For decades, the only way to play guitar live and be heard was with a 100-watt guitar amp and a stack of 4×12 cabinets. For lots of players, the idea of the full stack is still the epitome of coolness – but it’s certainly no longer the most practical solution out there. Or is it? Here Blog Of Tone looks at the history of the cab, where it came from, where it’s going… and what cabinet size you should try if you’re in the market for a new live setup!
It all started, as many things do, out of pure necessity.
Historically speaking, the iconic 4×12 cab was a baby born of the shortcomings of sound reinforcement technology in the ’60s and ’70s.
Early PAs really were for public address, and not for filling auditoriums with music. The sound system was still in its infancy, with a lot of experimenting going on, and the high-definition sonic images of modern line arrays were still light years away.
If a player wanted to be heard, the guitar rig would have to move some serious air.
And the only way to do that was to step up the cone acreage and amplifier wattage.
King Volume ruled the stage in those days. Many rock concerts left the audience’s ears ringing for days.
Tinnitus: a byproduct of early rock ‘n’ roll
The sound was rarely good; but volume levels were debilitating – just ask the likes of Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck or Neil Young. They’ll tell you how it was, assuming they can hear your question over the buzzing of their tinnitus.
The crippling volume didn’t detract from the rock ‘n’ roll experience, though.
On the contrary, in those days a concert was a truly physical event that often left an indelible mark. Noel Gallagher, for one, wears his tinnitus with pride, a badge of honor like a Purple Heart earned in the line of front-line R&R duty.
The dawn of the effective PA system
It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that PA technology took a big leap forward. Line array systems established a new gold standard for live sound.
In-ear monitors brought those absurd on-stage volumes down to manageable levels.
These two advances catapulted rock ‘n’ roll into new sonic territory, conjuring live sound almost as sweet and pristine as a studio recording.
The jury is still out as to whether the 4×12 cab is heading for obsolescence, but this new PA and monitoring technology may well drive the big stack a step closer to extinction.
Is the 4×12 finished?
What’s more, these days many players are tired of fussing with rigs that are too large, too heavy and too inflexible.
This is why the walls of sound seen on stages these days are often purely for show.
They’re just there to look cool.
Rarely do they consist of actual 4×12 cabs. Often they are dummies – empty boxes. Some acts use pictures of speakers printed on canvas as props; others create the same illusion with projections beamed on to screens.
And all in the name of looking cool.
A modern-day solution
So what kind of stage setup do 21st century guitarists want?
Well, plenty of players still like to mic up their rigs live, but we’re talking about just one cab or even just a single speaker here.
Every now and then a guitar-driven rock band will aim several microphones at a 4×12 cabinet, but we’re seeing it less and less these days, even at big shows.
Lightweight amp, heavyweight tone
Things are changing even in the thrash metal genre, where guitars are meant to roar and bands are expected to rage.
Our good friend Jeff Waters – head honcho in thrash metal legends Annihilator – is a great example of where all this is going.
We’ve watched him go from big 4×12-dominated rigs and the Coreblade to a lunchbox-sized GrandMeister with 2×12 cab, even in front of 50,000 people at places like Wacken and Hellfest.
In fact, Jeff loves to surprise other bands on festival bills with his dinky amp’s massive sound:
Why the 4×12 was king
So, while we’ve established that these days size no longer matters when it comes to cabs, it sure did back in the day.
And this is why 4x12s were the way to go. Basically, the bigger the diaphragm, the more air molecules a speaker can disturb, which explains why 4×12 cabs deliver the highest sound pressure of any standard-sized cab (there are rare beasts in the 6×12 and 8×12 format, but you don’t see them often, which is good news for your ears!).
Sure, 4x12s will blow the audience’s hair back and get your musical message across with in-your-face assertiveness. But they also have some serious drawbacks.
For one, they are weighty and unwieldy.
For another, a housing loaded with four speakers is susceptible to phase cancellation. Microphone placement is tricky, and finding the sweet spot takes some finessing.
If you happen to have a spare 4×12 gathering dust somewhere, try this: pluck and hold a note, then move your head back and forth in front of the baffle to hear how the tone changes as your ears roam across the expanse of speakers.
Here’s Rabea Massaad‘s video of the anechoic chamber at H&K HQ – check out some of the audio effects as the camera pans around the room and you’ll see what we mean:
All this, by the way, is also the reason why two identical 4×12 cabs of the same type and brand can sound quite different.
The joy of the 2×12 cabinet
A smaller cabinet loaded with two 12″ speakers is a far handier option.
Why? Well, 2x12s are lighter by nearly half and no bigger than a good-sized suitcase, yet they pack a punch almost as hefty as that of a 4×12.
And they’re rarely troubled with the problem of phase cancellation.
For many guitarists these days, 2x12s represent the best compromise between roadworthy convenience and stage-approved sound pressure.
This also explains why the 2×12 format has become a standard size for combos.
As we say in Germany, two is one better than one.
What about 1×12 cabs?
But then again, the Teutonic way does lean towards over-engineering.
For those who really like to strip things down to the bare necessities, a 1×12 cab is ideal. Phase problems are a non-issue, nor is size.
And these cabs can be very compact indeed – in theory, not much bigger than the speaker inside.
The housings are somewhat larger in practice, but many manufacturers have succumbed to the seductive charms of a petite footprint.
Portable is more practical.
These housings come in various guises – open-backed, closed-backed, semi-open and even with bass reflex ports.
All variations apart from Thiele bins and small bass reflex enclosures deliver less low end and a tightly focused response, relatively speaking.
And a special mention goes to…
There are a few exotic species of cab that merit special mention.
The first that come to mind are the seldom-seen (these days, anyway) 4×10 and the 1×15. If you wish to dip your musical bucket in the deep well of ’60s and ’70s-era blues rock, these configurations should serve you well.
The legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented with a variety of amp/cab combinations in the ’80s and was said to be partial to the venerable Bassman, a very popular amp in its day.
SRV used various 4×10 and 1×15 configurations to achieve his trademark gigantic tone.
But he wasn’t the only one to love the 1×15 format. When Polytone made a combo loaded with one of these speakers, it gained a cult following among jazz guitarists.
These days, though, there seems to be little love left for these two formats among top-tier guitarists, who are rarely seen without 12” speakers.
The future of the cab
Who’s to say what tomorrow may bring? The 4×12 may die out completely, or it may make a massive return.
But with smaller cabs, better PAs and other solutions like the Red Box available these days – and getting better at their jobs all the time – it’s looking like musicians and concertgoers no longer be forced to go deaf if they want to continue enjoying decent live music.
Either way, we’d love to know what you think. What’s your cabinet of choice, and why? Let us know in the comments below…
First published: May 19 2017. Most recent update: May 19 2017.