The wall of amps behind Dan & Mick on TPS had a full workout this week. The topic? Speakers, cabs, heads, combos, and all variations thereof. While there is likely a time in all of our early days as a guitar player where we thought an amp was simply a loud maker, the mature reality is that that your amplifier is an essential ingredient in your tone. Beyond that, knowing the behavior and makeup of your amp’s many components is the difference between a sound that will just do and engineering one that makes you sound just like you.
Perhaps more than any of the gear study on TPS, this one was full of variables, too many variables even, which is why Dan & Mick expressed some reluctance over delving into the topic. In this sense, the episode was less an experiment and more of an experience, an experience that allowed both anchormen to reflect on the complexities and intricacies of selecting the best amplifier, cabinet, and speaker.
To that end, here are some of the lessons learned along the way that may serve as something of a compass in your own quest for selecting, swapping, or sticking with your speaker and cab of choice.
When It Comes to Gear, All Things Aren’t Equal
We’re not talking about better or worse here, since as we well-know from the last few years of TPS, the best gear is the gear that speaks to you. But as Mick highlighted at the outset of the episode, gear never exists in a vacuum sealed and fully controlled environment. You might think that switching out the speaker will revolutionize things, but there are endless other elements that inevitably change in your setting and sound. “Here’s what changes: your guitar, the way you play, all the pedals on your board, your amp, the room, the volume, and that’s even before we get into any technical specifications about the speaker whatsoever.”
In this light, the best way forward is to look for a speaker and cab setup that has a foundational character you identify with yet will also adapt to the many worlds you’ll walk in as a player.
The Amp Trap: Overlooking the Speaker and Cab Design as Ingredients in the Sound
In this week’s edition of “Mick’s Moan,” Mick reminded us to beware the pull of scraping together only enough money to buy the amp you’re lusting for and then go for the el-cheapo cab. If you’re going for an amp head plus cab set up, there is an undeniable synergy between the two elements—you need to consider both. As Mick critiqued, you might think, “well, it’s just a box, and it’s got a speaker in it, all cabinets are the same. They are fundamentally not the same. It’s where your sound comes from, [speaker and cab selection] are critically important.”
Related to this is the question of whether to go for an amp and cabinet or all-in-one combo. One of the assets of the former option is that you can exchange any number of speaker cabinets with your head of choice with relative ease. As the episode demonstrated, this can result in drastically different sounds. Of course, with a combo amp, this is also often possible by using and extension cabinet, just be sure you’ve studied up on the resonant frequency and output of your amplifier before wiring everything up.
A final consideration to make for combo amps is how its sound is, in part, a product of having all of the working components in a single, enclosed space. “If you’ve got your amplifier and it’s in the same enclosure, there’s less room but also that resonance is affecting the valves, it’s affecting everything that is in the amplifier.” That is, there is a physical relationship between the sound made by the speaker and cab and the behavior of the amplifier sections. Mick added, “It’s not a better-or-worse thing, it is just understanding that a 1×12 combo is not the same as a head and a 1×12 cab.”
Consider How Cabinet Construction and Design Relates to Your Playing Environment
What your cabinet is made out of will have a big impact on sound. As Mick noted, most vintage Fender-type and open back cabinets are made of pine, while it is common to find plywood used as the material of choice for closed back cabinets. Dan summed up, “what they’re [cabinets] are made of, is a big deal.” On the one hand, pine cabinets typically resonate more, which contributes to the overall sound. On the other hand, larger closed back cabinets are typically more rigid. As Dan commented in light of 4×12 cabinets, “when those are cranked, the amount of energy dissipation that those cabinets have to handle is huge.”
If materials matters, so does what’s happening on the backside. Is the cabinet open or closed? Cabinets that are partially open on the back mean more breathability and interaction with the overall acoustic quality and structure of the room. In a sense, then, these will take on something of the resonant quality of the physical space you’re playing in. For close backs, these typically will pump out more low-end frequencies in a controlled and focused direction.
Here again, these can be assets in different ways. The feel of the closed back on its own might be what drives you to play better, harder, and more aggressive. It pushes that sound into your bones. Yet all those bottom end frequencies might dissolve in the context of a band depending on your amp, style, and setting. In the end, buy the amp and/or cab that is able to inspire you in a diversity of environments with the variety of gear and sounds you’ll throw at it.
Whether you’re looking for a practice amp, a wall of high-gain stacks, or anything in between, head over to Riff City and check out our full selection of amplifiers for any stage of your life as a player and for any environment imaginable.
TPS Rig Rundown
Guitars:Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster, Fender American Vintage 1962 Stratocaster, Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335.
Pedals: D’Addario Pedal Tuner, Analog Man Sun Face NKT (Red Dot), Kingsley Page Boost, Keeley D&M Drive, Danelectro Billionaire Big Spender, Longamp Roxanne, Dawner Prince Boonar, Source Audio Ventris Dual Reverb.
Cabs: Zilla Custom 1×12 with Celestion G12H-75 Creamback, Zilla Custom 1×12 with WGS12L, Zilla Custom 2×10 with Celestion Alnico Gold, Victory V212VV prototype with Celestion Vintage 30, Marshall 2061cx with Celestion G12H Anniversary, Marshall 1960AX with Celestion G12M Greenback.