Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Using Aging Tubes: A Dangerous Guitar Tone Tweak?

Though very, very rarely mentioned in interviews by superstar guitarists, is the use of aging tubes to create your very own unique guitar tone very dangerous to your very expensive gear?

By: Ringo Bones

I’ve probably lost count since 1997 on how many guitarists around my neck of the woods explored in finding ways to make their renditions of Veruca Salt’s Earthcrosser intro sound more “soulful”, especially by resorting to tone tweaks that could irreparably damage to their extremely expensive (3,000 US dollars MSRP) electric guitar amplifier. From connecting four 8-ohm speakers in series to a push-pull based tube electric guitar amp – which could result in a very high voltage build up of the output power tubes – to using aging tubes. Though by far, the use of aging tubes is the most common. Given that tubes are becoming very scarce compared to latest generation mobile phones – especially in the US – the “poor” unsigned amateur guitarist is more than likely be using output power tubes in his or her electric guitar amplifier that are past its prime.

I’ve read an article about the summer NAMM 1992 in Guitar Player magazine about a company introducing a digital electric guitar effects processor - with an effects setting - that emulates the sound of an aging tube, such tone never became popular. Even during the guitar-heavy musical genre of Seattle Grunge that went mainstream a few months after reading that feature.

Given that I’ve only began building and owning tube-based amplifiers in the mid 1990s, I’ve asked some veteran audiophiles on how an aging power tube sounds in a “hi-fi audio setting.” Most of them pointed out the “quirky acoustics” of the Tori Amos song China from the Little Earthquakes album as what music would sound like when played through a tube amp with output power tubes past its prime and will be arcing anytime soon.

Back in April 2009, I was asked to help an amateur unsigned guitarist who wants his performance to be video recorded for You Tube posting. He was using a family heirloom 1965 Fender Twin Reverb with aging 6L6 tubes. He did manage to conjure up a very unique tone until 30 minutes into the session when one of the 6L6 tubes started to arc and fused into its tube sockets, though it did manage to emit a very cool apocalyptic-sounding high-pitched squeal when the final chord was struck.

Given that equipment of this vintage still uses plastic / phenolic resin output power tube sockets for the 6L6 output tubes / valves instead of being upgraded to military-spec porcelain tube sockets with silver plated contacts when it became widely available during the mid-1990s. Fortunately, only the output section of his Fender Twin was damaged. But it resulted in a very expensive repair bill, especially when you live in a place where most people live on slightly less than a dollar a day.

It is still a mystery why guitar digital effects processors still don’t add an aging tube emulator proviso on its menu of effects, especially ones that do advanced 24-bit 96-kHz digital signal processing are now relatively cheap and widely available. An aging tube sound / tone obtained through digital domain physical modeling is a much safer way of doing things compared to using actual aging tubes on your very expensive tube-based electric guitar amp since complete catastrophic failure resulting from such practice is not that far from impossible. Maybe guitar effects manufacturers are ignoring this sector of the market at their own peril since the sound of an aging tube is very interesting and very soulful.


  1. I'm quite new to this concept of an "aging tube / valve tone", but does this sound like that Megadeth song Holy Wars...The Punishment Due before the song's main guitar solo where the strummed guitar chord sounded like a fauty spring reverb pre-amp tube. Or is this just really creative guitar strumming technique? Or how about Tod A's high-end bass guitar playing on Cop Shoot Cop's Ask Questions Later album, especially on the track "Surprise, Surprise"?

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  3. Using my really-hazy memory of those of my now lost copies of Guitar Player magazines from 1992. I did manage to come across a guitar effects pedal that has a setting that emulates the aging tube sound - though I can't remember if it was made by Demeter or Mark Of The Unicorn.
    I've just recently visited a website after researching on line on the topic of the aging tube sound. It features a vacuum tube-based guitar amp that allows you to lower the output power tubes in order to "mimic" the aging tube sound. Does this work? Honestly, I'm just "too chicken" to do this to my still working Fender Twin inherited from my uncle that he used during his college band days back in the 1960s.
    On the subject of reducing the power supply voltage, the Allman Brothers were famed for using weak 9-volt batteries on their guitar fuzzboxes. Does this also produce the famed aging tube sound that some bands were probably courageous and lucky enough to experiment on their Fender Twins using a really aging 6L6 tube?