Amp Tone Part 5: Speakers and Cabs

Maybe……just maybe the most overlooked part of amp tone. I’ll talk to a lot of people who are into tube-swapping, are point-to-point handmade snobs, and all that jazz, but who couldn’t care less about their speakers. Maybe it’s because you can’t see the speakers, so what’s the point of getting cool ones? (That really did use to be me. You know, I just might be the most materialistic guitarist you’ll ever meet.) But I remember the first time I actually took my tone mentor’s advice and changed my speakers. The difference was astounding. And then I remember the first time I took his advice again, and actually got the speaker he told me to get. And there was much rejoicing.

(By the way, I don’t know if you have people like my tone mentor in your life, but they are very valuable. You know, the unabashedly honest people. I remember he’d call me up and ask, ‘Hey what guitar are you playing now?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, this Delta Les Paul knockoff. The guy told me they used to have a license from Gibson to make these, but then they started using better materials than Gibson and making them sound better than Gibson, and so Gibson sued them! So this guitar not only sounds better than a Gibson, there were only 200 of them made! I got for $250, and it’s worth, like, $5000!’ And he would say, ‘No.’ That honesty is so crucial. ;) )

EdgeBono.jpg picture by rypdal95
(And no, my tone mentor is not The Edge. Edge is my tone man-crush. I thought that was clear. My tone mentor is Mr. Huffman, to whom I owe a great deal, even if he doesn’t like the Memory Lane. hehe And is it just me, or does it look like Edge just ‘tolerates’ Bono sometimes?)

So speakers, at least in my opinion, are just as important as your amp. The wood of your cabinet is also extremely important. If I could boil it down to two things to look for in amp cabinets, I would say that you need to get a cabinet made of actual, solid wood. Not partical board, not some synthetic, new-fangled material they make Target furniture out of. (Nothing against that……half my wife’s and my apartment is Target furniture. But if we move it once, it’s toast.) Same thing as a guitar. The wood makes up a ton of the tone. And secondly, match your speakers so that the amp drives them.

Here’s what I mean. Even more important than a good speaker, is a speaker or speaker combination that matches your amp in wattage. You want the speaker, the only other part of your tone besides your hands, pick, and strings that actually moves real air and creates real soundwaves, to be pushed right up to its most efficient point. A 15 watt amp and a 75 watt speaker is not going to give you as much air flow and hence is not going to be as loud or as full as a 15 watt amp pushing a 15 watt speaker. I see so many people who think that a higher wattage speaker will give them more volume. Nope. The volume is from the amp, and the speaker just makes the amp’s tone real.

Now, there is another school of thought on this that you want a speaker with a high wattage rating so that it will be just a clean representation of the amp. Almost a blank pallette that doesn’t add any of its own tone. This tends to work better with sound reinforcement stuff like PA systems. But still, I find that personally, though I want a little more headroom in speaker systems so they don’t get overdriven and blow, they still sound better the closest they can safely be to the rated wattage of the soundboard. Some jazz and blues guys also use high-rated speakers, as did a lot of guys in ’80′s new wave bands. And they get some cool sounds. It’s definitely something to experiment with. And I used to do do it. I ran a 30 watt amp into a 2×12 cab with two 150 watt speakers. Whoa. And I liked it. But then I switched to a 15-watt Alnico Blue. And my ears just……well, let’s just say I’m not going back.

music-scene-breakfast-club.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Sorry, when I think ’80′s new wave, this is what I think of. Killer movie. Ever been tempted to do that in a library? Really hoping it’s not just me now. And this photo is definitely from VHS. Either that or it’s supposed to look all trippy -80′s-synthesizer-trill-dream-sequence. Either one is plausible. It was the ’80′s.)

Your amp just sounds the best when it’s sound is pushed out back into space, into reality, by a speaker working at its maximum potential. When the speaker is actually pumping, and being forced to use all of its frequency range. If you have too high of a mismatch between speaker and amp, the speaker will not be pushed enough, and you’ll lose a ton of frequency response. You’ll end up with a dull, middy, behind the mix sound.

Of course, though, you don’t want to blow your speakers. Well, maybe you do……I don’t know who all reads this blog. If you’re in a Dead Kennedy’s tribute band, go buy a 100 watt Marshall and some 5 watt 8 inch speakers. Knock yourself out…you’ll nail their tone. ;) And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if that’s your deal! But to the rest of us, we obviously don’t want to be changing speakers every gig. So, try to get speakers rated just slightly higher than your amp’s wattage; so then they’re pushed well, but they can also handle wattage spikes on the huge downbeat chord without blowing. Personally, I use a 30 watt amp into a 2×12 cab with a Celestion Alnico Blue (15 watts) and a Celestion G12H-30 (30 watts). So, as close as I can get to matching the ratings. And of course I mic the Blue if I’m only mic’ing one.

