Do Guitar Cabinets Really Make A Difference?

A vintage Alamo guitar leaning again a pair of Guitar Cabinets

It can be easy to stick to what we know when it comes to guitar gear. Whether you’re playing the local clubs, touring stadiums or just practicing—we find fast comfort in what we’re used to. Your amps become your sidekicks, and as long as there’s sound coming out of your guitar cabinets, changing your setup might not feel like a priority.

However, as Stringjoy players know, every gear detail matters and your choice of speaker cabinet is no different! Guitar cabs have a significant effect on your sound. After all, they are the last step in actually hearing those strings!

Realizing how significant that effect is however can be surprising. Especially if you haven’t tried many before, or are happy with what you have had. ‘But what about me?‘ cries out the combo amplifier player—worry not, for we too can benefit from additional cabinets. It might seem redundant, after all, they are just boxes with a speaker in them, but the combo extension cabinet is just as effective as a cab with an amp head. We have a whole new world of sound and space to discover, and in just a few minutes, we think you’ll agree there is a lot of potential for fun when it comes to guitar cabinets.

Why Guitar Cabinets?

Separating the amp and the speakers means that you’ll be able to mix and match a larger pool of options, with a focus on volume and timbre. As you connect a combo or amp head to a cabinet, the guitar signal is going to bloom and resonate in new and exciting ways within that final piece of the puzzle.

When you plug in, the actual guitar is only one-quarter of the instrument you’re playing- the pedals, amp, and speakers complete it. Whether you need a full-stack behind you, or are looking for a more intimate at-home setup, the right cab can launch your sound to its full potential.

A 2x10 Fender style guitar cabinet piggybacking a 4x12 Marshall style guitar cabinet.

What Size Guitar Cabinet Should You Choose?

Most cabinets are made of chipboard, plywood, or solid wood planks. Guitar cabinets, at their most basic, are guitar speakers in a container that is designed to resonate and direct sound outward. They are typically made to hold one, two, or four speakers, and their sizing can vary greatly to that amount—though there are always exceptions!

A 1 x 12” cab holds a single speaker and is a popular choice thanks to its portability. It will work well in a constricted space like an apartment or small recording studio, but depending on the amp it can also handle a small to medium-sized venue.

2 x 12” cabs hold a pair of speakers, increasing your tonal range as well as your volume and potential for clarity. They are popular as they bring the perks a multiple speaker setup adds, like additional clarity, presence, and focus with clean and distorted sounds, without the weight of many, many speakers. They’re often enough to fill up a venue, and provide a middle ground between the 1 x 12” and the 4 x 12” guitar cabinets.

The latter might be your best choice for large spaces that can handle huge bursts of volume; an obvious choice for frequent performers who will not have the assistance of a P.A for amplification. The larger your cabinet, the larger your bass presence is as well. Imagine the heavy-duty wall of cabs behind your favorite band at a live show—they are most likely 4 x 12’’s. (Though some groups are actually rumored to pile unplugged cabinets onstage for aesthetic value) Either way, there’s no denying the immense presence of a 4 x 12″. Even if you’re starting small, the availability of three cab sizes gives you the option of advancing your setup as your skills and needs grow.

What’s Inside?

The aptly-named baffle is another seemingly innocuous part of every guitar cabinet that changes how your guitar signal translates into a room.

The baffle is like the sternum of the cab- the central panel of wood that the speakers are attached to. Early cabs made by top manufacturers were experiments in construction methods and proof that building a wooden box isn’t as simple as you’d think as a newcomer.

Vox and Marshall cabs, for example, employed a very rigid baffle; bolted to the inside of the cab on all four sides, it didn’t allow for much vibrational movement. The effect allowed for less resonance than Fender cabs, which had loosely secured baffles. In a Fender cab, the baffle itself would resonate along with the wooden walls of the container—like an acoustic guitar!

As you might’ve guessed, the type of wood your cab is made of plays a part in the sound quality as well; birch and pine are two top contenders. While birch is stiffer, pine is a soft wood and therefore absorbs more vibration- early rock groups playing Fender guitar cabinets relied on pine to refine their sound. While it may seem obsessive, wood type and baffle construction are two details worth keeping in consideration. Some modern brands will build two amplifiers the exact same way, but with unique wood options, and the aural change is clear.

A vintage Alamo guitar neck leaning against a Fender style Guitar Cabinet, a jealous Marshall style cabinet watches on.

