes.
    He goes on and on about how there are so many things that go into creating a tone, and seems to suggest that tube type isn’t that important.

    Overall, I find his argument and conclusions to simply be argumentative rather than informative.
    Of course there are a number of things that go into guitar tone including strings, guitar, wood, pup’s, picks, technique, speakers, amplifier, etc…
    And tube type is one of those number of things that affect tone.
    Trying to diminish the impact of tube type on tone by listing all the things involved in creating a tone is illogical.

    Let’s keep things straight. If one wants to know how tube type affects tone, then leave all of those other things the same and ONLY change the pre or power tubes and then play and listen to the differences.
    YES, there IS a difference between not just tube types but even between tube brands within the same tube type.
    Even if you’re only trying out different 6L6 tubes, there will be tonal differences between brands.

    If your amp relies more on pre tubes, then experimenting with different brand and type of pre tubes will let you find a tone you may want.
    If you amp relies more on power tubes for it’s tone, then trying different tube brands will allow you to tweak tone.

    And, even if your amp’s tone comes mostly from it’s pre tubes, the power tubes will still affect it’s tone, and trying different power tube brands and types gives you something else to tweak to alter tone.

    Just like anything else, once you start to pay more attention to something you will start to get more in tune with it’s subtleties and you will start noticing little changes and differences.
    Wine is just wine to some people and all of it mostly tastes the same. Yeah, until you start to want to sample different types and then you begin to understand the “language” of wine and how they are not all the same.
    Same goes with music, guitars, cars, food, and yes tube amplifiers. 🙂

    I bought my Egnater Vengeance amp because it can use a wide variety of tubes types, as long as they are in the 6L6/EL34 pin configuration. You can use different tubes in pairs, like a pair of 6L6 and a pair of EL34, or KT66 and 5881. Each pair has it’s own bias adjustment.
    It’s great to be able to try different tubes and hear the differences they make.
    I just ordered the new Bugera TriRec Infinium that will let me use a variety of tubes even single tube types.
    The “Infinium” circuitry will adjust the bias for each tube, and they can be different tubes and tube types.

    YES, there are tonal differences between tube types and within tube types with different brands.
    Go and experiment and enjoy the sonic rainbow available to all of us.

  6. William Sats says:

    First think practical!
    Get an amp that takes several types of tubes (for example infinium models from Bugera) and start listening to different sets of tubes.
    Now you can hear the differences, right?
    So, what i want to say is that trying different amps with different tubes doesn’t say much to me… Actually NOTHING!!! What you need to do is to change and try the tubes on the same circuit with the same guitar (and pickups of course), then you can say about differences in tubes’ sound.

  7. Christopher Cole says:

    The concept for this comparison is good.

    Like others who have posted here, I also heard definite differences in tone. Using my rig and my guitars, I can definitely tell the difference between EL34 and 6L6 equipped amps. I have done A/B comparisons for quite a few.

    But could I tell for sure which tube is which in these samples? I could probably make a a pretty good guess, but so many other factors come into play that I prefer not to.

    Those factors include things like the player’s technique, string age, dimensions, and composition, pickups, pot/cap wiring, cables, buffering, amp design, speaker, speaker cab specs, room dimensions and compostion, mic specs, mic placement, recording hardware, recording settings — you get the idea.

    Amp designers/builders choose their power amp tubes for reasons. 6L6s pass more electrons over a broader frequency range. That is not an opinion. It is a measurable, demonstrable fact. EL34s run hotter, clip sooner, and have spiky frequencies that can either be detrimental, causing painful spikes at certain frequencies, or beneficial, making for blooming sweet spots if those frequencies are tamed and channeled. That is largely a matter of the guitarist’s rig, ear, and technique. EL34’s are also more focused in certain frequency ranges most audible to the human ear. So they tend to sound more focused in tone. My opinion is that Marc’s ear and technique are not such that they can bring out the best of an EL34.

    These clips all have high levels of distortion. That comes mostly from the preamp tubes, not so much the power amp. EL34s shine especially when you want semi-clean tones with the chime and glassiness that come from driving your power amp tubes, not preamp distortion.


  8. Mike Mitchell says:

    I used to trade out the 6L’s with 5881’s and with a bit more plate voltage the instant report was better, but maybe negligible to the listener. I’m using an EL 34 setup now and after 40 years I can’t hear a thing. People tell me it sounds well. I tend to rely on other’s ears. I use hot rails in a 66 tele and find that any valve amp that will actually turn on and work is OK. Guitar sound seems to be so much more than tubes, but again, I am deaf, tho’ not legally. Shake it, anyway.

  9. Scott says:

    Very slight differences. To me, the tone is in the amp circuitry. I have put the identical tubes in two different amps and there was a much bigger difference than what I hear here in the same amp. That tells me it has less to do with the tube and more with the amp. The amp is what has the character. Also, what speakers and cabinet are being used. I will use the same head with different speakers/cabs depending on the sound I want. I hear a much bigger change in tone with speakers and cabs than tubes ever brought. Some are looser, some are punchier, some are mid-rangey, some are bassy, some are mellow, some are shrill. Then what guitar/pick-ups etc. I guess what I am saying is I agree with this article totally. Go for dependability when it come to tubes. Spend your money and time finding the amp /speaker combination that suits your favorite ax and your ears. What is better? Who knows? What I think sounds kick ass, another will find terrible and visa versa. So if you think your rig sounds like ass, it is likely not the tubes. So, dont waste your money unless it is because the tube is malfunctioning. You probably need to find a different rig. But that is my opinion.

