When it comes to guitar amps, there are a million choices. There are combos, practice amps, stacks, half stacks, separate heads, separate cabinets, modeling amps, acoustic amps, low wattage, high output, 1-12, 2-12’s, 4-10’s, 1-15, 10 watt, 30 watt, 40 watt, 100 watt….and the list goes on!
But beyond all that, the first really important choice to make is whether to go with a solid state amp, or a tube amp.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both – and that discussion is for another day. But if you decide to go with a tube amp, you will want to be aware of the differences between the two predominant tube types that are available.
Within every tube amp there are typically two tube classifications – pre-amp tubes, and power amp tubes.
These are the smaller tubes and there can be anywhere from 2 to 4 or more of them. These tubes power the "pre" section of the amp and are responsible for producing the boost or distortion, and adding "warmth" to the tone.
Power Amp Tubes:
These larger tubes carry the load of the amp and are responsible for the main output signal.
Today we are looking at the differences in the two main types of "power amp" tubes, 6L6’s and EL84’s.
There are significant differences in the sound produced by power amp tubes labeled "6L6" and "EL84" – and when shopping for a guitar amp you will want to consider these carefully according to the style of music you are playing.
If you are playing blues, country, southern rock and some rock music – 6L6’s may be your best choice. They produce a cleaner, warm "vintage" tone that is suitable for these styles of music. These tubes are closely associated with the "Fender" sound and are stock tubes on most of these amps.
These will produce a boosted mid range tone and have a history of "breaking up" earlier for a distinct distortion sound. They are preferred by many guitarists that lean toward a heavier rock or metal style. EL84’s are closely associated with the "Marshall" sound and are stock tubes on most of these amps.
One or the Other
In most cases, a guitar amp is built to accept either 6L6’s – or EL84’s, and you will need to be aware of which, and the nuances of each before making a decision.
There are, however, some boutique amps, such as some of the Mesa Boogie models, that come with both. These come with a switch that allows you to change between the two, and opens up a whole new range of tonal possibilities. Of course, you’ll also have to open up your wallet because they don’t come cheap.
Forget the Rules
Even though we have discussed the two power amp tube types according to the style of music that they are most suited for, ultimately every guitarist is unique in their approach to playing. As a result, like most anything relating to the art of interpreting music, there are absolutely no rules.
I have known blues and southern rock players that got killer tones out of Marshall amps with EL84’s. And, conversely, there have been plenty of players using Fenders loaded with 6L6’s playing hard rock and heavy metal.
The point is, a serious tube amp can be a pricey investment, and the key is to be aware of the power amp tube differences going into it so you can make an informed decision based on what works best for you!