Open and Closed-Back Guitar Cabinets

Whether you choose an open or closed-back cabinet depends on the qualities and volume of the sound you’re trying to move.

A speaker, obviously, produces sound from the front. You can look at a stereo system and watch those paper cones dance for hours, but did you know they are also producing sound behind them as well? This rear sound is far less bright, and much more bass-heavy.

A closed-back cabinet will trap all of those rear sounds, resulting in a more compressed, bass-heavy tone with a tighter output. The sound has no wiggle room and will be pushed forwards instead of around; it’ll be heard best when the listener is facing the speaker. The guitar will sound tighter, lending itself to melodic intricacy.

An open-back cab on the other hand is made with a part of its rear panel, well, open! This leaves the speakers slightly exposed. This allows the speaker’s sound, and its unique directional qualities, to spread in different directions and dissipate on different surfaces around the room. With little emphasis on lower frequencies, the open-back quality creates more of an ambient environment. If you’re recording, this is a good way to capture tonal variety with multiple mics- the sound will resonate differently in every corner of the room.

For on-stage musicians, the cabinet you choose will affect not only how the audience hears you but also how your band members and you yourself hear your instrument at the moment. While a closed-back cab will point your sound dead ahead, there will be a discrepancy between what you hear if you are standing next to or behind the amp and what the audience hears; certain frequencies will sound different based on what height the listener is standing at in relation to the speakers. Due to this, many use amp risers to point that directional sound where they want to send that sound.

Though it compromises clarity and consistency in various spaces, an open-back cabinet will help shape your sound to match the room. Your choice between these two options will depend on your style, how often you will be playing live, who you will be playing with, and whether you’re planning on recording.

Where Should You Start?

It’s always a good idea to start your experiments with a cabinet made by the same brand as your amp. The amp engineer’s original idea is found here. Once you know the intended sound of your gear, you can settle in with it, or you can defy it!

Using cabinets with multiple speakers also presents the option of mixing and matching different speakers to diversify your sound. For the electronically inclined, larger cabinets have the added benefit of speaker flexibility. If you choose to incorporate different brand speakers in one cab, they can be replaced and rewired according to your needs. Some cabinet manufacturers, like Mesa, can create a customized speaker combination within the cab upon request. Whether you’re looking for a strong mid-range, extra crunch, or a vintage feel, your speaker choice matters.

Fender and Marshall style Guitar Cabinets cuddling

Power Output and Impedance

While it can be fun to mix and match amps with cabinets, there are basic rules to keep in mind when experimenting. Pay close attention to the Wattage (for example, 100 watts) and Impedance (for example, 8 Ω ) signified on the back of your amp because it will dictate the kind of cab you can safely connect to it.

The amount of power an amplifier produces is what dictates volume. A 50-watt head is a 50-watt head wheter it is plugged into a 65-watt speaker or a 100-watt speaker. What does change is the quality of the sound! Higher wattage speakers can reproduce more volume before hitting the point of distortion. As with amps, this is also known as ‘headroom’.

The most important lesson here is: Do not plug an amplifier into a guitar cabinet with a lower wattage rating. The amp can overheat as it cranks out more than the speakers can handle. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a melted output transformer and blown speakers. You can find the impedance of an amp printed on the rear panel, next to the output jack. The same goes for your guitar cabinet’s input.

Most cabinets are 2, 4, 8, or 16 ohms, and many give you a few options! It all depends on what the speakers are rated, and how those individual speakers are wired together.

A single speaker cabinet is easy to figure out—you just match the speaker’s impedance to the amp.

If your cab holds more than one speaker, or you are using multiple cabinets, you have to be more mindful.
The way the speakers are wired together is very important. If they are wired parallel to one another, their combined impedance is halved. For example, two 8 ohm speakers result in a total impedance of 4 ohms. If they are wired in series, their impedances combine. For example, two 8 ohm speakers result in a total impedance of 16 ohms Many amps have a switch on the back to adjust their impedance output.

You should also keep an eye on the power wattage (W) indicated on both the amplifiers and guitar cabinets.
The head or combo wattage shouldn’t be higher than the total wattage of the speakers in the cab.

Though you can easily tumble down a rabbit hole of formulas and caveats the deeper you get into the subject of ohms and impedance, most amps and speakers are clearly labeled, and it becomes a matter of matching one number to another. There is a world within itself when it comes to the sound of these different impedances.

Cabinet Alternatives

While we’re debating cabinet do’s and don’ts, it’s worth mentioning that the guitar cab has a bit of a stunt double on the market.

