I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
How to Choose the Right Amplifier for You
Guitar and bass amps come in all shapes and sizes, and what works best for one musician may be useless to another. The amplifier is a huge part of your sound, so making the right choice here is essential. It sure isn’t easy with so many options on the market.
Should you go with a combo, or a head and cabinet setup? It’s enough to make even the most veteran musician a little nutty, and it may surprise you to know that many professional players waffle quite a bit when trying to pick the right amp. Hopefully, that makes you feel a little better!
The point of this article is to help you sort it all out, and make the choice between a combo and a head/cab setup. I’ve owned both, played both in bands and at home, and come up with what I think is a pretty sensible outlook on the subject. However, I’ll admit there was a time when I wasn’t the most sensible guitar player, and that’s okay too. That brings me to the number-one rule I hope you remember when you are choosing an amp:
You can do whatever the heck you want to do!
Really, you can. There is no right or wrong answer, and the top amp builders make options for all kinds of guitarists. I’ll give you my opinion, based on my experiences. You should also listen to the opinions of others, and do your own research. Then, choose an amp that makes you happy and meets your needs.
While this article was written primarily with guitar players in mind, everything here applies to bassists as well. A little further along I’ll also address some special considerations for bass players.
What's the Difference Between a Combo Amp and a Head/Cab?
The part is fairly basic, so if you already know the answer you can go ahead and skip to the next section. If you don’t yet understand the difference between a combo and head, here’s the deal, in a nutshell:
The amplifier is the electronic component that receives and amplifies the signal from your guitar. In order to make that signal audible, the amp must be connected to a speaker. The amp and the speaker are actually two separate components.
In a head and cabinet setup, the head is the actual guitar amplifier itself. The cabinet is only a box that houses the speaker or speakers. You can’t use an amp head without a cabinet – you need both components. While gear companies usually make amps and cabinets that are meant to go together, you can mix different models and brands, as long as you match the amp with the correct speaker impedance.
A head and cab together are often called a half-stack, and a head with two cabinets is called a full-stack.
But, we guitar players have come to use the term "amplifier" in a somewhat misleading way at times. Sometimes, when we say "amp" we are really talking about a combo.
Combo amps, as the name suggests, combine the amplifier and speaker in one box. This setup is a little more portable and easier to manage.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both types, as you can guess, but either can be used for just about any musical situation you can imagine. It’s common to think of the massive Marshall 4x12 speaker cabinets or 4x10 Ampeg cabs that make up the backlines at rock concerts, but you can also get a small cabinet with two speakers, or only one speaker.
And, some of those combos that look small by comparison have the power to pack a mighty punch.
The best choice for you is dependent on your goals and situation.
Is a Head and Cab Good for Home Use?
Remember, there is no wrong answer here, even when playing at home. However, there are better and worse answers, depending on where you stand. Here are five questions to ask so you can start sorting it all out:
- How Much Space Do you Have? Your available rehearsal area may dictate your decision. If you are only playing in your bedroom or apartment a small combo is likely the perfect amp for you. For guitar, you might consider a modeling amp with built-in effects or a low-wattage tube amp. Even some of us who have been playing for a while prefer a combo amp instead of a stack for playing at home.
- How Loud Do You Want to Play? While there are certainly very loud combo amps out there such as the Fender Twin and Peavey 6505+ 112, most of the high-powered amps come in head/cabinet form. Larger cabinets also have better projection than combos. Maybe you just love to play loud, or maybe you have a vendetta against the neighbors. Whatever your reason, if you need to crank it up, you may be happier with a half-stack.
- Will Your Amp Leave Your House? One of the main reasons gigging musicians choose combos is because of portability. After toting a half-stack around for several years I have to agree with that. However, if your amp is never going to leave your house it can be as big as you want it to be. Looking at it this way, there is no reason not to choose a head and cab if that’s what you really want.
- Do You Intend to Record With Your Amp? Many guitar and bass players who record at home choose low-wattage combos. Of course, you can use any amp to record, but a small-wattage tube amp is easy to control and dial in, and a combo is easy to mike. You also might want to consider a modeling combo amp for recording, as some have direct outs that you can run to your computer recording device.
- Do You Really Just Need a Practice Amp? Sometimes you just have to be honest with yourself. You may want a stack or a powerful combo, but what you really need is a simple practice amp. Why spend a thousand dollars on some fire-breathing monster when all you need is a small combo? There are plenty of small and mid-wattage solid-state amps that sound great and don’t cost a fortune.
Which Amplifier Is Better in a Band?
You might think once you’re in a band you’ll know what kind of amp you need, but unfortunately, things are never so clear cut in the world of guitar gear. Here are five questions to think about when making your decision.
- What Kind of Band Are You In? It makes sense for a guitar player in a death metal band to use a 120-watt Peavey 6505 head and matching 4x12 cabinet. If you play guitar in a country band, that’s not the amp for you. For country, I’d consider something like the Fender Hot Rod DeVille combo. Certain types of amps are better for certain genres, so before making your decision do a little research.
