I. Electric Guitar Tone: Pickups and Strings
There are basically two types of pickups for electric guitars: single coils and humbuckers; and they sound completely different. Single coils tend to be softer and brighter (and electrical interference will cause them to hum); humbuckers tend to be louder and have much stronger midrange and bass response (and they don’t hum). In addition, single coils tend to have better clarity than humbuckers when played clean, but humbuckers tend to work better with overdrive or distortion (because they are more powerful). Single coils also tend to sound better in the neck position, and humbuckers tend to sound better in the bridge position (again because of the midrange response and the additional power).
There are a number of pickups marketed as single coils that don’t hum, including Fender’s Vintage Noiseless pickups and Lace Sensor’s “Holy Grail” pickups. For the most part, those types of pickups are actually tiny, bright sounding humbuckers. They are made to look like single coils by stacking the two coils on top of each other, instead of laying them side by side. No matter what anyone tells you the only thing that really sounds like a single coil pickup is a single coil pickup.
I think a better way to solve the hum issue is to get a reverse wound reverse polarity (rwrp) middle pickup (Fender Custom Shop Fat 50’s have a rwrp middle pickup). That way, if you have a Stratocaster, for example, you will have single coil tone in positions 1, 3 and 5, but you will have no hum in positions 2 and 4. Alternatively, if you have a Les Paul, you could get humbuckers that allow you to split the coils, so that you can convert each humbucker to a single coil with the flip of a switch (Seymour Duncan JB Model humbuckers have four conductor leads, so you can use them with a coil splitting switch). Either way, you can get the best of both worlds.
Among single coil pickups and humbuckers, there are many variations in how they are constructed and how they sound. Basically, a pickup is a row of magnets wrapped in copper wire. So changes in the magnets and the wire affect the sound. Alnico V magnets are commonly used in single coil pickups, like Fender’s Texas Special pickups for Stratocasters and Telecasters; they are stronger magnets and have a sharper sound. Alnico II magnets are more common in humbuckers, like Gibson’s Classic ’57 pickups; they are softer magnets and they have a smoother tone.
As for the copper wire, “overwound” pickups tend to sound louder and have more midrange and bass; pickups with less windings tend to sound softer and brighter. One of the reasons humbuckers sound the way they do is because it takes more wire to wrap the two coils. The thickness of the wiring and the type of insulation that is used are additional factors that affect the sound (e.g. Fender’s early Strat pickups had Formvar insulation instead of enamel; insulating them that way gave them a clearer tone). Today most humbuckers are also wax potted so they won’t squeal at high gain, but the wax potting hurts the clarity a little too (Gibson’s modern Burstbucker pickups and Seymour Duncan’s Seth Lovers attempt to reproduce the clearer tone of early humbuckers by eliminating the wax potting).
Another thing to consider with single coils is how the construction will affect the way the pickup responds to electrical interference. You may love the way a big, fat single coil like a Gibson p90 sounds, but you may also find the extra wiring that makes the pickup sound so good makes it hum louder too. So there is a trade off if you like that sound (more wire = louder, fatter sound = more hum).
The other primary factor in determining the tone of an electric guitar is the strings. Electric guitar strings are made of nickel and steel. The more nickel, the warmer the sound; the more steel, the brighter and louder the strings sound. Also, the thicker the strings the more volume they will produce. That’s why some players like to use heavy strings; they have more tone. If you try them and find they are too hard to play, you can always tune down a half step or more to compensate.
Keep in mind though the nickel is only on the wound strings. The thinner, higher pitch strings are all steel. Also, with the wound strings, it’s not just the nickel content that determines the tone, it’s also the shape of the windings. Roundwound strings are brighter, but flatwound strings have much more bass response, and so- called “rollerwound” strings, like GHS popular “Nickel Rockers,” have a tone that is somewhere in between the two (i.e. they sound darker than roundwounds).
So what you can do by pairing different pickups with different strings is try to get a nicer, balanced tone from the guitar. For example, you might find that rollerwound strings go well with brighter, vintage style single coils, like Fender Custom Shop ’54’s. But the same strings would probably be way too dark for a Gibson Les Paul equipped with ’57 Classics or Burstbuckers (i.e. roundwound strings would sound better). On the other hand, if your Gibson is something like an ES-175 with the same classic humbuckers, and you are looking for a smooth jazz tone, you’ll probably like flatwounds better.
