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Guitar Fans Pull Strings to Snag Scarce Amplifier Tubes


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Electric guitarists can spend years searching for tube-powered amplifiers that will give them the perfect tone.

Now many of them are on the hunt for the tubes themselves.


The war in Ukraine has intensified a shortage of the glowing glass devices, once a key component of American TV sets and radios. These days, the tubes come primarily from factories in China, Slovakia and Russia. 

“Folks buy your spare tubes now,” a guitarist posted on the popular message board The Gear Page after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. 

Doug’s Tubes in Wantagh, N.Y., reported selling more tubes in the first three weeks of March than it had in the previous three months.  Even now, owner Doug Preston said, sales are at twice his normal volume.

“While the ‘hysteria’ has passed, folks are quietly panicking,” Mr. Preston said in an email. “I’ve set limits on most tubes to avoid hoarding.”


Doug Preston, owner of Doug’s Tubes in Wantagh, N.Y., has seen sales increase.


Long made obsolete in most consumer electronics by printed circuit boards, vacuum tubes are still used in guitar amps and hi-fi equipment. Aficionados say the tubes—just a few inches tall, with heated filaments that resemble a dimly glowing bulbprovide a warm, creamy tone unmatched by solid-state circuitry. 

“It’s something I don’t think you can actually put into words,” said Peter Frampton,  whose bestselling 1976 album “Frampton Comes Alive!” was a showcase for tube-amp-powered guitar solos. “Whatever you put through an amp with tubes is going to have extra warmth.”

The tubes, which wear out with use, are integral to the working of an amplifier and its sound. In a tube-based amp, the low-level input from an instrument passes through a series of sections in which tubes boost the signal and sculpt its tone. The struggle to find the tubes has fans searching specialty online retailers, mom and pop music stores, overseas distributors and supplies of surplus stock on eBay.

The tube supply chain had already taken a hit in 2019 with the closing of a factory in China. Savvy guitarists began planning for further shortages earlier this year, as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, fearing Russian supplies could also dry up.  


Peter Frampton’s album ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’ was a showcase for tube-amp-powered guitar solos.


Then on March 11, 80-year-old guitar-effects pioneer Mike Matthews rocked the guitar community by sending a note to customers of his Long Island City, N.Y., company Electro-Harmonix, whose formal name is New Sensor Corp.

Mr. Matthews, its president and founder, said that Russia had banned the export of 200 products in response to U.S. sanctions for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That included the tubes his company makes there and sells under brand names including Sovtek and Svetlana. 

“We will not honor any new orders or ship any more Russian tubes on back order,” Mr. Matthews wrote in the note.

With that, the Great Tube Hunt of ’22 kicked into overdrive, setting off a scramble among retailers, boutique amp makers, repair shops and guitarists seeking to secure a supply. 

“It seemed like it all happened within about two days,” said Mark Bartel, who builds about 12 to 15 guitar amps a month in his Bartel Amplifiers shop in Baltimore.

The skyrocketing demand meant that not a single U.S. retailer or distributor carried any of the eight models of tubes Mr. Bartel needed. With less than two weeks’ worth of stock on hand, he contacted a German distributor he had used before and placed a far bigger order than usual—for 800 tubes. 

Guitar Center, the nation’s largest musical-instrument retailer, had pulled most tubes off its e-commerce website following the Russian invasion, selling them mainly to in-person customers at its nearly 300 stores. 

“We saw an increase in demand of individual tubes at 10 times in the week or so prior to Mike Matthews making that statement,” said Michael Doyle, Guitar Center’s senior vice president, guitar & tech merchandising.

“The statement that he made, if you’ll forgive this, it sort of amplified the issue,” Mr. Doyle said.

In an interview, Mr. Matthews said that a few days after hearing about the ban, he learned from staff and an attorney in Russia that the ban applied only to the re-export of vacuum tubes. So, he sent a follow-up email to customers saying the situation had been resolved “for now.” 

But he said that given the war’s uncertainty and the cut in China’s output, demand still outstrips supply.

“It’s a world-wide panic,” said Mr. Matthews.


Tubes from Doug Preston, owner of Doug’s Tubes in Wantagh, N.Y.


With new models harder to find, some tube hunters have turned to rummaging online for a dwindling supply of old but never used tubes left over from the heyday of U.S. manufacturing. 

Called New Old Stock and made for consumer products or under contract to the military, they too have been selling in droves, typically at higher prices than new models.

“Right now it’s really the most feasible choice,” said Randall Ball, a full-time musician and self-described tinkerer who builds 6 to 12 amps a year in Kearneysville, W. Va., under his brand Ball Amplification. 

Unable to find new tubes, he was recently scouring eBay for New Old Stock models before writing up an estimate for a customer. 

“Obviously, there’s a finite supply of those,” Mr. Ball said, “and as time goes on, the prices of those are going to keep going up.”

The fuss over tubes—and the reason some players value them over modern circuitry—is due to what players say is the otherwise-unobtainable tone that tubes add.  

“We feel it in our fingers,” said Joe Satriani, a rock guitarist with 15 Grammy nominations. “There’s a tactile response that you get from a tube kind of cringing when you’re hitting it really hard.” 

Mr. Satriani and Mr. Frampton, who both have tour dates this fall, said their guitar techs keep a stockpile of tubes on hand. But they’re up against the same supply needs. 

Mr. Satriani said that on the road, his amps might go weeks without needing a tube replaced or at other times need one “every three days” if it turns out they received a batch with defects.


Guitarist Joe Satriani.


An amp’s main power tubes generally last for about 500 hours to 2,000 hours, said  Mr. Preston, of Doug’s Tubes. 

Mr. Preston, no stranger to sniffing out caches of New Old Stock tubes at ham radio fests, said his stock is dwindling. “Folks are making big dollar purchases… buying anything they can find,” he said.  

Vacuum tubes are also found in high-end audio equipment. The lone U.S. manufacturer of tubes, Western Electric, targets that market by making a single model at its factory in Rossville, Ga., that employs about 20 people.

With the shortage, the company is equipping its factory to produce lines suitable for guitar amps. In recent weeks, it posted a survey on its website to gauge interest.

The response, mostly from musicians, “has been overwhelming,” a spokesman said.

—Qianwei Zhang contributed to this article.

1ro:  Raspberry /Torna ->XP15/EAR834p/NS Supremo -> Music Audo First ->Ear 534/PL30.8 -> Orangutan O/93/Harbeth 30.1 + AP Rhea II

2do: FiiO M15->HD800s/BD T5p.2

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