Which leads me to my next point. Celestion Alnico Blue. Get one. Nope. That’s the whole point. Get one.

I find that Celestions tend to sound best for EL84-based, Voxy amps. Specifically the Alnico Blues and G12-H’s. For EL34-based, Marshally amps, you might want to think about some Celestion Greenbacks. And for 6L6-based, Fendery-type amps, my preference is Jensens. For my 6L6-based amp, I use a 50 watt Jensen for a 40-watt rated amp. Again, trying to get the wattage a close to being matched without too much risk of blowing the speaker. And both Celestion and Jensen are making great reissue stuff, too. Within the last couple years, though. Make sure you get ‘British-made’ (not just ‘British-designed’, actual ‘British-made’!) for Celestions, and ‘Italian-made’ for Jensens. Other companies to check out would be Weber and Scumback. Both are making great clones of ’60′s speakers. And you definitely want to go clone rather than vintage. Speakers, just by their nature, are pushed hard. Vintage ones go out a lot, especially if you push your amps……which hopefully, you do. (See? I always just think my opinion is the right one. I should really try to be more humble. I mean, I’m saved by the fact that my opnion is always right, but the humility thing would help just in case. ;) )

The other speaker to check out is Eminence, although I’m not a huge fan. I used to be, but then Celestions and Jensens changed my mind. Please don’t kill me too much for saying that, if you’re getting sweet, sweet tone out of Eminence. You can kill me a little bit, but not too much. hehe

And lastly, very simply, EL84, EL34, and KT88 amps tend to react best to birch wood cabs. Solid. Again, please, please, please go with solid wood. And don’t go ported unless you plan on mic’ing the port, or you just play at home. And for 6L6 and 6V6, pine usually sounds the best. Pine is bigger and bassier, and just emphasizes that American blusey tone better. Birch is more mid-high-ey (?) and focused, and tends to cut through the mix better like you want with the other 3 types of amps.

As for closed or open back cabs, get open. It’s better. I’m just kidding. I really like open for most tones, closed if you really need that extra punch, like for metal or Marshall tones.

And if you can tell the difference between wiring in series or parallel, I salute you.

Sorry, I kind of lost some steam there at the end. But I don’t want to get too ticky-tacky into some of the tone stuff. In tone, there’s some main points, and then there’s some crazy stuff. Like how to angle your amp against a wall so that the bounce-back hits the speakers out-of-phase to create a harmonic texture that’s pleasing to the one person sitting at such and such a latitude and longitude to hear it. I mean, if you’re into that, then cool; but I’ve spent a lot of time on stuff like that years ago, and missed some main points like driving my speakers, matching cabinet woods properly, or playing the right notes. ;) So sometimes I just want to make sure we keep the main thing the main thing, to steal a way-used-too-much-in-every-sermon-and-movie-since-1997 phrase. But it is pretty true.

And also, it’s difficult to write this blog and re-arrange my pedalboard at the same time. It doesn’t really need re-arranging, I just want to touch them. Lovingly. I mean, I’m going to go practice, of course.

And it’s officially Christmas season now, and I love Christmas. So this is happening:

elf2.jpg picture by rypdal95

Splendid.
Karl.

30 thoughts on “Amp Tone Part 5: Speakers and Cabs

  1. Nice, I was actually looking at Alcinos. And Scumbacks…. thanks to Mike.
    But I kept saying, “I love my sound right now, why change?”
    Then I switched tubes, and love my sound more! So… maybe new speakers?

    And you recommend the Jensens for 6L6…. interesting. I have a lot to think about. But first I think I’m getting the pedal “Distortion” from Hermida Audio. heh… gear is fun.

  2. Good advice! Going from a particle board closed back with ok speakers to open back solid wood with great speakers made a huge difference. Duh. Haha.

    This reminds me I have two blues sitting in my closet. Maybe I should hook one up to my Fender Frontman 15 practice amp… or maybe I should just try to sell them again. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

  3. Larry–haha, ya. Even if you’re happy with your tone, there’s always an improvement that can be made. At least, if you’re a gear junkie guitarist. ;) Speakers make a huge, huge difference. You can tell right away. And ya, I do prefer Jensens for 6L6. I don’t know what your wattage is, but for my 40 watter, I use a 50 watt Jensen P12N.

    Mike–hehe, I felt the same way when I finally did that. Like, why did this take me so long to do this? Selling pedals is totally worth getting some extra money to buy good wood in a cab and some good speakers.

