Half Stack vs. Full Stack vs. Combo: Which Guitar Amp in a Band?
What Kind of Guitar Amplifier?
If you play guitar in a band you may be wondering what kind of amp is best for your needs. Half stacks, full stacks and combo amps have been used by all kinds of guitar players in all kinds of situations over the years, and it can be tough to see any rhyme or reason to it.
Whenever you go to a concert, especially if it is a rock band, you’ll see piles of 4x12 speaker cabinets, or a row of full-stack amplifiers onstage. It seems to make sense that serious musicians invest in massive amplifiers capable of putting out some hardcore firepower.
Then again, if you’ve been out to see local bands, you’ve probably noticed many of them using half stacks: just the amplifier head and single 4x12 cabinet. Those things are still plenty loud, so maybe that’s the way to go.
But wouldn’t it be nice to just have to cart a single, powerful combo amp to a gig? You’ve probably seen bands doing that too, and many combo amps, especially some of the 2x12s out there, are as loud and powerful as half stacks.
Decisions, decisions. But this one isn’t as simple as choosing what kind of strings or picks you ought to use. Amplifiers are expensive, and have an enormous influence over your sound. Making the right choice here is a big deal.
Of course the decision is ultimately yours, and there is no wrong answer, but let me throw some ideas at you in this article. Hopefully by the time you get through it things will make a bit more sense!
What’s Your Guitar Amp For?
It seems like a silly question, but when it comes down to it that’s really what you are trying to answer here. There are two main things your guitar amp needs to be able to do to satisfy your needs.
First, and most obviously, it has to be able to amplify the sound of your guitar. For guitarists who only play in their bedrooms a little 15-watt practice amp gets the job done well enough, but if you play in a band you have some other things to think about.
Some things to consider when deciding between a half stack, full stack and combo amp:
- Do you play with a hard-hitting drummer?
- Do you mic your guitar amp for most live situations?
- What kind of amps do the bassist and other guitarist in your band use?
The second job of your amp is to shape your sound. The makeup of the amp itself plays a key role in this of course. Some players prefer tube amps, and some solid-state. Some like digital modeling amps that get them a wide array of sounds in one package.
But in addition to the amplifier, the speakers are going to have an impact over your sound too. Not only the brand and physical makeup of the speaker will matter, but how many speakers as well. There is a tremendous sonic difference between 4x12 speakers, 8x12 speakers and a single 12-inch speaker.
Does it matter to you? That’s what you have to decide! Let’s look at each type of amp more closely.
Pros and Cons of Half Stacks
When it comes to tone you probably know a little bit about what amplifiers some of the best guitarists out there are using, and odds are it’s a 50 or 100-watt head and 4x12 cabinets. From Marshall to Peavey to Mesa/Boogie, most of the amps that shape the sound of the rock world are in the form of a head. They’re powerful, and they sound great, and combined with a 4x12 cabinet they can move a lot of air. A 4x12 cab will have a certain thump and resonance you aren’t going to get in smaller cabinets.
It’s tough to beat the tonal impact of a good half stack, and for that reason alone they are a great option for guitarists in a band situation. They are loud enough for rehearsals, and once you find one that gets you the sounds you want you can build your signature tone around it.
But, choosing a half stack as your main amp does come with a few drawbacks. Firstly, they are a bit of a pain to move around. More importantly, when you play live you can lose some of your 4x12 mojo in the mix.
For most live situations your amp is going to have a microphone placed in front of it, and your sound is going to be sent through the house PA system and mixed with the rest of your band.
A good sound guy will know how to get the best out of your amp, but often they’ll simply use one microphone in front of one speaker. That massive roar you hear from your Marshall half stack in rehearsals won’t be quite the same.
Check out the Marshall DSL100H / 1960 Half Stack
Is a Combo Amp Right for You?
