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2022: The Year Of the Vacuum Tube Shortage?

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

March of 2022 brought news that Russia will no longer allow the export of vacuum tubes commonly used in guitar amplifiers. Within days, product shortages cropped up as a surge in customer traffic began depleting domestic stock at an alarming rate.

On March 11, 2022, Russia imposed a ban on the export of some 200 goods in response to the sanctions imposed on it over the current conflict in Ukraine. We have confirmed that the ban applies to our seven brands of Russian tubes. Currently, the ban is set to remain in effect until the end of the calendar year.
Given this export ban, we will not be receiving any further tube inventory for these brands. A myriad of pressures — including continued strains on the supply chain, escalating internal expenses, mounting inflation, and an ever-evolving legal landscape (particularly in light of the Ukraine conflict) — have created a very fluid and ambiguous environment. Until we can properly assess the impact of these factors, we will not honor any new orders or ship any more Russian tubes on back order.
- Mike Matthews, Owner, Electro-Harmonix

What does this mean for gigging musicians who use tube amplifiers?

To be blunt: Things are going to be a little awkward and strange.

As always, whenever there is a shortage (perceived or real) it's our human inclination to horde product. Judging from the lack of stock at the distributor level, people are scrambling to get any and all replacement tubes they can. Our stock of vacuum tubes is typically fairly static and demand is usually at a steady pace. Today, it was months-worth of activity from the start of our business day. With limited opportunities for retailers to restock, it could be several months before the supply-side catches back up to demand.

There are still factories in Slovakia, Czech Republic, and China producing vacuum tubes, those factories claim to be able to absorb the surge in demand. However, time is needed to produce those tubes, pack them, ship them via ocean freight, unpack at the port, send to distribution, then send to retailers - that will not happen in a matter of weeks. So, once the stock at the retail level dries up, consumer concessions might have to be made.

What kind of concessions are we talking about?

5881-style tubes with US base and coin base

  • Aside from the obvious brand-related changes, it's possible that you can find the same tube and socket but with a different base height (small disc, wafer, coin base, vs U.S. size).

  • Perhaps you can find a tube with comparable values under a different name (6L6 WXT+ vs Electro Harmonix 6L6GC)

  • Maybe you have to dust off your an old transistor amp or pull out a new digital amp for a few weeks or months until production stabilizes.

I have a bad tube, what can I do?

Repair technicians are still available and able to work, but it's possible that they may not have on-hand stock of the tube you need. Small parts like capacitors, resistors and op-amps have mostly recovered from their COVID-related stock shortages, but tubes in particular may be a little difficult to acquire until production catches back up to this sudden surge in demand.

Why aren't tubes more available? They've been around forever!

Using the common 6L6 tube as an example: The 6l6 was created in the 1930s specifically for radio sets. 4 iterations later, we have the one of the most common guitar amplifier tubes, the 6L6GC. The 6L6GC is now roughly 70 years old, so why isn't it more available? Simple. To start, you could ask yourself what other popular electric items use vacuum tubes in the United States. Did you think of anything? About the only common item still in use is the microwave and those don't even use the same style of vacuum tube. So, if the vacuum tube market is limited to audio amplifiers, there isn't as significant a demand for tubes as there are for transistors and other solid-state power sources.

What does this mean for the guitar amplifier industry?

There will likely be several weeks or months of panic buying and selling as the market finds an equilibrium and a new price point. Will amplifier manufacturers be able to keep themselves supplied to produce tried-and-true units? Will innovation lead to domestic production of vacuum tubes or viable solid-state or digital tube replacements? Will gigging musicians semi-retire their tube-powered rigs until replacement parts are readily available again? Time will tell. For now, consider doing your best to avoid panic buying and let the manufacturers regain a footing in the supply chain.


March 23 Update

The export restriction on Russian tubes has been resolved for now. We are accepting new orders, processing backorders, and hoping to resume shipping in April. Priority will be given to the oldest orders.
Considering various economic pressures, we must raise our wholesale prices. This price increase will apply to all back- and new orders. Also, there will likely be a further price increase for tubes shipped from our NYC headquarters once the government implements heightened tariffs against Russian goods, akin to the 35% rate Canada is now imposing. Other territories, including EU, UK, and Japan, are expected to follow suit.

But wait... there's even more good news!

Western Electric is assessing plans to expand tube operations. Our latest factory is equipped to handle production of multiple tube types and, in light of recent worldwide events, we believe our capacity to do so may become vital to the industry.

Here we have a domestic company with the factory tooling already in place and is now willing to add guitar amplifier tubes to its lineup. I, for one, hope that Western Electric will be able to provide tubes of the quality they are known for in the Hi-Fi world to the guitar amplifier market and at a price palatable to the everyday player.

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