Here are some suggested combinations of strings / pickups / amplifiers / speakers that I think work well:
1. Roundwound Strings / Humbucker Pickups / Tube Amp. (6l6 tubes) / 15″ JBL Speaker (clean sound)
2. Rollerwound Strings / Single Coil Pickups / Tube Amp. (6l6 tubes) / 10″ Jensen Speakers (blues tone)
3. Roundwound Strings / Humbucker Pickups / Tube Amp (el34 tubes) / 12″ Celestion Speakers (distorted rock and roll sound)
4. Flatwound Strings / Humbucker Pickups / Solid State Amp. / Eminence Woofer (jazz tone)
It’s all about the combination and the way the components work together. If you put flatwounds on a Gibson and plug in to a Polytone, you’ll see why so many jazzers love those amps. But if you try the same amp with a Stratocaster and a set of roundwounds, you’ll wonder why anyone would ever buy a Polytone. An amp that sounds good with one guitar may sound terrible with another guitar. And the reason may have nothing to do with the amp. The pickups and strings on the guitar may just not be a good match for the components of the amp.
Another thing to consider is the wiring harness (i.e. the tone and volume controls, and the pickup selector) inside the guitar. You can swap out cheap pickups to improve the tone of your guitar, but you won’t be able to get the most out of the change if you have a cheap, low quality wiring harness connecting the pickups to the output jack. The harness consists of two or four potentiometers, one or two capacitors, a switch and the wiring connecting them all together (and any shielding inside the control cavity or around the wires). The best components are US-made CTS pots, Sprague caps, Switchcraft switches and jacks, etc. The controls reduce volume or treble by introducing resistance and capacitance into the circuit. If the quality isn’t there, the tone will be negatively affected even when the controls are turned all the way up; and the pickups may hum more or less depending upon how well the harness is shielded. So if you are replacing your pickups to improve the sound, it usually makes sense to also check the wiring and see if it needs to be upgraded or additional shielding needs to be added.
And, last but not least, any effect pedals you use between the guitar and the amplifier will also tend to dominate the final tone. Some pedals are more transparent than others, but obviously if you rely heavily on pedals for the tone you want, then the type of pickups and strings you use will have less of an effect.
II. Electric Guitar Tone: Speakers
There are basically three types of vintage speakers: (1) Jensen speakers, (2) JBL and Electrovoice drivers, and (3) Celestion speakers.
Alnico Jensen speakers came standard in Fender tweed amplifiers in the 50’s, including the famous Tweed Bassman, which had four (4) Jensen P10R speakers (Jensen labeled alnico speakers with a “P” and ceramic speakers with a “C”; the “10” refers to the speaker size (10″) and “R” means the speaker is low powered, while “N” would refer to a higher powered speaker). Ceramic Jensen speakers are sometimes associated with the later Fender tolex years, but the alnico speakers were included in those amps too. If you have ever heard anyone talk of an “American” sounding speaker, it’s probably the tone of Fender (i.e. the tone of Jensen speakers in an amp powered by 6l6 or 6v6 tubes) that they are referring to. Jensens are generally bright sounding speakers (they have smaller voice coils and resonance frequencies around 100 Hz), and they have a very clear tone with great sensitivity. As a result, they work especially well with single coil pickups, like those found in a Fender Stratocaster.
The original Jensen speakers were made in the United States, but the current re-issues that Fender is putting in its vintage reissue amplifiers now are made in Italy. Excellent Jensen clones are also made by Weber and Eminence. The Webers are called the “Vintage Series” and the Eminence speakers include the 10″ alnico Legend 102, as well as the higher powered “Patriot Series” speakers. To my ear, the Italian reissues sound good at low volume, but the Webers sound better at full volume, and they handle overdrive better as well.