I recall a show back in my gigging days where the guitar player of one of the bands on the bill with us used a tiny Fender practice amp. Why? Only he knows for sure, and it sounded terrible, but it certainly did save his back from carrying a big amp around. And, since it was mic'd up just like the big amps, the crowd heard him just fine.
You don’t have to get that extreme, but choosing a great-sounding 1x12 or 2x12 combo amp can make your life a whole lot easier as a gigging musician. There are couple of different ways you can look at it:
Some guitarists like combo amps that put out as much power as a half stack. They’re just as loud, and, while the speakers will react differently, still have outstanding tone. The Marshall DSL40C, Fender Hot Rod DeVille and Peavey 6505+ 212 Combos are examples of a combo amps with some serous power and great tone.
Other guitar players like the sound of lower-wattage tube amps. Tubes sound best when they’re glowing hot, and getting your massive 100-watt Marshall head to that point at tolerable volumes will require a power soak. On the other hand, a 5 to 15-watt tube combo can be cranked to ten without crumbling the building. You’ll get some smooth, velvety overdrive that will sound incredible mic'd up.
If there is any downside to combo amps it may be that the really good ones are nearly as expensive (or sometimes more) than a half stack. There are some good tube combo amps out there for under $1000, but if you’re going to shell out big bucks, you may be thinking you may as well go with the biggest amp you can get for the money!
The Fender Twin Reverb is Another Powerful Combo Amp
When You Need a Full Stack
Back in the days when Marshall introduced the first 100-watt tube head and accompanying cabinets, PA systems weren’t nearly as powerful as what we see today. A guitar player needed some serious power to be heard, and as bands became louder, and music became more aggressive, the natural evolution was toward big, loud amplifiers.
Truthfully, these days few guitarists really need a full stack. House PA systems are more than powerful enough to carry the whole band, especially at concerts.
When you see a row of amps and cabinets at a concert usually only a couple are actually active and in use. Others are there as backups, or just for appearance. Everything goes through the PA. Some guitarists who like a lot of stage volume may use more cabinets than others, but it makes much more sense to put everything through the mix and bring it back through the monitors.
So, why would you ever want a full stack? Because they’re awesome, that’s why! I’ll be honest: the only thing stopping me from having a full stack right next to me as write this in my office (which is also my practice room) is a wife who has much more common sense that I do. Full stacks just look so cool, and they do move more air than a half stack or combo amp. Nothing wrong with having one in your house, and, I guess, if you really want to show off in your band.
But I personally wouldn’t use one in a band situation. Too much to carry around, and too much volume I wouldn’t really need. For a band, I would choose between a half stack and a good combo amp.
Choosing Your Amp
Hopefully some of that helped you decide what amp you need for your band situation. If not, here are a few more things to think about. Keep in mind, this is all generally speaking.
Rock, hard rock and metal players usually do best with half stacks. Obviously the number-one choice here is Marshall, but the Peavey 6505 is another solid option, and there are plenty of others. Bugera is an affordable brand that allows players on a budget to build a half stack for not a lot of coin.
These amps grab the epic tones many guitarists are looking for in rock and metal, and they are plenty loud enough to deal with heavy-handed drummers and aggressive bassists in rehearsal. Handled correctly in live and recording situations, the true vibe of these amps and the 4x12 cabinet comes through.
Guitarists in genres that don’t rely so much of heavy distortion can do well with combo amps. Fender is probably the biggest name in high-quality combo amps, and their Hot Rod Series sounds great for not a lot of cash. There are plenty of others as well. Country, blues and lighter rock players may prefer the combo over a half stack. These players, too, may gravitate toward smaller-wattage combo amps that present some incredible tones when pushed.
Of course the decision is yours. There is no reason a metal guitarist can’t get by with a 1x12 combo, and there is no reason a country guitarist can’t use a full stack amplifier. There is no wrong answer, and the most important thing is to find an amp you love. Hopefully this article helped to decide between a half stack, full stack and combo amp for your band situation.