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Vacuum tube shortage reverberates with local retailers

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has snarled the supply chain for many products. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports on how some local retailers are dealing with a shortage in a century-old technology.

Earlier this month, guitar effects and amplifier maker Electro-Harmonix announced distressing news for musicians and gear-heads alike.

The American company owns the world’s largest vacuum tube factory in Russia. It announced that on March 11th, Russia banned the export of 200 products in response to international sanctions over the war in Ukraine, including its seven brands of Russian-made tubes.

Vacuum tubes are still used in high-end guitar amplifiers and stereo equipment. And word of an impending shortage got out fast among music-makers.

“There was a huge surge in demand, obviously, because the word got out. And, you know, our phone’s ringing, email, people just want to buy all the tubes…”

Matt Hatfield owns Parkway Music in Clifton Park. He said a shelf of hundreds of boxes of the tubes that resemble lightbulbs went quickly.

“48 hours. It was just boom. Gone. Yeah,” said Hatfield.

Today, there are few factories left in the world that still manufacture vacuum tubes, a technology developed more than a century ago instrumental to early radio and the go-to method for amplification until the increased popularity of cheaper solid-state technology in the 1970s.

With the supply cut off from Electro-Harmonix – and a fire that interrupted production at a tube manufacturer in China last year – Hatfield said Parkway Music was left with few other suppliers.

“We saw the writing on the wall a few weeks ago and we did some pretty massive order of tubes that we could find. We did a big order with an outfit out of Germany that still had some tubes left,” said Hatfield.

Parkway Music is not alone in its supply-chain woes.

Love of Fuzz, a shop that specializes in vintage guitars and amplifiers in Troy, scrambled to order to decades-old American-made equipment.

“Westinghouse, GE, RCA's, this is definitely 50s and 60s stuff. So it’s odd that we're having to dip back so deep into stock just go keep business going,” said Heimel.

Love of Fuzz owner TJ Heimel says the demand has sent prices sky-high too – with prices for vacuum tubes going up 200 percent in some cases.

Unfortunately, he says, that means longer waits and more expensive repairs. He can’t take any more repairs right now; he’s only got enough supply to fix what’s in the shop.

“I’m trying to be cognizant of the fact that we’re all in it. We all have the same problem. And I see a lot of this as like the old toilet paper issue, where there’s even the thought of somebody running out of toilet paper so everybody runs out,” said Heimel. “And I have customers telling me, ‘Don’t worry, I just bought a spare set of tubes for every amp I own.’ And you don’t need to do that. You know? We really should be focusing so I’m trying not to buy more than I need.”

For musicians like Heimel, there’s no comparison between a tube amplifier versus a solid-state technology amp – fitted with modern circuitry. An overdriven tube amp naturally gives that distorted sound many associate with electric guitar.

“If you’re talking blues, jazz, all this, you know, old school style music, you really need the tube amps.”

“You NEED the tube amps?”

“You gotta have the tube amps. It’s the whole reason I exist here, ya know?”

I asked Love of Fuzz employee Jake Brooks to demonstrate on a mid-70s Fender Deluxe Reverb.

Brooks prefers the sound of a tube amp, too. He uses one with his own band alongside more modern technology.

“I kind of run a bunch of different digital effects into a tube amp, so it basically makes everything I’m doing kind of sound remotely analog and kind of interesting,” said Brooks. “Some people just plug straight in, which is also just as cool, but for me, I like to basically ruin my really nice sounding digital effects with tube distortion and stuff.”

With the shortage of tubes causing headaches, Electro-Harmonix recently provided an update on its website, with some good news. The company said the export restriction is “resolved for now” and that new orders are being accepted.

But things won’t get cheaper. With hopes to resume shipping in April, the company said further price increases are expected due to new tariffs on Russian goods from countries around the world, including the U.S.

Meantime, at least one American company is exploring expanding the types of tubes it produces.

Western Electric, which specializes in tubes for high-end stereos and the like – one tube can cost around $700 – is asking for feedback from buyers on its website. The company says its “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.”

Matt Hatfield says Parkway Music still has a lot of tube amps in stock, and he hasn’t seen customers hoarding amps or hastily making the switch to solid-state – which he admits have come a long way in both mimicking the sound of classic equipment and interfacing directly with computers.

Still, he does expect the tube shortage to “slow the works” with Parkway’s repair department.

“But we’re gonna keep at it. We just take it an amp at a time, day by day, getting it done for the people. You know?”

And at Love of Fuzz, TJ Heimel thinks he will also weather the shortage.

“There’s plenty of tubes out there to keep us going. If everyone calms down. Don’t panic buy. We got this.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.