JBL and Electro Voice
JBL and Electro Voice speakers are additional important American speakers. Unlike Jensens, JBL’s and EV’s are very powerful sounding (they have large voice coils and resonance frequencies around 50 Hz), and can handle a lot of volume. The JBL’s were well known for their aluminum dust covers, and some of the early EV’s came that way too (I think the purpose of the aluminum was to help extend the frequency response). The 12″ JBL d120f’s were famously paired with the Fender Twin Reverb for blues and jazz. The 15″ JBL d130f was also a great speaker for the Vibroverb. Electro Voice speakers are mostly popular with heavy metal players. The original Mesa Boogie amplifiers were known for having a single EVM 12L speaker.
JBL and Electro Voice speakers were both made in the United States. The Electro Voice speakers are still available, but the JBL’s are no longer being made. Fortunately, Eminence makes a speaker called the “Commonwealth,” which is an excellent copy of the JBL e120 (12″) and e130 (15″) speakers (those are the ceramic magnet versions of the d120 and d130 speakers). Weber also makes a speaker called the “California,” that sounds similar to a JBL, and another called the “Michigan,” that sounds similar to the Electro Voice. If you want bullet proof reliability at high volume, you cannot go wrong with a JBL or EV speaker. They weigh a ton but they can handle a lot of power. Also, they handle bass sounds well and produce a smooth treble tone that is especially well suited for guitars with humbuckers, like the Gibson Les Paul and Es-335.
Another interesting spinoff of the JBL / EV sound is provided by the Eminence line of woofers, including the lower powered Alpha and Beta speakers, and the high powered Delta (the Delta Pro 12A is marketed as similar to an EV 12L). Jazz amplifiers like Polytone and Evans (and Raezer’s Edge cabinets) use Eminence woofers for a smooth solid state jazz tone. The Alpha’s have better sensitivity and sound like the old Polytone speakers, while the Delta’s have a more modern tone with a strong bass response that will not disort, even at high volume. In my opinion, they sound particularly good with humbuckers and flatwound strings.
Celestion speakers are famous for their inclusion in classic British amplifiers like the Vox AC30 and various Marshall amplifiers, including the 2×12 “Bluesbreaker.” If you have ever heard anyone talk of a “British” sounding speaker, it is probably the sound of a Marshall or Vox amplifier (i.e. el84 or el34 tubes and Celestion speakers) that they are referring to. In terms of tone and construction, Celestions are in between the Jensens and the JBL / EV’s. They are not as bright as the Jensens, nor as powerful as the EV’s (they have resonance frequencies around 75 Hz; and better midrange response); and they are made with British cones and voice coils that are not as small as the Jensens or as big as the JBL’s. Not surprisingly, Celestions tend to sound well with both single coils and humbuckers, especially if you play with a lot of distortion.
The only alnico Celestion is the “Alnico Blue.” That speaker is the 12″ speaker that came in the VOX AC30. It is generally regarded as one of the best speakers you can buy, but it is also one of the most expensive speakers you can buy, and it can only handle 15 watts. The rest of the Celestion line, including the 25 watt, G12M “Greenback,” are ceramic magnet speakers, mostly 12″ in size, and all known for their excellent rock tones. My favorites are the Greenbacks. If you need more power handling, the G12-65 is also a great sounding speaker. Like they say in the ad, the sound of Celestion is the sound of rock and roll.
Although Celestions were originally made in England, the current reissues are being made in China (like the Italian Jensens, the Chinese Celestions sound pretty good to my ear). In addition, Weber makes some great “British Series” Celestion clones, including the “Blue Pup,” which is a copy of the Alnico Blue (except the Blue Pup comes in all different sizes, doesn’t cost as much, and can handle much more power). And Eminence has the Legend GB-12 Greenback clone, as well as a new line of excellent “Red Coat” speakers that are Celestion clones too. The “Red Fang” is a copy of the Alnico Blue, and the “Private Jack” is another copy of the Greenback. Both those speakers also sound great, cost less and handle more power. And, of course, the Webers and the Eminence speakers are made in the USA.
In my opinion, the speakers are the primary thing that determine the tone of an electric guitar. The tone starts with the strings, and depends upon whether they are nickel or steel, roundwound or flatwound, heavy or light. Then the tone is governed by the pickups, which could be single coils or humbuckers, underwound our overwound, alnico V or alnico II. If you put a chain of effects between the guitar and the amp, the sound of the effects tends to dominate the tone and override everything else. Otherwise, the tone is then determined by the type of amp you have (solid state or tubes, and the type of tubes) and how you set the dials (bass, mid, treble, master volume, etc). But what has the biggest affect is the speakers (the type of cone, the magnet and the size of the speaker and voice coil). The speakers are the last link in the chain; the speakers are what actually move the air to produce the sound you hear.
If you have a guitar with single coil pickups, you can’t go wrong with Jensen style speakers. Single coils have an extended treble response and great clarity; and Jensen’s are perfect for capturing that tone. If your guitar has humbuckers and you want a smooth, jazzy clean tone or a speaker that has a big bass sound for heavy metal distortion, then JBL or Electrovoice speakers will make you happy. Any of those American speakers will work well with American power tubes, like 6l6 or 6v6’s. If you don’t like the sound of American speakers, either because the Jensens are too bright or the JBL’s and EV’s are too bassy, then Celestion likely has a speaker you’ll like. Celestions have the best midrange response; the tone of Britain is less “scooped” (i.e. more even in the treble, bass and midrange) than American style speakers. Not surprisingly, British speakers will pair well with British tubes, like El34’s or El84’s.
Yet another thing to consider is mixing and matching different speakers in a multi-speaker amplifier. For example, if you have a Super Reverb or Bassman, which has 4 x 10″ speakers, you can put two bright sounding Jensens on top (like Weber 10A100’s or Jensen P10r’s); and then try to balance the sound with two bassier sounding speakers on the bottom (like Weber10A150’s or Jensen P10n’s). Another popular set up is to have a Celestion G12M on one side and a G12H on the other side of a Marshall Bluesbreaker 2 x 12 amp.
III. Electric Guitar Tone: Vacuum Tubes
Changing the vacum tubes in your guitar amplifier can change the tone just as much as changing the speakers. Many people claim the best 12ax7 preamp tubes and 6l6 power tubes are the American made RCA tubes that were produced in the 1950’s and 60’s, like the short, ribbed plate RCA 12ax7 and the black plate RCA 6l6GC, as well as the European made Mullard ECC83. Those tubes do sound great but they are expensive and dwindling in supply, since they are no longer being made. Fortunately, there are also a number of high quality current production tubes that are available to upgrade the tone of your amplifier.
There are five (5) types of 12ax7 tubes being made today, and the same tube is often sold under multiple different labels. If you want to know what you are buying, the best thing you can do is become familiar with the construction of the different types, so you can tell which is which regardless of the label each is being sold under.
Three (3) of the five tube types have a short, fat plate structure where the two plates are so close together you can’t see the space in between them. The other two (2) tubes are made more like the way the RCA 12ax7’s and Mullard ECC83’s were constructed in the 60’s. They have two thin plates that are separated, so you can see the space between them, and the plates have a ribbed imprint on them that looks like a ladder.
Sovtek is the primary OEM supplier of preamp tubes today. Sovtek tubes are made in Russia. As you can see above, they have a spacer below the short, fat plates, a gap between the plates and the second upper spacer, and a “dimple” getter over the top. If you see a tube that looks like this, it’s a Sovtek, regardless of the label. Sometimes they are marked as Sovtek 12AX7’s but you also see them marked as Groove Tubes 12AX7-R’s and Fender 12AX7’s. You will also see them marked 12AX7 WA, WB or WC. I’m told the WB version has a little more gain and the WC version is a little quieter. Regardless, these tubes all have an edgy (bright) tone that is popular with Fender amp owners.
The second common OEM tube out there is the Chinese Shuguang 12AX7 (Groove Tubes also sells this tube as the 12AX7C; Tube Amp Doctor has also sold this tube as a TAD 7025; and it has also been sold by Mesa Boogie). The Chinese 12ax7’s are constructed with short, fat plates, like the Sovteks, but they have an extra spacer above the tubes, a big nickel colored brace connecting the plates, and a “halo” getter on top. Again, if you see a tube made like this, it’s a Chinese tube, regardless of whether it has Groove Tubes or Mesa Boogie or TAD written on the glass. These tubes have a warmer tone than the Sovteks and more gain (volume). As a result, they work well in high gain amps.
