Guitarists love to tinker. We tinker with our guitars by changing out various electronic components, we love tinkering with different types of tubes to put in our amplifiers, and many of us love tinkering around with the order of our pedalboard chain. The one thing most guitarists don’t spend time thinking about is what speaker, or speakers, are inside your favorite amplifiers cabinet? Speakers translate our guitar amplifier tone into something audible, and different wattage-rated speakers deliver different styled filtered tones for guitar amplifiers. In this blog, I’m going to go over how to match best your amplifier to it’s best speaker pairing and how speakers affect your guitar tone!
Yes, this blog's topic is all about speakers, but I would be misplaced if I didn’t shred some valuable information about how your choice of cabinet affects your overall guitar tone. I grew up playing vintage Fender tube amplifiers, which are open back by design. Open back refers to the exposed rear baffle that comes exposed on all vintage Fender amplifiers. I didn’t even know other types of cabinets were possible until I played my first Marshall stack years later! The open back cabinets have a chime and resonant ring, with the open baffle helping to evenly disperses amp tone through any size room. Different cabinet construction materials here also sound different, with pine sounding different than birch, etc. Another plus, most drummers I’ve played with live prefer the sound of open-back cabinets because they can get a blend of the sound of your amp tone directly from the source and their stage monitors.
Closed-back cabinets are exactly are their name implies, closed speaker enclosures that help further project soundwaves towards huge audiences. That’s why you’ll see rock n’ roll guitarists playing huge Marshall stacks while playing arenas! Back in the late sixties and early seventies, there weren’t large P.A.’s powerful enough to fill the sound of an entire rock band to eager crowds, so guitarists were expected to bring enough speaker cabinets just to effectively be heard. The image of loud rock n’ roll amplifiers stuck and closed back cabinets have been a mainstay for electric guitarists ever since. Closed-back cabinets typically have more force on a recording, with an increased punch and faster, tighter bass response.
As far as genre defining uses for different styles of cabinets I’ve used open back cabinets from everything from blues, jazz, indie rock, country, and funk; and I’ve used closed back cabinets for classic rock, and heavy rock tones.
When thinking about speaker choice for your amplifier it is important to consider the type of magnet used in your speaker. Different magnets share different acoustic properties and produce different sounds. Two of the most popular magnets for speaker construction are Alnico and Ceramic. Alnico sound brighter at lower volumes, but really come into their own with natural compression and distortion at higher volumes. The Alnico’s are traditionally paired with the early tweed Fender designs and vintage Vox AC30’s. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of recording with Alnico speakers they always present a vintage Vox AC30 vibe to my ears, I usually use Alnico’s when I’m chasing that classic Oasis “Don’t Look Back in Anger” perfect natural rhythm pure compression amp tone.
Ceramic speakers don’t share the higher volume compression that Alnico speakers do. Ceramic speakers are naturally more even and present a more even frequency response at all volumes. Ceramic speakers have tighter bass frequencies and reveal a more open, more uncompressed natural high-end response. My personal favorite ceramic speakers are Electro-Voice 12L, which I tend to treat as a HiFi speaker for electric guitar.
Another thing to consider when thinking about different speakers is how much do you want to carry? The more speakers you use the heavier your overall rig will be. Certain magnets are heavier than others, which will also affect how heavy your overall cabinet is. As great as Electro-Voice speaker cabinets sound, you may want to invest in a serious chiropractor or roadie crew if you’re going to move them around frequently. Heavier magnets will also equal more efficient speakers, which translates into increased volume for you the player as more efficient speakers are louder. So decide on how much of the lifting formula vs tone formula you want to engage in. If you want to domesticate a rather loud amplifier for home use, picking a less efficient speaker can help tame the beast.
Lastly, check out the dust cap on the speaker you are checking out. dust caps are the big circle looking thing in the center of the speaker. Typically, there are only a couple standardized sizes of dust caps on speakers. My first tube amplifier was a vintage Fender Twin Reverb that had large, heavy JBL speakers installed in the cabinet. The JBL’s had larger than normal dust caps than what I was used to at the time. Larger dust caps can help diffuse the high-end on single-coil driven guitars, which was great for me as a Fender Stratocaster player! Later I found playing higher gain music through speakers with larger dust caps helped smooth out distortion ala Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins.
One of the most important things to consider when building any speaker cabinet, for electric guitar or stereo amplifiers, is compensating a speaker’s power handling to your amplifier. I recommend using speakers that are at least double the wattage rating of your tube amplifier. That means if you Marshall Plexi has an output of 50 watts, you’d want to start with a 4x12 greenback loaded cabinet that is rated for 100-watts of output. Using a 100-watt Marshall Plexi head in the studio? You’ll need upwards of 150-200 watts to be able to properly handle the power output of the Marshall. This is why most Marshall users have double stacks of speakers to handle the power handling correctly. Feel free to ignore me and try using lower wattage speakers in your cabinets. Just don’t come to me when you inevitably blow your speakers.
Like the tone of Greenbacks in a traditional closed-back cabinet for your rock n’ roll distorted tones, but love the sound of 4x10 open-back cabinets like a tweed Bassman for clean tones? No problem. Using a blend of different speakers together can help create a purer tone because the different speakers help equally fill out the electric guitar frequency spectrum. In live situations you can use switching boxes like the Radial Cabbone that allows players to switch between two different cabinets with a single amp head if you need dedicating switching. Another attractive option is finding the right speaker for you to get both clean and dirty sounds from a single speaker. I thoroughly like either Celestion Creambacks, or Vintage 30’s for this because I can control my breakup tones with my guitar’s volume knob to get cleanup, and both of these speakers work very well with pedalboards! Sometimes I will also put one cleaner, more efficient speaker, with a less efficient speaker to get a combination of distortion and clarity in the same cabinet as well!