- What Amps Do the Other Musicians Use? If you show up at an audition for a metal band with your 50-watt Marshall MG or 40-watt Fender Rumble you can expect to get blown away by the other guitarist's 100-watt Marshall stack. On the other hand, that same MG or Rumble might do fine in a jazz group. Also remember: Acoustic drums can be extremely loud. A small-wattage combo amp isn’t going to cut it with most rock drummers.
- What Kind of Gigs Do You Play? In most cases, it would be bonkers to haul a head and cabinet to a coffee house gig. A great-sounding combo amp is probably a better choice there. On the other hand, if you play clubs you might need something bigger and louder. Remember, that could still mean a combo amp as long as it has good stage volume, but many players opt for a powerful head and cabinet setup.
- Do You Rely on Sound Reinforcement? Theoretically, you could play the largest arenas in the world with a 10-watt practice amp if you put a microphone in front of it. Back in the days when powerful Marshall heads were introduced, guitar players needed loud amps to be heard in concert. Nowadays, many bands use sound reinforcement even for small gigs. If that’s what you intend to do in your band, you don’t need a head and cabinet – a good combo will do fine.
- How Will You Transport Your Amp? If you play in a band you’ll need to lug your amp around. Does your band have a van or truck, or will everyone be throwing their gear in their cars for gigs? Trust me when I tell you, hauling a 4x12 guitar cabinet in the back seat of a small car is not a lot of fun. If you have an SUV your life will be easier, but otherwise, you may prefer a combo amp. They are simply much easier to transport. Of course, if you have people who are able and willing to help you with your gear it’s a different story.
Combo vs. Head and Cab for Bass
When it comes to the bass guitar the same main differences between a head and combo apply as outlined about. However, there are a few additional considerations.
As a bassist, I always found it much easier to find powerful, compact heads and cabinets. As a guitarist, I used a Peavey 5150 head and 4x12 cabinet, which sounded great but was a major pain to move around. Even if I had used a 2x12 cab it still would have been a hassle.
As a bassist, I used a Hartke 3500 head, which is much smaller and lighter than the 5150 but plenty powerful. For cabinets, I had a Genz Benz 1x15, and later a pair of Avatar 2x12s. Both head/cab setups were much easier to tote around than my 5150.
Of course, there are huge bass cabinets as well. I’d imagine it isn’t a lot of fun trying to load an Ampeg 8x10 cab into your vehicle, so you can run into the same transport problems. It just seems like bass gear has more options that are easy to move around.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this, which you will want to consider in your decision-making process. First: Most bassists run an XLR out to the mixing board in live situations, while guitar players more often mike their amps.
This means, as a bassist, you can get away with a lower-wattage amp for gigs. In fact, some bass amp builders have mid-wattage amps that can also serve as stage monitors, made for exactly that purpose. But, if you like, a moderately powered amp like the Hartke 3500 and a single cabinet works just fine.
I think the other reason has to do with speakers. While the standard guitar amp speaker is twelve inches, bassists have several options. I always loved 12-inch speakers for bass, but some bassists prefer 10-inch, some 15s, and some a combination of different sizes.
For this reason, many bassists prefer portable bass heads and cabs over combo amps for gigging. They can match the amp they want with the speakers they want.
Choosing an Amp
Hopefully, this article gave you plenty to think about. Above all else, remember the most important point: Do what you want to do!
If you want to use a 100-watt Marshall tube head with a pair of 4x12 cabinets for a practice amp, or a 1,200-watt Ampeg head and 8x10 cabinet for playing in your bedroom, that’s up to you. Your neighbors may end up hating you, and you may compromise the structural integrity of your home, but that’s your business. I’m not going to tell you that you can’t do it.
But, in most cases, those aren’t the best choice. There is likely something more suited to your needs, budget, and goals. So, along those same lines, don’t feel there is anything wrong with a reasonable combo amp if it gets the job done for you.
I guess there is one more important thing to remember: You can always get another amp. We all make bad choices from time to time when it comes to gear, so don’t sweat it too much. Make the best decision you can and go with it, and if you have to change something down the road so be it.
Good luck choosing between a combo amp and head and cab setup!
Head or Combo?
Michael James (author) on August 20, 2019:
@Andy - I used to have the 2x12 version of that amp. TF320 I think. As I recall it was a pretty darned good amp. I remember A/B-ing it with a Marshall AVT (another hybrid amp) back then and the Laney just sounded so much better. Congrats on a great find! Kinda weird about the speakers though! LOL! Maybe you can eventually upgrade to a decent guitar cabinet.
Andy on August 19, 2019:
A very good article...I recently bought a Laney TF700 head (120watt) and 2 single 12in speaker cabs. They were bought as a package. I played with it before I bought it and, it sounded alright to me. Having a 20watt combo just wasn't loud enough. So, I thought great price and bought the above mentioned. I got this unit home and, peeled of the back of the cabs to take a look inside. Well, to my surprise there were car woofers in the cabs!? They are 200watt and, I am assuming they are rated at 4ohms.(car speakers are 4ohm rated) I bought this unit as, I really didnt have the money for a higher output combo. (something louder).