The third OEM tube is the European JJ ECC83 (ECC83 is the British name for a 12AX7; JJ’s are made in the Slovak Republic). They are constructed with short, fat plates and a halo getter, like the Shuguangs, but they have only two spacers and a metal disk above the plates that is connected to the getter. You may see these sold as Groove Tubes ECC83’s but the label doesn’t matter; they are still JJ ECC83’s. As for the sound, they have a more linear tone than the Sovteks or the Shuguangs, and a more prominent midrange. Personally, I think they sound best with Marshall or Vox amps that run EL34 or EL84 power tubes.
If you want an nicer, vintage style clean tone or slightly distorted blues tone, the newer tubes Sovtek makes for Electro-Harmonix, Svetlana and Tung Sol are better choices. Each of those tubes has thinner plates that are separated, so you can see the space between them just like the original RCA 12ax7’s. To my ear, the Electro-Harmonix 12AX7 is the best sounding lower priced 12ax7 out there (the Svetlana 12AX7 looks like the same tube, but I’ve never tried one). If you don’t mind spending a little more, I think the Tung Sol 12AX7 “reissue” is even better (unlike the Electro-Harmonix version, the Tung Sol has a “halo” getter, just like the RCA). If you want premium tube with a real nice American tone, I’d recommend the Tung Sol 12AX7.
The second option for a more vintage sounding preamp tubes is the long plate tubes Sovtek makes under its own name as the 12AX7LP (the “lp” stands for “long plate”), and the tube Sovtek sells as the Mullard 12AX7 “reissue.” The two tubes look identical, except for the name, but the quality of the Mullards is much better, I think.
In addition to Sovtek, Groove Tubes also sells a US-made 12AX7M, and it looks like TAD is now selling this tube as their new TAD 7025. Also JJ has a new long plate tube called the JJ ECC803.
All of these tubes have long, thin plates that are separated, so you can see the space between them just like the original Mullard ECC83’s. To my ear, these vintage style tubes tend to have a fairly flat eq, which I associate with a more European sound, as opposed the Tung Sol’s, which accentuate the highs and lows more and have more of an American tone.
The problem with these long plate tubes is they tend not to do well in high gain amps and combo amps, if they are not very well made. The only one I have found to be reliable in a guitar amp is the Mullard 12ax7 reissue. It costs a little more, but if you want a premium tube that has more of a European tone, that’s the one I’d recommend.
Another thing to consider is the location in the amplifier of the preamp tube you are replacing. The preamp tube that is located the furthest away from the power tubes will generally have the greatest effect on the tone of the amp; and the preamp tubes that are closer to the power tubes will have the least effect on the tone. So you could put a premium Tung Sol or Mullard in V1, but then a less expensive JJ or a Chinese tube might make more sense in V2. Even if you find a long plate too noisy for any of those positions, a long plate tube might still make a good phase inverter tube for the V3 position (or whichever position is closest to the power tubes).
6l6 power tubes not only have different size plates, they also come in different size bottles. There are basically three (3) types. The small bottle “stubbies” modeled after the original Tung Sol 5881, the tall bottles based on the original Sylvania 6l6GC STR, and the clear tops that have the side getter construction of the famous black plate RCA 6l6GC.
The most common OEM 6l6 is the Sovtek 5881WXT, which is sort of an anomaly. The Sovtek is a short plate tube in a tall bottle. It’s called a 5881 but it’s really a 6l6. It can handle high voltages like the other 6l6’s but it has the lower output of a 5881. And you will see it branded both ways. Sovtek calls it the 5881WXT but Groove Tubes sells it as a 6l6GC, Fender calls it a 6l6GC, and a Mesa Boogie sells it as a 6l6GC STR. Regardless of the name, the Sovtek is a very reliable, inexpensive tube, but it doesn’t have the best tone.
