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. )
(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.
(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: