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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