The FRFR, or full-range, flat-response speaker is meant to clone any tone it receives from an amp head, producing a largely unbiased sound. In many ways, it is a barebones version of the guitar cab- a speaker without the diverse characteristics of cab design. This FRFR speaker can then adequately simulate (but not replicate) the identity of various guitar cabinets. Over the past two decades, the FRFR has grown in popularity along with its counterpart, the modeling amp.

An alternative to the traditional tube and solid-state amps, modeling amps like Fender’s Mustang line, or the Line 6 Spider series incorporate computerized technology to simulate different amp tones and effects on a plugged-in instrument. If you’re looking for the control a modeling amp can provide, and don’t mind the element of digital reproduction involved, an FRFR speaker can complement your sound by acting as a clean slate.

However, if you find yourself wishing your modeling amp felt a little more authentic, you can still plug it into a classic cab to offset its predictability—just remember to shut off any cab modeling it was already doing. As the digital age grinds on, most classic technology can be matched- but that doesn’t mean it can be replaced.

The Ones and Zeros

Impulse Response or ‘I.R’ technology is another great example of the guitar cabinet’s importance to the sounds we love. This technology is like a dynamic filter made from a ‘capture’ of a guitar cabinet. Let’s explain it—this audio snapshot is captured by recording a known signal through the cabinet, say a sweeping synthesized sine wave, and comparing that recorded signal to the original sound source. The difference is the cabinet’s sonic identity! Now we can apply that unique identity to other sounds and it is almost like they are coming through that cabinet or into that room.

In this digital age where incredible artists are finding their sound with advanced rackmount modelers like the AxeFX, Kemper, and Helix, we still dedicate a lot of time and money to simulating a speaker and cabinet’s response to sound, so even in this modern age of ones and zeros, we can confidently say your guitar cabinet does matter!

The corner of a distressed Fender style cabinet

Conclusion

Finding the amp and cab combination that works best for you can either be a matter of extensive research, or just dumb luck. As long as you have a basic understanding of amp safety and amp/speaker power output, the choice of what cabinet to use is all yours, depending on how (and where) you see yourself advancing as a musician or audiophile.

If you’re used to combo or modeling amps, stacking a cabinet or two as part of your setup can change the way you interpret your own sound. It’s the classic approach to amplification, and putting yourself at the mercy of a wooden box can tune you into the subtleties of your playing style. If you’re considering playing larger venues, having the luxury of a half or full-stack is tried and true. Experimenting with different cabinet types and arrangements is just another tool to add to the stash. You can go full Kevin Sheilds and have every option at once!

While you can’t go wrong with a brand new cab from boutique builders like Science or Hard Truckers, vintage and used options are worth a look as well; the same goes for amp heads. Like a lot of gear built for rock n’ roll, cabs can be timeless in their simplicity, but you can’t just hammer one together in the garage, without a little math or a lot of luck. Iconic enough to mean business but designed for efficiency, both today’s and yesterday’s guitar cabinets remain a product of necessity and craftsmanship.

The bottom of a Marshall style guitar cabinet

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11 Responses

  1. I am lucky in that I have friends with the ability to make really nice speaker cabinets in any configuration I can design. My favorite speaker cabinets actually use 2×8 speakers. However, I use real speakers, not the Celestions and Eminence speakers a lot of musicians think sound good. If I was forced to use only those speakers, I would have given up.

    A couple things to keep in mind when looking at speakers are the frequency response of those speakers, and the efficiency of them. When I play an 8 string guitar, the low string is usually around 40Hz. Typical guitar speakers can’t handle that low a note. So, it basically just doesn’t do it, or worse, does it really poorly. Sadly, a lot of the consumer grade speaker cabinets aren’t made to hit at 40Hz either. (A lot of the bass stuff is tunes about 50Hz with a speaker than can only go down about that far.

    The efficiency of the speakers is really important too. Suppose you have a 2×12 cabinet with 90db speakers wired for 8 ohms in it. Set your amp to say 5. Listen to how loud that is. (Measure it if you can.) Now, drop in a pair of speakers that are say 96db speakers and wire them for 8 ohms. This new set up would be about 4x louder than your other system. Approximately every 3db increase in sound is double the sound. So, a 6db increase is about 4x more!