  10. Jack Mylaphogoff says:

    I can hear subtle differences between 6L6,6V6 and EL34 but not enough to give a shit. I buy russian equivs for a 1/4 of the price for my DIY amps and don’t care a set of balls for “ultimate tone”. As chub’s said it more about the circuitry and the overall design goal than the output tubes. I will say this, when it comes to push-pull amps I’ll take a set of EL84’s over any other output tube, because I likes me treble.

  11. JACK says:

    Hey “Slim Metal”,

    So how y’a figure Marc Johnson sounds like a “fricking prick”? Did I miss something? Please, tell me you guys are best buds and you were just having some fun – or, let us know how it is that he sounds ….as you say?

  12. JACK says:

    hi guys – testing

  13. Time Cop says:

    Good article. Yeah there are slight differences in tubes, no one doubts that, but they are almost unnoticeable especially to people in the audience. Sometimes “audiophile” is just another word for “sucker”.

  14. SlimMetal says:

    This Marc Johnson sounds like a fricken prick. . . . That being said, I have played different tubes side by side and I have to say that at least to my untrained ears, the difference is nominal at best. EL-34’s to 6L6’s in the same amp is hardly no differense. Could it be the set-up of the amp it’s self. Because all of the electronics themselves (minus the tubes) are identical. How much would that dictate what the sound is like.

  15. clifford wright says:

    Strewth! A bit of sense at last.
    I have worked on all kinds of amps for many years and it has always amazed me that a musician will go for the most distorted (especially 3rd harmonic) amp.
    I have cleaned up a couple of 6L6 tube amps and been told in no uncertain terms to put it back to the original 20 watts @ 10 % distortion from the 0.2% 35 watts I had improved it too.
    Folks with ears like that are in no position to judge amplifier quality!
    BTW that is measured THD, I have the equipment to test down to ~0.0006%.
    The output tubes are FAR less important than their bias conditions and the overall amp and power supply design.
    I have also worked on amps rated 300 W RMS that collapsed @ 50 watts @100 Hz simply because the power supply was badly designed.

  16. Mark Johnson says:

    I like what you’re trying to do here, and I agree, tube selection (like most guitar tone topics) is a subjective thing. While in my studio on the good monitor speakers I can hear differences in all three tubes, mostly what I hear is the compressed low quality You Tube audio. Not much in the free internet video space you can do about it, but I’d love to hear a minute of each tube in a higher quality audio format.

    Thanks for adding to the tone discussion!

  17. Joe says:

    This article is written by an idiot. Next!

  18. dean rosile says:

    which tube is which? i cant find it on here

  19. Horhay says:

    I’ve been playing guitar for 15 years but just picked up my first tube amp a a couple weeks ago, TTK videos helped me pick the Randall RM100. Now I don’t have a lot of experience with tube amps but to me number 2 sounded most like what I would want to get out my guitar. Obviously everyone wants something different but to me I could hear a difference and I liked 2 the best before reading which one that was.

  20. Ben says:

    There is a difference in sound between the 6l6 and the el34 in this video, the nos vs the el34….not so much to me. Now a good shootout could be el34 vs kt77

  21. Bluz says:

    I could hear the difference in the three tubes. My fav was the third tube. Not sure which tube you were playing through on the third. I own two Crate amps, V50 with 6L6’s and a V18-212 with the EL’s. I can tell a difference in the tone between these two amps. IMO, I believe if you have a cheap amp, you will have a “cheap” tone. I like the Create amps but they are not expensive amps. Hope to upgrade to either a Carvin Nomad or Bel Air or a Peavey Delta Blues….therefore better tone than a cheaper amp. Thanks for the videos and the info, they are helpful.

  22. Bruce says:

    The way I think about tubes is that it’s only slightly different than choosing a pickup ; a guitar; a pedal; or a particular brand, type, or guage of strings. It’s not just about the tone it is also about the preformance of said object. For instance EL-34’s tend to distort faster as you turn up the the master volume. 6550’s tend to distort less slowly and retain a tighter low end, and so on and so forth. As far as I am conserded my choice affects my ability to have my rig preform in the fashion that I want more than anyones listening pleasure. Sure you can create a certain sound out of almost any piece of gear if you play with it enough, but the preformance limitations will be there no matter what you do. Choosing tubes for me is almost like choosing a car. It’s all about preformance expectations and comfort.

  23. Lou says:

    First, I love the videos keep up the good work!

    I think that mostly its subjective to each person. I think that there are just too many variables. What sounds good in your setup, i.e.; rig, fx chain, axe, won’t sound the same as another.

    Because I know this, I know that when people say one tube is better sounding than others my B.S. detector goes off!

    Mainly I look for reliability first. Tubes don’t seem to be getting any cheaper.

    That being said, I liked the way the 1st and 3rd tube demos sounded. The 2nd one was a little muddy and chimey at times. But that doesn’t mean any one was better.

    A good example is Adam Jones’ (Tool) guitar sound. The guitar sounds on Tool albums typically sound like a whale. And I’m sure he found his sound by experimenting.

  24. Stormleader says:

    At least to me, the difference in tone was VERY noticeable.
    I think it just comes down to the personal guitarist, not everybody can hear everything.
    Oh, and just to clarify I’m no audiophile, I started playing less than two years ago.

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