    And you have two Blues just sitting around? Man, sell those and you’ll get at lest $400. Get a second Timefactor. ;) (Can never have too much delay.)

  4. hey karl, we almost always talk about power tube breakup but hardly go into the speaker breakup. i personally have no experience with it but read good things when speakers are push into breaking point

    have you had experience with speaker breakup?

  5. Hey, Rhoy. You know, I’m more of a fan of pushing the speaker to get the ‘full harmonic spectrum’ from it, then actual speaker breakup per se. I guess trechnically, the sweet harmonic spectrum you hear from a pushed speaker is the speaker right on the verge of breakup. And that’s where I like to keep them.

    But every once in a while, pushing the speaker over the edge can result in some really, really cool-sounding, edgy breakup with, of course, really full harmonics. I can get it every once in a while when I’m at a big church, and the stage is big enough to accomodate me running my amp at 30 watts, instead of 15. It’s a cool sound every once in a while, but I wouldn’t want it all the time.

    So I guess all that to say, I love speaker breakup, but more on the ‘pushed’ beginning of breakup; and every once in a while on the full breakup.

  6. thanks karl. i have yet to play as loud as i want to achieve speaker breakup or even on the verge due to some volume limitations in the places i’ve played. heck, i even put an attenuator to get power tube breakup :(

  7. The Blues definitely make that Vox EL84 “chime”. I’ve got a Weber Blue Dog Alnico in my A30 and I love it – it’s got all the chime with the high end “tamed” just a hair. I’m also a HUGE fan of the G12H-30 70th anniversary speaker – it’s the most versatile that I’ve heard…

  8. Ya, the G12H-30 anniversary seems to be a great pairing with the Blue. Nice to hear good things about the Weber. Eventually I’d love to try them side by side, but don’t really have the money for two Blue-loaded cabs right now. Maybe after Christmas. :) But I’m taking it from your comment that you’re digging the Weber. Very cool.

  9. I think speaker break-up is partially a myth. At least the way I’ve heard some people talk about it… as if it’s the speakers making an overdrive sound. It’s hard to measure though, when you turn your amp up it’s character changes so it’s hard to say what’s the speaker and what’s the tubes running harder.

  10. I put together a cab for a Dumble build this past summer. I JUST completed the amp today, but I’ve been playing my AC-30 build through it for the past six months. The cab had a G12-H30 and G12-65, and the bass was always too overwhelming for the Vox build (which, lets be honest, is and will remain my main amp). But after reading this post I took the G12-65 out to try my Blue Dog paired with the G12. Wow! Now there’s something I’ve been missing!

  11. Hey James, I thought the exact same thing when I tried a blue for the first time. Blew me away.

    And you build amps? Wow! I should probably be taking advice from you! ;)

  12. Well, we all have aptitudes in some areas and not others. I went to college with a jazz scholarship, but I really struggle to play modern music. I just have such a hard time putting what I hear down through my fingers. I’ve gotten a lot from your videos and the blog though. I really have.

    I’ve been building amps for three years, and I’ve been building guitars for about 10. My goal is to be one of the top luthiers in another 10 or so. Mainly acoustic guitars, but building a strat is sure a lot less expensive than buying one.

    I’d love to share some pictures with you. l’ll send you a YouTube message before the weekend is over because I’m ready to show the world. Today, though, is my birthday :)

  13. Hi Karl, why did you decide to pair the blue with a G12 H instead of using two blues. I’m considering changing the greenbacks that came with my marshall jtm45 combo to alnico speakers. I’ve heard the G12 H gives more low end definition

  14. Hey Cian,

    I originally did that because I was worried about blowing the Blue. However, I’ve since discovered that it’s a workhorse…I’ve been very pleased with how well it holds up when pushed past the 15 watt rating at certain spikes. So I mainly keep it that way now because I like the way they work together. Like you said, it rounds out the low end a bit, and if ever a sound tech wants to mic both live or in the studio, it’s just another palette to be able to offer.
    :) Good to have you here!

  15. I agree with most everything you point out in your article.

    One of the best sounding speakers I have is an OEM 20 watt alnico speaker made by Eminence in 1995, which was allegedly pulled out of a Matchless speaker cab, but I have my doubts. Anyhow, it sounds very nice. It’s got good top end without being harsh, which is important to me because I dislike harsh sounding speakers a lot.

  16. Greetings…
    Great site! I’ve been doing a lot of reading and this is my first post. I’ve got a Mesa/Boogie Studio 22+; EL84 based 1×12 combo rated at 22watts. Is the Celestion Alnico Blue rated too low for this amp, and if so, can you offer me another recommendation? Thanks, and great site, keep up the good work!