    If you have the opportunity to do it, one can buy empty 2×12 cabinets from Seismic audio. The quality of most of their cabinets are quite nice. Most of my 2×12 cabinets from them are FAR better quality than many of the “name brand” cabinets from high end companies. They offer 2×12 cabinets in close back, open back and ported. You can drop in the same speakers into each cabinet and see how much of a difference you get.

    I’ve used these cabinets to make a bass speaker cabinet that can handle and play notes at 20Hz. I put a pair of ports on one of their closed backed cabinets. For about $300-$400, I can get a speaker cabinet that works well with all of my guitars and basses and BLOWS AWAY most of the stuff you find at guitar shops all around. Unfortunately, those 2×12 cabinets are quite heavy. So, I try to stick with my 2×8 ported cabinets. By using GOOD 8″ speakers, I can get better lows than most standard 4×12 guitar cabinets. I can also get better highs too. Those good 8″ speakers can handle at least 200W RMS each. (Most standard guitar speakers can’t handle more than say 60W – 100W each.) I’ll even take my 4 x 6 ported guitar cabinet over most 1 x 12 cabinets I have tried.

    I fully admit though, I want the whitest sonic canvas upon which I can lay my notes. If you think about what happens at most concerts we attend, we hear music out of PA systems, which are usually designed and EQ’d to produce the whitest sound possible, for the musicians and sound tech to paint the most wonderfullest sound experience possible….(Unless you’re at Harpo’s In Detroit.)

    1. Hi Andrew, can you share with the rest of us the brand of speakers that you consider “good”? I’m very interested in smaller, lighter cabinets with 6”, 8” or 10” (maximum) speakers for playing mostly clean jazz at low to moderate volume.

      1. I have a 4 x 6.5 speaker cabinet from Seismic Audio. I put a pair of 3″ diameter 4″ long port in the back of it. I then put 4 6.5″ Dayton Audio PA speakers into it. (I’ve used both the PA165-8 and PK165-8. I like the PA165 better because they have more low end.)

        I bought a BC-208 ( TC Electronics). I was surprised how good the bass was without turning it up. The highs are a bit weak. But, I put a pair of PRV Audio 8MB450-4 v2, better highs. Still lots of bass for a guitar cabinet… not so much for a bass cabinet. With that same bc-208 cabinet, you can buy a pair of Faital Pro speakers, put them in, and essentially have a Trace Elliot 2×8 cabinet for a bit less than buying the real thing.

        I did use those same PRV speakers in a custom box. That sounded awesome for a pair of 8″ speakers. But, the box was the size of a 2×10 or 2×12 cabinet. I also used a pair of Dayton Audio PA200 speaker too. I like that better. But, they are 8 ohm speakers. So, I either have to make the cabinet 4 ohms or 16 ohms.

        With my other custom made 2×8 cabinet, I used a pair of Dayton Audio RS225-4 speakers. (And yes, these are home audio speakers.) The bass depth is great. The highs are a bit off. But, it’s very clear and clean.

        I’m also waiting on some Goldwood GW-8PC-4 and Goldwood GW-208/4. Each should have awesome clean and deep low end. The GW-208’s should have better highs too. Depending upon where you look, these speakers are either listed as OEM replacement home theater speakers or PA speakers.

        With all of these combinations, I’ve shown them to multiple players and sellers. The general consensus is, they have great sound but, they are a bit too clean.

        I ended up putting my custom 2×8 cabinet with the PRV speakers up against a Marshall stack the shop owner was trying to get $6,000 – $8,000 for. He was not happy after the demo. My speaker box sounded a lot better than his stack….

        If you have the know-how and the tools, it’s easy to swap out speakers in a speaker cabinet, wire up new speakers with say a 2kHz high pass cross-over and a 3″ or multiple 2″ “full range” speakers to create a guitar or bass cabinet that can handle all the sounds you need. My favorite cabinets so far in my SA-212 E and Luke-2x12C empty cabinets from Seismic. I put some nice casters on the bottom of each. I drilled out a pair of 4″ holes in the back for ports on each. On the Luke, I drill out a pair of 3″ holes on the front. I use a set of 12″ 8ohm PA speakers and a pair of 3″ 8ohm “full range” speakers. Use a cross over set at about 2kHz at 4 ohms, and, I think it’s magical. I’ve used a dozen different pairs of PA speakers, all sound good to me. I’ve used several “bass guitar” speakers too. The “proper” speakers don’t have the low end I need. Often, I get them to clip and make “farting” noises. So, I stick with PA equipment.

