Posted May 17, 2023
By Sean Ring
The Vacuum Tube in the Coal Mine
Good morning from gorgeous Jekyll Island, once again.
We’re filming all sorts of goodies for you now. Tomorrow, our livestream will start at 1 p.m. I hope you can join us.
Regrettably, some of our team aren’t here with us. But they stay in touch via our Slack channel. I always want to hear — or at least read — what they say.
And I came upon the most interesting story from Jonathan “J-Rod” Rodriguez and Erik Kestler.
I must warn you I know nothing about music. Singing in my high school choir was as close as I’d get to a band.(And I only did that for the girls…)
But with J-Rod and Erik’s help, I’ve seen an invaluable warning signal.
The Actual Phrase
The title of this piece is a play on the phrase “the canary in the coal mine.”
The phrase originates from the former practice of taking caged canaries into coal mines. The birds were early-warning devices for toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide.
The gases would kill the canary before they became dangerous to humans. This is because canaries are more sensitive to air quality due to their faster metabolism and respiratory rate. So if the canary showed signs of distress or died, the miners knew they had to evacuate immediately.
In modern usage, the phrase is used metaphorically to refer to a person or thing that serves as an early warning of a coming crisis or danger.
It's used to point out risks that aren’t apparent on the surface but can lead to significant problems if ignored. For example, a sudden drop in sales might be the "canary in the coal mine" for a business, signaling deeper issues that must be addressed.
So what’s going on with the vacuum tubes?
When J-Rod is on the Wednesday editorial call, behind him sit three beautiful guitars. Upon seeing them, I imagined him strumming away to entranced ladies and having his way with them afterward. Studmuffin!
When I tap on Erik’s Slack pic, he’s jamming on an electric guitar like the late, great Eddie Van Halen.
I cannot compete with this kind of coolness.
So it was with a quizzical look that I followed their conversation on our editorial Slack channel.
It started, as it usually does, with beer. I’ll cut to the chase, though.
Friend and colleague Alan Knuckman put up a pic of the beer he drank in high school. It’s Red, White & Blue, costing $4 a case.
I feel it, as I used to drink Milwaukee’s Best (The Beast), Busch, and, God help me, Natural Light. They were about $8 a case outside Philly in the early to mid-’90s.
Erik then wrote how anti-German jingoism led to a backlash against any beer with a German-sounding name during the world wars. As a result, America had crappy beer for 50 years. (Most claim that it lasts until the present day.)
Along a similar vein, most medium- to high-end electric guitar amplifiers are powered by vacuum tubes (as they have been since the 1950s). And the best tubes are made in Russia. Thanks to the Ukraine war sanctions, you can’t buy them in the U.S. anymore. What’s on the shelf is all you can get.
The above is entirely Greek to me. As Captain Renault said in Casablanca when learning the stolen exit visas were hidden in Sam’s piano, “It serves me right for not being musical.”
So I’ll do my best to explain to the non-musicians among us.
The Tied-up Tubes
While it's true that many guitar amplifiers use vacuum tubes, solid-state amplifiers (those using transistors) have been commonplace since the 1970s. Many beginner guitar amplifiers today use solid-state technology, which is generally more reliable, lightweight and less expensive than tube technology.
However, because of their distinct sound characteristics, vacuum tubes are still widely used in medium to high-end models. Here's why:
- Tonal Characteristics: Vacuum tubes often provide a "warmer" or "richer" tone than solid-state amplifiers. Although this is subjective, nearly all players prefer the sound of tube amplifiers
- Overdrive and Distortion: When a tube amplifier is pushed beyond its limits (i.e., overdriven), it produces a type of distortion generally considered musically pleasing. This "tube distortion" or "tube overdrive" is a fundamental part of the sound of electric guitar music in many genres, mainly rock and blues
- Dynamic Response: Tube amplifiers have a unique dynamic response due to how tubes handle signals. Tubes react to the strength of the player's touch — playing harder drives the tubes harder and produces a louder, more distorted sound, while playing softly produces a cleaner, quieter sound. This is a characteristic that's hard to replicate with solid-state technology
- Tradition and Perceived Quality: Tube amplifiers are associated with the "golden age" of guitar music and many iconic players, so many guitarists prefer them due to tradition and the perceived quality associated with tubes.
While tube amplifiers have these advantages, they also have some drawbacks compared with solid-state amplifiers. They're more expensive and heavier, require more maintenance and are prone to technical issues.
Since I know nothing about this subject besides what I wrote above, I’ll stick with J-Rod’s assessment.
I’ve written over 50 Rude editions with the word “sanctions” in them.
I never had a good word for them.
They are wars by other means and generally start with hurting the sanctioner rather than the sanctioned.
You may be saying, “Sean, come on. These are musical playthings. Who cares?”
Ukrainians would say that the least we can do for their country is make a trivial sacrifice.
But what if this is just the canary in the coal mine?
What if this is merely a taste of what’s to come?
I had no idea Russia made this stuff.
But I do have a better idea of the stuff Russia has that we don’t have much of.
Here are 10 natural resources that Russia has in abundance that are not as abundant in the United States:
- Natural gas
- Crude oil
- Rare earth elements
We’re playing with fire here.
Vacuum tubes may be what musicians have a taste for. But their disappearance from our shelves could signal a far greater disaster.
Let’s hope this war is over sooner rather than later and these sanctions disappear.
Have a great day!