a little amplifier and speaker talk

as musicians it’s natural to look for new and interesting ways to achieve different tones and sounds. every part of how the instrument is made and played becomes part of the chain in getting your sound. depending on what instrument you play, everything from, strings, wood selection, pick ups, microphones, drum heads, sticks, horn valves, mouthpieces, picks, bows, even cables, it all becomes part of the process and up for examination and possible “improvement.” of course, there’s another angle to this, the players themselves, but for now, we’re just discussing the gear (but i will do a blog before long about how each individuals touch is just as powerful as any EQ). if you play an amplified instrument, particularly electric guitar, it’s common to not only check out new guitars, amps, and effects but to modify those amplifiers as well. lots of people will change this or that resistor or cap inside an amp to achieve a slightly different sound or feel, some going as far as to ship their amp across the country to skilled technicians, or “amp modders”. but what if getting what you want out of your amp didn’t actually require a mod?
what if we’re looking at changing tone from the wrong end of the chain? what if, instead of looking to the instrument or amp (and all points in between), we took a look at speakers?
the most commonly installed and used guitar speaker on the market is the celestion v30. the speaker started as an attempt at replicating the much loved sounds of the vintage (hence the “v” in the speakers’ name) speakers of the 1960s and 70s and bringing them to the players of the 80s. while, to most guitarists, the speaker largely falls short of sounding “vintage” it did one thing really well: sound good when fed a distorted guitar signal and handle really high wattage. the v30 has a raspy, shallow tone centered around the upper mid-range frequencies that can be a love/hate thing for a lot of people. with some amps and guitar combinations, v30s can sound anemic and weak, harsh and overly bright, or full and warm. but one thing that’s always consistent and helped propel the speaker to popularity in the 80s was that, in an era when guitarists were constantly searching for a way to get more distortion or gain from their 100 watt amps, the v30 with it’s inherent mid-range focus, brought a raspy edge to distortion that made any amp appear to have more gain.

since the 80s there have been huge advances in amp technology and gain quality and the v30 remains popular. yet, amplifier modding remains popular. why? one of the most common requests techs get from musicians looking for mods is to reduce the apparent gain and reduce the harshness of the amp — the very things that v30s excel at! it’s my view that rather than modding or selling their amp, most guitarists should consider changing out their speakers.

a popular trend in recent years is mixing different speakers together in a cabinet. whether 2×12, 4×12, or even a full stack of cabinets, speaker choice is one of the the most effective ways of shaping your final tone.  mixing speakers in a cab, rather than all speakers being the same type, gives you more tonal color and flexibility. each type of speaker has a specific voicing and tonal response, which can even effect amplifier feel, that you can choose based on your particular playing style and desired result. if you’re one of those who feels like your amp is too harsh sounding and stiff, it’s possible that the real issue is the speaker you’re playing through. something warmer, with more of a vintage voice, with more bass and a fuller mid-range and less of a high end/upper mid-range response could be a better solution than an amp mod. similarly, if your amp seems too dark or not gainy enough, then something brighter and a less full sound could be just what you need to focus your sound where you want it.

i’ve used a variety of different speakers over the years, and one of my favorite combination has been weber speakers, in particular a blend of their blue dog and silver bell. they truly sound vintage: warm, textured, rich with overtones and detail, but never harsh or bright. more recently i’ve occasionally used celestions or similar sounding variants like the warehouse brand’s vet30 and et65 (another truly vintage sounding speaker) speakers. personally, i prefer a more vintage sound with lots of texture and richness but that still retains clarity when used with high gain rock sounds and doesn’t get lost in a dense mix with other musicians, particularly when playing live with keyboards (which share much of the same sonic space). to that end, lately i’ve been mixing a warehouse ET65 with their vet30. both speakers work well when played clean or distorted, but the ET65 lends so much richness and texture to any type of style and the vet30 ensures i have enough clarity and bite to keep from getting lost in a dense mix.

so, before you look at selling or modding that amp you used to love, consider changing speakers, or blending different types in a cabinet. it’s much simpler, and cheaper in many cases, than modding the amp and can yield some fantastic results.

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