Guitars, amps, pedals, pickups, plectrum gauges, technique – most of us six-stringers think about changing these things every day of every week. It’s all in the quest for that all-elusive perfect tone. Why then, are most of us not bothered about the speakers in our combo amps and cabinets? Because, as we’re about to learn, these unassuming paper cones are some of the most significant tone-shaping devices we’ve got at our disposal as guitarists…
GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome – afflicts many musicians, but guitar players seem particularly stricken by its evil, wallet-sapping nature.
If you’re reading this, we’ll bet you know how it is.
You’ve done nothing to provoke it. You’re simply going about your business on any given day, when suddenly a thought pops into your head, as if by magic: “Man, I could really use another Telecaster!”
Substitute your irrational gear weakness of choice here – you could be an amp addict, a pedal junkie or a Les Paul lover, for all we know – and this is what we’re talking about. Why does it happen? We’ve no idea.
You might have heard a great song, seen a cool new band, or just had an earworm going round and round in your head all day. And somewhere in your subconscious, your inner guitarist is telling you that you absolutely must have that piece of kit to replicate those sounds. Or something.
And now that thought’s in there, it’s there to stay. Because you just know that new piece of kit will take your sound to the next level! It’s that funny voodoo effect that so afflicts us guitar players (which we wrote about in more detail right here, should you wish to learn more about your musical psyche)…
To come back to the question we posed up top, though, why is it that most of us don’t put more than a second thought to our choice of speakers? They’re just not something we experience GAS over, apparently.
But perhaps they should be.
We all know that our choice of guitar, pickups and amps are hugely important in defining our tone. That’s a given.
But speakers are what actually make the sound that we hear when we play plugged in! So they’re rather crucial too, even if lots of us just accept the models that come with our amp of choice as a given.
These days, speakers come in a huge variety of different brands, shapes, sizes and combinations. The most iconic setup is the classic 4×12 cab, which features – you guessed it – four 12” speakers and is generally accepted as something of an industry standard, especially when it comes to classic rock sounds.
But there’s far more options out there if you want to change things up a bit.
Let’s start with combos, which feature the amp and the speaker cabinet in one practical combined box. By definition more limited than head and cab combinations in terms of mixing and matching, they’re nevertheless available in a bunch of different flavors.
If you’re looking for more low-end, you should consider a larger speaker size. With combos, this means a 12” speaker, a 2×12 or even a 15” (these are rarer), rather than a 10” or 8” option (which are typically found in amps intended for home or practice use).
With combos, you also need to consider the open back/closed back question. This can make a difference in tone, of course: if you’ve got two otherwise identical setups, an open back cab will give you a more open, complex and looser sound that will spread around your venue more, while a closed back cab will be the opposite: tighter, punchier and narrower in terms of the geographic area it’ll cover.
Moving back to heads and cabs, and the size issue also applies: generally, the bigger the cab/speakers, the correspondingly larger the sound will be.
So, what to look for if you want to change your sound by changing your speaker(s)?
Well, it’ll help if you know the sound you’re after. There are a huge number of speaker makes and models available, so seeking the help of a speaker expert – or making a choice based on a player whose tone you greatly admire – is a good way to go.
You’ve got to make sure your new choice will work with your existing amp, too.
This means making sure your impedance is going to match, for one. We wrote all about ohms and impedance in detail in another blog (which you can read here) but here’s the most relevant nugget of wisdom that applies here:
“A guitar amp’s tube power amp works on the principle of matching impedance. In practice, this means using corresponding speakers and amps. For example, if you connect an 8 ohm speaker to the 8 ohm output on a tube amp, the internal resistance of the source (that is, the tube output stage) is exactly that of the load, or speaker.
In this way, and only in this way, can the amp unleash its full power on your unsuspecting audience. This is also the only way you will get your amp to sound exactly like the designers intended it to sound.”
If you’re not sure of your amp’s impedance, check the back panel, and if it’s not written there, ask the company who made it to help you out.
Oh yes, and if you’re playing a closed back combo, pay attention: it might be more difficult for you to find a speaker that fits properly, and it might be pretty difficult to get into the cabinet in the first place. But of course you can always go see a pro tech if you’re not sure about something.
And why change your speakers when you could just buy a new guitar instead?
That’s a good question, and of course there’s no straight answer. If you want that new six-string, you’re going to buy it, and more power to you!
But decent speakers can certainly be had for cheaper than a new axe or a new amp, they’re relatively simple to install (especially if you let a tech do the work) and they’ll make a significant and immediate difference to your sound.
Fresh speakers can breathe a new lease of life into an ailing amp, add an extra twinkle on your tone, and make the difference between a good and a great guitar sound.
But of course there’s those other elements to think about too: the wood in your cabinet, your guitar, amp head, pickups, plectrum, strings, your technique… And so it goes on.
Only one thing in the tone game’s for sure: if you love your sound, you’re well on the way to experiencing your own musical enlightenment.
So why not try a few new things out?
Get down to a store and try out a few different speaker types. Borrow a friend’s cab for your next gig. Check out some A/B comparison videos on YouTube. Hell, even play around with speaker types in an amp modeling app – it all helps, and if you’re having fun, you’re on to a winner.
We’d love to hear your speaker-related stories. Do you have a favorite you put in all your amps? Are you forever switching speakers out in favor of the next great new thing? Or couldn’t you care less? Let us know in the comments below…
First published: February 27 2015. Most recent update: February 27 2015.