It’s no longer much of a secret that swapping speakers can yield one of the fastest and most comprehensive tone overhauls a guitarist can achieve, yet plenty of players still don’t give adequate thought to their speakers as a significant means of tone tweakage. Reverb reader Jonathan Ford got in touch recently to say that he had recently been turning to the speakers as an efficient and relatively affordable means of running the gamut of achieving from Marshall-to-Vox-to-Fender voicings from his amps, and it occurred to me that this would be an interesting angle from which to discuss speaker swaps in this blog.
Aside from swapping in a new speaker to incorporate its own inherent sonic and performance characteristics into your brew, consider different speakers that can be categorized into the classic tones from either side of the pond as a means of bumping an amp of one flavor into service on the other side of the Atlantic. There isn’t enough space here to go into every element that helps to compose the classic tones that we have come to think of as “British” or “American”, or even “modern high-gain” or “garage trash” for that matter, but most of us will have a pretty good general notion of what guitarists mean when they discuss such tones, and opening up the speaker’s contribution to each of them might help to illuminate your own quest.
If you’ve ever changed the speaker (or multiple speakers) in your combo or extension cab to something of a significantly different style, you already know how significantly that easy swap can alter your tone. Let’s consider it, though, from the perspective of intentionally seeking a British-voiced speaker to obtain a classic-rock sound from a traditionally American amp, for example, or an American-voiced speaker to make your Vox-style amp mimic a blackface Deluxe or some such amp.
The degree to which the right speaker can affect a startling sonic makeover first really hit home for me about 20 years ago: I had picked up an old 15-watt Newcomb portable tube gramophone player at a pawn shop—the kind with the fold-out lid with a single 12-inch speaker and two 6V6s in the output section—with the intention of modding it into a 5E3 guitar-amp circuit (aka tweed Fender Deluxe). Rigging a ¼-inch jack for a guitar input to test it out resulted in a pretty raw sound as it sat, pre-modification, but it showed potential. Just for kicks, though, I connected the thing to a mid-’70s British HH 4×12 cab with four original Celestion G12-50 speakers and fired it up, and… Wow! I was floored. This was the JTM45 tone of countless guitarist’s dreams. I couldn’t stop playing the thing. Post 5E3 conversion, the setup sounded even better. The old scrapyard amp’s simple circuit, vintage paper-wound output transformer, and roaring 6V6 goodness had something to do with it, sure, but the closed-back 4×12 cab was largely responsible for making it sound British.
We don’t all have room for a hulking 4×12, but even a closed-back 1×12 with a single Celestion G12M Greenback-flavored speaker and any of a number of smaller to medium-wattage tube amps plugged into it will often get you close to faux-Marshall territory, for home recording and small gigs at least. Or if you’ve got a little more room to maneuver, stick your silverface Princeton or Vox AC4 into a closed-back 2×12 with Greenbacks or Scumback M75s or the like, and see where that gets you. Sure, the Marshall purists might scoff at your rig, but crank it up, close your eyes, and hit the strings with some attitude, and it’s likely to be a sound you could imagine Paul Kossoff grooving on. And hey,when you’re achieving meaty, touch-sensitive tone with so little effort, who cares about the purists and snobs?
Even an open-backed, American style 1×12 combo will take on a little Marshall-esque flavor when you swap, for example, the Jensen, Utah or CTS (or similarly styled) American speaker for, say, a Celestion G12H-30, a WGS ET65, an Austin Speaker Works KTS-60, or any of several selections from Eminence’s Redcoat series. Or, turn your Deluxe Reverb toward Vox territory with a 65-watt Scumback Scumnico, a 30-watt Weber Blue Dog, or a Celestion Alnico Blue (watch that 15-watt rating on the latter!)
Going the other direction, if you’ve got a head or combo with EL34 or EL84 output tubes that seems predisposed to churning out British-blues riffs, an open-back cab with a pair of Jensen P12Qs or Avatar’s new Hellatone SA-40 American-style Alnico speakers might Yank it up good and proper for that honky tonk gig you just landed.
As part of the whole deal, consider the cab’s construction, too. As I’ve already hinted, the closed-back cab is a big element in “the British sound,” helping to ramp up lower mids and maximize low-end thump. But those cabs are generally made from quality birch plywood (Baltic birch, often), and that lumber’s rigidity adds to the punchiness and clarity of the cab’s response, too. Vintage American tones, however, are often best achieved in an open-back cab made from solid woods, usually pine or cedar. The open back contributes a swirly, “surround sound” feel to the tone, with a little more shimmer in the highs in particular, though somewhat softer lows, while the solid wood tends to have a lively, resonant quality that helps the cab sing along with the amp.
For something leaning more toward the ’50s tweed sound, consider a cab with a “floating baffle,” a relatively thin speaker baffle attached to the cab only at its top and bottom edges, usually with two bolts each. A fixed baffle (secured on all sides) in an open-back cab leans more toward a mid-’60s American tonality, or a Voxy chime if you’ve got a pair of Alnico Blues in it, giving a little more punch than the floating-baffle cab.
There is so much to say about speakers that I could go on forever, but let’s leave a detailed discussion of power handling and sensitivity ratings and their secret uses—and some discussion of modern speaker types, which I ignored here—for another installment. Meanwhile, when making any speaker or cab changes, be sure to observe and match your amp’s required output impedance and refer to your owner’s manual or the manufacturer if in any
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Hunter
Dave Hunter is a writer and musician who has worked extensively in the USA and the UK. The author of The Guitar Amp Handbook, Guitar Effects Pedals, Guitar Amps & Effects For Dummies, The Gibson Les Paul and several other books, Dave is also a regular contributor to Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar magazines.
Julian Ludwig é diretor do Pro Áudio Clube, produtora de áudio Jacarandá, Loc On Demand e Jacarandá Licensing. Trabalhou para empresas como: Guaraná Antartica, TV Gazeta, NET, Chivas Regal, FNAC, Prefeitura de São Paulo, Mukeca Filmes, Agência LEW’LARA TBWA, Agencia MPM, Agência Content House entre outras. Fez trilhas para programas de TV como: Internet-se (Rede TV), Você Bonita (TV Gazeta), Mix Mulher (TV Gazeta), Os Impedidos (TV Gazeta), Estação Pet (TV Gazeta), CQC (TV Band) Vinheta Oficial TV Gazeta, entre outras. Também atuou em vários longas e curtas metragens, incluindo mixagem em 5.1 e serviços de pós-produção.