  17. BTW, I found your website because I recently purchased my own Diamond Memory Lane 2 and subsequent web searches landed me here. Awesome pedal. Steep learning curve.

  18. Hey ggman,

    Welcome! Great to have you here, and thanks for the kind words. The Blue will sound great with that amp, but you will run the risk of blowing the speaker. If you check Scumback Speakers, they make a version of the original Alnico Blue that is rated for 30 watts. That might be the best choice. Or a Celestion G12H-30, or an older british-made greenback could sound very good, too. :)

    And I hear ya on the Memory Lane! Mine’s the first version, but the first time I played with it live, I had to shut it off for the whole show because I couldn’t figure out what it was doing! haha

    Cheers,
    Karl

  19. When I first used the memory lane live, I couldnt’ use it either. I took it back and came home with an Empress SuperDelay, which is a very warm digital unit. It sounded great, but I couldn’t get the sound of the MML out of my head. It reminded me of molassass and brown sugar – warm, round and brown. That’s the only way I can describe it. I took the Empress back and repurchased the MML. This happened in the last month or so. So now I’m dealing with the learning curve. I’m going to ride it through because I know there’s gold in them thar hills. The other day I played in a worship service and church and used it for single note lines with just a hint of overdrive and man oh man did it sound good.
    I’ll look into the speaker suggestions you mentioned and see what kind of deals I can find…

  20. Hey Karl,

    Got a question.

    I just bought a Vox AC15 Heritage Head (new) and an old Fender Tone Master 2×12 cab with vintage 30′s (used). One of the speakers is blown and I’m looking to replace them but I’m kinda confused on what speakers to get to match the head. I’m thinking about doing an Alnico Blue & G12H 30W Anniversary speaker combo but I don’t know what ohms (8 or 16) to get. I heard that if you don’t match them up right you can really do damage to your head and speakers. The Vox head lets you choose between 8 & 16 but where I am confused is, does that means if I have two 8 ohm speakers I should have my head set for 16? (because 8+8=16) or set it for 8ohms because im using 8 ohm speakers? I’m not sure how all that works. If you could explain it to me that would be a big help.

    Haha this is all new to me and I don’t want to spend the money the then mess everything up and have to start all over. I am using it mostly for worship at my church so the AC 15 is plenty loud. But am looking into getting one of the new AC 30 combos and using the Fender Cab with it (with the blue and G12H) for some of the bigger gigs coming up. So I’m looking for something that will work well with both the AC 15 and the AC 30. If that is even possable I dont know.

    Also a little off topic but have you heard much about what types of tubes are a good replacement for the AC 15? and also my timeline is needing new tubes as well. What would you recomend?

    Blessings
    J

  21. Congrats on the Heritage Vox! Those are really good amps.

    And if I were you, I would totally go with the Alnico/G12H30 pair. That’s what I’m currently using right now, so I might be biased. hehe But you’re right, mismatched ohms can damage your amp. So in your case. So you’ll need to:

    –Get two 8 ohm speakers and run them in series wiring for a total load of 16 ohms. (Series wiring formula: 8+8=16.)

    or

    –Get two 16 ohm speakers and run them in parallel wiring for a total load of 8 ohms. (Parallel wiring formula: 1/16 + 1/16 = 2/16. Reciprocal is 16/2 = 8.)

    I’d suggest running them in series at 16 ohms, because that’s how vintage Vox’s were originally wired. So you’ll want to take the two leads from the speaker jack, and wire the positive to the positive terminal of one of the speakers, and then the negative to the negative terminal of the other speaker. Then take a standalone wire and connect the remaining negative terminal of the first speaker to the remaining positive terminal of the second speaker.

    I know that might sound confusing typed, but here’s a great diagram that I can’t take any credit for (hehe):

    http://www.avatarspeakers.com/wiring%20diagrams.htm

    Hope that helps!

  22. I’m re-reading some of Karl’s older posts because there is a ton of great info here. Yes, the book idea makes sense, hopefully would lead to some income for Karl. So now I’m researching cabinets to expand the sound of my Carvin Vintage 16.

    As I thought about speakers, this song came on one of my Pandora stations. Talk about deep doctrinal content and Biblically sound lyrics, wow !! heh heh

    And tone, my Lord !! Razor blade applied to speaker? :-)
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/182638/spirit_in_the_sky/

  23. I know that this is a bit old, But im in the middle of a brownface princeton build.
    Im using pine for the main construction , would MDF be okay for the baffle?

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