Since the beginning of time, there have been so many things humans considered absolute truths that were later debunked. In the guitar amp world, things that seemed unachievable in the past have continued to be made possible by technological advancements and innovations.
Even then, with all these changes taking place, one thing that won't be changing anytime soon is the fact that Marshall is forever etched in history as one of the best amp brands ever.
Since its inception, Marshall has been consistent in dishing out some of the most influential tube amps on the planet. The 1959 Super lead Plexi, the 1962 Bluesbraker, the JCM 800, the Silver Jubilee—the list of iconic Marshall tube amps is simply amazing.
Perhaps the brand's success with supreme tones can be attributed to the use of EL34 tubes on most of the amps. The EL34's unique characteristics in balancing out frequencies—whether it’s warm mids, smooth highs, or supreme lows—make it the perfect component for any amp.
Nevertheless, while epic, EL34 tubes may need to be replaced now and then. Considering there are many brands out there that make EL34 tubes, it may take you years of tube rolling just to find out what works best on Marshall tube amps.
Lucky for you, we’re here to save you from years of experimentation. Notice how we used “you” two times in that previous sentence. That's because “you” are important... hehe!
Here are our top picks for the best EL34 tubes for Marshall.
For vintage Marshall Amps, there are very few brands out there that can beat Mullard EL34 tubes. While there are amps with much more intense mid ranges, the Mullard tubes produce rounder and fuller tones. This characteristic trait translates to rich and warm distortion. If you know a thing or two about the vintage Marshall amps, you’ll know that the ability to produce smooth, rich, and warm distortion at different levels is what makes them great. Seeing that the Mullard EL34 tubes are designed for this, they can be the perfect partner for most Marshall Amps.
On the downside, original Mullard EL34 tubes are generally way more expensive than tubes from other brands. Also, finding dealers that sell authentic versions of these can be difficult.
However, new Mullard EL34 tubes have been released since the company was acquired by a parent organization (New Sensor Corporation), and they’re easier to find and cheaper.
If you are looking for a cheap, reliable option, the JJ EL34 is a good one. Recently, JJ released a newer upgraded version of the tubes. The tubes come in a more compact design compared to their predecessor with stapled plates instead of soldered, which are adequately supported both at the top and bottom.
Also, the sound on the JJ's is much more balanced in terms of mid, low, and high frequencies. This means that the tubes are a good option for those looking for something versatile that will work for multiple genres. More specifically, we recommend the tubes as an affordable option for Rock and Metal musicians. Whatever reason you’re buying the EL34 II, the tubes will probably get the job done.
Like the JJ EL34, the Russian-made Svetlana EL34 seems to be a good fit for heavy genres such as Classic Rock and Metal. You can easily achieve crisp and crunchy tones with these tubes in place. More specifically, they fit well in most Marshall amp heads. Compared to Tungstols, Svets have more airy mid frequencies. While the mids, lows, and highs may not pack as much punch compared to other tubes, the frequencies on these are more articulate and pronounced. There isn't much mechanical noise on these, with the plates crimped rather than welded.
Don’t be surprised to find most people ranking this as the best current production EL34 tubes out there for their value. The Electro-Harmonix offers rich smooth tones and without a doubt has some of the brightest tones you could get out there. If you’re struggling to find a good fit for a vintage Marshall amp or simply something reliable, the Electro-Harmonix EL34 may be a good place to try.
Throughout, the Tung-Sol tubes have a good balance with smooth and precise bass, distinct and well-defined mids, and punchy highs. On the new production reissue Tung-Sol tubes, you might notice more impedance as a result of the plates being improved. This unique design on the Tung-Sol gives it spectacular clipping qualities with a tinge of 6L6 sound before breaking. When pushed into distortion, the sound develops into a crunchy EL34 tone with light compression and excellent sustain. These will work just fine on most Marshalls. More specifically, they pair up pretty nicely with the Marshall Origin 20.
When you first purchase your tube amp, it may have awe-inspiring tones and just overall quality sounds. But after time, as is characteristic of all-tube amps, the quality of sound may start to diminish. When this happens, it may be a sign that you need to change the tubes on your amp. While you may get help from a guitar amp technician or friend the first time, eventually, you may have to learn to do the process yourself. This may seem daunting at first, but trust us: with the right knowledge of what to look for and basic electronic safety, you can learn the process.
Here are a few things you should consider.
The preamp and power amp sections in most amps use different types of tubes. Before purchasing tubes, you must do intensive research to find out the exact type of tubes your amps need. Generally, the preamp sections use tubes such as 12AX7, 12ATZ, and 12AU7. These are mainly dual triodes responsible for much of the conversion of weak signals from your guitar into stronger signals.
The power amp section has more variety in terms of the tubes used. Usually, these are responsible for amplifying the signals from the preamp into signals that can drive the speaker. The power amp section mainly uses tetrodes or pentodes such as the EL34, EL84, 6V6, 6L6, and KT66.
Today, few manufacturers still make tubes; therefore, many of the brands you see on the market are reissues of already-existing tubes that may have undergone a little modification. Most of the companies that used to make the tubes have also closed or been acquired by larger companies. While some are similar in sound, most brands have unique tonal qualities in their tubes as a result of the components used to make them. Depending on the countries the tubes are made, the tubes may sometimes have different sounds. Examples of brands include Mullard, Svetlana, JJ Electronics, Tung-Sol, and New Sensor, among many others.
For beginners in the tube amp world, it’s important to make sure you learn the signs. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending money unnecessarily on new tubes. Here’s a list of things to look out for as signs that it might be time to get new tubes:
Generally, the lifespan of tubes may vary depending on the quality of the tubes and how often you use them.
Don’t try to change the tubes on your amp if you don’t know what you’re doing. The process of changing tubes can be very dangerous, and you should always consult with an amp technician before trying anything in the event you have never done it before.
Some basic electric knowledge of how the amp works and some basic safety measures can also come in handy. Be careful!
As there are various types of tubes with different functions, sound characteristics, and components, the tube amp world is packed with a lot of terminology and names. Most tubes also have a string of letters and numbers following them. These are all important in letting the user in on exactly what type of tube they’re purchasing. When learning the processes, you may also come across terms such as biasing, tube rolling, soldiered/welded plates, and so on. Consider getting familiar with these terms.
All in all, the subject of what tubes sound best is pretty subjective and dependent on an individual guitarist’s needs. You might need a lot of exposure to the different types available before you can start distinguishing the small tonal differences between some tubes. Even then, when you’re exposed enough to the characteristic sound of your Marshall, the process of looking for a replacement won't be that difficult, as you’ll have a reference point to work with. All in all, we hope we have at least given you a starting point in terms of the best EL34 tubes out there.