Charleston music shops have been bobbing and weaving equipment shortages and industry reorganizations continually in these pandemic times, and with supply chains affected by the Russian-Ukrainian war, yet another scarcity has revealed itself: amplifier tubes.
Within the inner workings of those box amps you see musicians plug instruments and microphones into, glass tubes amplify the power of electronic signals. These tubes of varying shape and size, commonly referred to as vacuum tubes, are encased in the majority of audio amplifiers that American musicians favor. The general consensus is that tube amps produce greater sound clarity with better tone quality than digital or solid-state amps that don’t use tubes.
“Most power tubes and preamp tubes are ordered out of Russia,” Ye Olde Music Shop owner Michael Davis said. “There’s a hold on all Russian tubes coming into the United States right now and it’s affecting the ability to repair amps that are coming into music stores — that’s a big issue.”
It’s a small-but-mighty development for Davis. His Hanahan store has been in operation for over 33 years, providing Charleston with a large selection of guitars and musical gear.
“All the American brands — like Paul Reed Smith, Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Martin — are back-ordered for several months, so it’s hard to just get any equipment right now,” he said. “From microphones to speakers, it’s all been affected because there’s backlogs on 90% of the equipment in the music industry, so it’s slowing everything down.”
Davis doesn’t see the state of things necessarily inhibiting live shows, but the backlogs do impact spontaneous buyers who may see something hanging on the wall and want to take it home, because his shop can’t get as much product as it normally would. Davis has been navigating the undersupply since 2020 by back ordering equipment regularly to maintain a steady trickle. He said he has about a year’s worth of reserves.
“Everything in the music industry for the last few years has gone to this made-to-order system so that, name any company, Gibson, Fender — it’s not like they have 10 warehouses across America full of equipment so that when you call in an order to one of these major companies you get it within four or five days,” he added. “I mean, those days are gone.”
Ye Olde’s fellow local music store, Fox Music House in North Charleston, has also been dealing with similar stocking issues with a larger product line.
“We usually do the big stuff — pianos and organs that have 10,000 parts,” said Fox Music House vice president Joseph Fox, who runs the store. “Pianos, organs and professional audio – all three of those things individually have a really big supply chain so when it breaks down things become a wreck.”
Fox Music has been dealing with freight-increase and slow-shipping nightmares since 2020, but new ramifications have surfaced with the scarcity of tubes.
“We won’t sell a tube right now, like if a musician came in and he knew he dropped an amp and the tube cracked, we wouldn’t sell him a single tube because there’s somebody out there that needs to repair their entire organ, and that one $40 part that probably cost $60 now hinges on it,” Fox said. “Man, that’s a hard answer to give somebody: ‘We can’t sell tubes because we can’t get tubes.’”
Fox Music has a large selection of Hammond organs built with vintage Leslie speakers fabricated mainly in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, which use tube amplifiers. Without access to tubes, the turnaround time for organ repairs could continue to lengthen, but Fox said he will remain optimistic and keep adjusting operations as needed.
“I don’t think the boutique Hammond organ world is going to go away, it has a really strong following — recording studios, gospel churches, rock ‘n’ roll,” Fox said.“I have gone down the rabbit hole as far as I can, and I don’t get to go back and I don’t plan on it.”
Ye Olde Music Shop and Fox Music House share that sense of resolve.
“There will always be local music stores that local musicians go to,” Davis said. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”
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