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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.