If you love your Marshall amp, and you can’t stop chasing classic crunchy overdrive tones, this article is for you. Here are the best valves for Marshall amps, valves guaranteed to take your amp’s performance to the next level.
The type and brand of vacuum tube you use in your amplifier can have a profound impact on its performance. Simply swapping tubes can have a wide variety of effects, such as making an amp less harsh sounding (or vice versa), reducing bass, adding bass, reducing headroom, and so on.
With vintage Marshall amps, the two most important tonal qualities are the strong mid-range and the high gain. This is in contrast with classic American-style amps (like Fender), which traditionally are heavy in bass and treble. You may want to consider tubes that have the desired tonal characteristics of the classic Marshall sound.
Marshall amplifiers are loud, really loud. This can be a good thing if you like rock and roll, but if you are a tube, you may be getting rocked too hard by the massive vibrations. This is why first and foremost, any tube going into your Marshall amplifier needs to be sturdy, high gain and low noise.
If you are keeping up with our blog and have read our plate cheat sheet, you have read that typically the best tubes for Marshall amps are short plate tubes, because they most commonly possess the qualities listed above.
Just as for USA-made tubes, European tubes have their own sonic characteristics. If you are chasing American amp tone go with US tubes, but if you are chasing the British sound, European tubes are best.
The mighty Mullard tube is always the first tube one should consider when retubing a vintage Marshall amplifier. Like Marshall amplifiers, vintage Mullard tubes were hand made in Great Britain, and they are regarded as some of the best vacuum tubes ever made. They were stock in more than 90% of vintage Marhsall amplifiers.
What makes Mullard tubes special is that they have a full and robust mid-range, they are high in gain, they are extremely sturdy, and they are among the most quiet tubes ever made. These tubes and high-wattage Jim Marshall amplifiers are a match made in heaven.
The catch is that the cat is out of the bag with respect to vintage Mullard tubes, and they are becoming more popular by the day. Simultaneously, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and as a result these tubes are becoming very expensive. Our advice is usually to splurge on vintage Mullard valves only when retubing classic vintage gear, or when upgrading traditional hardwired clones. Do not spend more money on tubes than you spend on your amp.
If like many of us you are a gear freak on a budget look no further than vintage Japanese preamp tubes. In the 50’s and 60’s Japan produced very convincing, high-quality clones of legendary Mullard valves. We even refer to these valves as “Japanese Mullards.” It is our belief that Matsushita had some type of relationship with Mullard or at least used the same machines, yet we have never been able to conform this. Some of these valves are even incorrectly marked “made in England,” when they were in fact made in Japan. This is why you should always get your valves from a source you trust.
Believe it or not, Japanese 12AX7’s have even more mids than vintage Mullard tubes, and they are sturdy, have high gain, and are low noise. This makes them a great option for anyone chasing crunchy bluesy overdrive sounds. Their overall quality of sound is great, we wager better than any modern tube, and they have a similar price tag to modern tubes.
If chasing crunchy mids is not your thing, try Amperex preamp tubes. Amperex tubes are much more balanced tonally, and what they lack in mids the make up for with their clarity, definition and depth of tone.
Any vintage short plate tube will suffice, we typically recommend Matsushita or GE short plate 12AX7’s because they are cheap and long lasting.
If high gain shredding is your thing, Gold Lion tubes are a crowd favorite. If you are looking to stay with vintage tubes, our sleeper pick is again the Japanese (Matsushita) 12AX7.
Power and rectifier tube recommendations follow trends similar to those of preamp tubes. For loud and high wattage amps you need rugged tubes, or the tubes will fail early, costing you money in replacement valves. Some Marshall amps chew through power tubes. If you have an amp that goes through tubes, consider a higher quality tube.
If your budget allows, Mullard would be the classic option, and Mullards are by far the best choice from a longevity standpoint. On the other hand, if you are after a stellar tone on a budget, there are a few other options for improving your sound quality that will not break the bank.
By far the best tubes for Marshall amps, Mullard tubes reign supreme, but they are expensive. For example, Mullard EL34 tubes can run over $500 for an NOS pair. That being said, made-in-England tubes last a long time relative to other tubes, and they can be worth the money, if you are playing your amp every day and need your rig to be reliable.
If your Marshall amp is running 6L6GC tubes, your best options are RCA 6L6GC black plates or Genalex KT66.
Typically coming in between $150 and $200 a pair, Sylvania (USA) and Siemens (Germany) EL34/6CA7 are great compromises between modern tubes and Mullards. These vintage tubes are our best sellers for Marshall amps, because of the balance they strike between cost and performance. Like the Mullard EL34, these tubes can potentially outlast modern tubes by decades of use.
Looking to keep cost low? We have noticed Svetlana and Gold Lion power tubes sound excellent and last the longest in Marshall amplifiers compared to other modern makes. Although some modern tubes may sound pretty good in your amp, they tend to have short life spans.
Marshall Amplifiers rarely use rectifiers, but there are a few circuits that require them. When buying rectifier tubes the main thing to think about is longevity.
Modern tubes may be a fraction of the cost of vintage tubes, but they do not last. We have seen folks go through 2-3 modern rectifiers in one year. In contrast, most vintage amps we service still have their original Mullard rectifiers firing from the 60’s. As is the case with all Mullard tubes, these rectifier tubes are expensive.
Coming in at a much lower price than Mullard, but with much of the same quality and longevity, vintage Japanese 5AR4’s are a great choice for Marshall or Fender amplifiers.