        I also took one of my 2×12 guitar/bass cabinets to a local Guitar Center. Did an A/B comparison between their high end equipment and my $400-$450 cabinet. I brought my 7 string bass tuned an octave below the standard B on a 5 string bass (15Hz). Their dual 15″ full range cabinet couldn’t handle the low notes at moderate volumes. Mine could. At half the price, or less, I’ll never buy another pre-made cabinet again… unless I get it cheap and then I’ll strip out the old speakers and drop in the ones I like.

  2. The best sounding cabinet I have is a 69 -2×12 fender bandmaster with Eminence speakers . To bad it’s just to big to carry around .
    mike

  3. My cabinet has become the most important part of my rig. I wanted a 1×12″ for playing at home and recording sessions. I bought a mesa boogie mini rectifier cab with Vintage 30 speakers and absolutely hated it. It sounded boxy, shrill and small. Then I found out about the mesa boogie thiele cabs. It’s a 1×12″ tuned port cab that uses en EV EVM12L speaker and was originaly designed as a PA speaker. Turns out Mesa copied the plans of Electro Voice. So I did the same and built my own. It’s sounds absolutely fantastic for guitar and bass, even at low volumes. It works great for sparkly cleans, crunch sounds as well as bonecrushing high-gain sounds. What makes this speaker and cabinet great is that it sounds very neutral. It brings out the character of your guitar and amp. Absolutely love this cabinet. Would not want to carry it though since it weighs and absolute ton.

  4. Interesting article, thanks! The discussion of open vs closed back is helpful. It would be great to hear your further thoughts on the wood debate, eg solid vs ply, and Baltic birch vs the rest of the forest. Also, I’m really curious about the tonal or other differences one would expect to hear by changing impedance of a multi-speaker cab, say, by switching from parallel to series wiring. I know the folks at Mesa swear by this (I have a couple smaller Mesa amps) but their descriptions are vague.

    Finally, one question: in the section on wattage and impedance, third paragraph, did you mean to say impedance rather than wattage in this sentence: “The most important lesson here is: Do not plug an amplifier into a guitar cabinet with a lower wattage rating.” While it’s true you don’t want to mismatch power rating of the head and cab, I think the rest of that particular paragraph deals with the results of an impedance mismatch?
    Thanks again, keep up the great work!

    1. Here, they are talking about the speaker cabinet having a lower wattage rating.

      Suppose that you have a 100W amp and a 100W speaker. Something we need to consider is, “Are the wattage ratings RMS or max?” If both are RMS, then, there is a little bit of wiggle room (headroom) and both should be able to survive your playing. (The RMS rating is usually around the 5 on the volume knob.) If those are max ratings, it can be dangerous. The distortion will be really high, and not in a good way. Expect damage to your gear.

      If you have a 100W amp and a 200W speaker cabinet, this isn’t a bad idea. You can raise your bass level and not have to worry so much about blowing out your speakers.

      I’ve made thousands of dollars off musicians that blew out the speakers in their cabinets then sold them to me. I’ll put in better speakers, wire it us using real speaker wire, and sell it on, sometimes to the same musician who blow out the speakers in the first place!

    1. Under the heading POWER OUTPUT AND SPEAKER IMPEDANCE, there are some points that need clarification.
      First, you state, “The amount of power an amplifier produces is what dictates volume.” It does, yes, but a big part is also played by the efficiency of a speaker. A speaker’s specs will usually list the “Sensitivity” in deciBels (dB). The higher the number, the louder the speaker given the same watts. Since a 100 watt amp can only deliver three more dB in loudness than a 50 watt amp (using the same speaker), you can see how this matters a great deal. For example, if you have a 50 watt amp, and are using speakers with sensitivity of 96 dB, and switch to using speakers of 99 dB, you effectively did the same as going to 100 watt amp. On the other hand, if your amp is too loud before you play into it’s sweet spot, using speakers of lower sensitivity can get you there at a lower volume. Also, using speakers with watt rating closer to your amp’s rating, but certainly Not Below it, can help get your sweet spot reachable at lower volumes.

      Secondly, you state, ” Do not plug an amplifier into a guitar cabinet with a lower wattage rating. The amp can overheat as it cranks out more than the speakers can handle.” The does amp not overheat in this situation, it is the speakers that can fry. However, a sudden blow of a speaker, especially a single-speaker cab, can Certainly send thousands of flyback volts through the output transformer, which can burst into flames. In lesser situations, the output transformer goes dead, power tubes and tube sockets can arc and be destroyed.

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