The only true small bottle 5881 currently in production is the Tung Sol 5881 reissue that is also made by Sovtek. Like the Sovtek 5881WXT, the Tung Sol has lower output than most 6l6’s. But when it comes to tone, there is no comparison. The tone of the Tung Sol is head and shoulders above the 5881WXT. The problem is, unlike the Sovtek, the Tung Sol apparently cannot handle the high voltage of most modern tube amps. As a result, most people looking to upgrade the standard Sovtek 5881WXT will do better with a 6l6 tall bottle or one of the new clear tops.
In addition to the Tung Sol, Sovtek also has a premium tall bottle 6l6 called the Sovtek 5881WXT+ (not the 5881WXT, the 588WXT”+”, which is a very different animal) and the Electro-Harmonix 6l6EH (near as I can tell, the WXT+ and the 6l6EH are the same). Both the 5881WXT+ and the 6l6EH have longer plates, more volume and a much nicer tone – with more harmonic complexity – than the Sovtek 5881WXT.
The highest rated 6l6 tall bottle is probably the SED 6l6. SED a/k/a “Winged C” is the company that was previously known as “Svetlana.” The SED is a great tube with a brighter, more detailed tone, but it has a big downside, and that is that it typically costs about twice as much as all of these other tubes.
The “Svetlana” brand name is now owned by Sovtek. In fact, Sovtek makes a copy of the SED “Winged C” 6l6 which is sold as the Svetlana 6l6. The SED and the Sovtek Svetlana are not the same tube (the getters are different), and they don’t have exactly the same tone (the Svetlana is not quite as bright). But the two tubes are very similar, and the Svetlana costs almost half as much.
In addition to the SED and the Sovteks, there are two other 6l6’s that have a little different tone but are also a big improvement over the standard 5881WXT. JJ makes a tall bottle JJ 6l6 that has a unique plate structure and a powerful clean sound. Like the SED, the JJ has been around a long time and has enjoyed considerable popularity. More recently, Tube Amp Doctor started selling a Chinese TAD 6l6GC STR that has become very popular. I think the TAD sounds more like the JJ than the SED or the Sovteks.
You really can’t go wrong with any of these tall bottles. If you like big and beefy, try the JJ or the TAD. If you want a brighter tone with more detail, go for the SED or the Svetlana. If you would rather have something with a little flatter eq and smoother sound, I’d recommend the Electro-Harmonix 6l6EH or the Sovtek 5881WXT+. I especially like smooth overdrive tone of the 6l6EH and 5881WXT+ in a master volume amp.
But if what you want is the closest thing to the original RCA 6l6 clear top, there are a number of other 6l6 tubes you may also want to give a listen to. Groove Tubes makes a clear top GT 6l6GE, Sovtek has a clear top Tung Sol 6l6GC STR and Tube Amp Doctor also sells a clear top Chinese made TAD 6l6WGC STR. These are long plate, high output tubes, but they come in medium size bottles; and they have the clear top, side getter construction of the original RCA and GE 6l6’s. The TAD and Tung Sol versions have the “black plates” the RCA tubes had; and the Groove Tubes version is mostly American made. But the tube with the best tone is definitely the TAD 6l6WGC STR. The TAD is a nice, warm tube with a sweet, silky high end. To me, it is the perfect choice for a vintage series Fender amp, like the Super Reverb.
Keep in mind the market for vacum tubes is constantly changing. It used to be that the JJ ECC83’s and SED “Winged C” 6l6’s were the best tubes available. But then Sovtek was bought out by New Sensor and started working with Electro Harmonix to develop new tube designs. Chinese tubes were notoriously cheap, but then Tube Amp Doctor and Groove Tubes started working with them to develop some top quality glass.
It also used to be that you needed to get tubes from a reseller who tested them thoroughly because they were notoriously unreliable from the factory. But now Sovtek, for example, seems to be testing their own tubes more and selling the good ones under brand names like “Tung Sol” or “Mullard.” The other thing the tube manufacturers are doing now is selling “gold pin” versions of their tubes (often for twice the price of the regular versions). I think it’s worth it to buy the brand name versions, especially if you are buying direct from the manufacturer, but I don’t think the gold pins are worth twice the price.
In my opinion, there is no one tube that sounds best, it all depends upon what you like and the other components you are using.
Ben L. Fernandez