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Half Stack vs. Full Stack vs. Combo: Which Guitar Amp in a Band?

The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.

Full stack, half stack or combo?

Full stack, half stack or combo?

What Kind of Guitar Amplifier Is Best?

If you play guitar in a band, you may wonder 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's 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 a 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 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. The best guitar amps of all time came in all shapes and sizes. 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!

The full stack is the ultimate weapon.

The full stack is the ultimate weapon.

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 guitarists 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.

In addition to the amplifier, the speakers are going to have an impact on your sound. 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.

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A half-stack is more than enough for most situations.

A half-stack is more than enough for most situations.

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.

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, you can certainly gig with a small amp. Choosing a great-sounding 1x12 or 2x12 combo amp can make your life a whole lot easier as a gigging musician. There are a 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, they still have outstanding tones. The Marshall DSL40C, Fender Hot Rod DeVille, and Peavey 6505+ 112 Combo are examples of combo amps with some serious 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 Marshall DSL40 is a combo amp with serious tone and power.

The Marshall DSL40 is a combo amp with serious tone and power.

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 muscle 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 than 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, that 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 coins.

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 on 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.

Which Amp is For You?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Pat from Centerville Georgia on June 12, 2018:

I use the Marshall TSL 60 head, JCM 900 slant & JCM 900 Vintage straight cabs.

Guitar Gopher (author) on December 02, 2016:

@Metalmike: I agree that height plus projection are two things that make a 4x12 seem so huge. Raising a smaller cabinet up does indeed help, though I do think cabinets sound better when placed on the floor. Guitarists who mic their amps for gigs don't have to worry about any of these things. They can get by with a 50-watt solid-state 1x12 if they so desire!

Metalmike on December 01, 2016:

the right hight is all of whats interesting. 4 x 12 on the Floor + loud Drummer must have much of Volume, to hear all. in small rooms or stages you can´t hear your whole Sound if not raised. Best for me is a full stack reducing volume and hights in the Equalizer. Ears will be thankful.... Other idea 2 x12 raised on a 40 cm Podest, which can be used as a case for cables etc..

Guitar Gopher (author) on October 02, 2016:

Hi Deuterom! Sounds like you have a great project going on there! As for the decision between the 2x12 and 4x12, I can only tell you what I think I guess. Usually I'd say go with the 4x12 if you aren't going to move it around, and the 2x12 if you need to haul it to gigs (even that is an opinion that has changed greatly over the years!). However, in this case I think I'd opt for the closed-back 4x12. I generally prefer the sound of extra speakers and closed-back cabs, and even if you did decide to move it, it wouldn't be all that much more hassle than either 2x12.

Especially since this is a project that is obviously born out of love rather than necessity, I'd go with what I liked better and forget about what might happen down the road. For me that would be the 4x12, but choose whichever makes you happiest.

I have once again say that this is a really a cool project. That amp is going to look amazing sitting in your home!

Deuterom on October 01, 2016:

I'm building/restoring a custom amp using a new, vintage style Vox trapazoidal head cabinet and stuffing it with a new 100 watt Vox modeling amp. Mainly because I've never owned a Vox amp. Call it a hobby or an effort of love because, damn, I loved the look of those old vintage Vox amps; they were downright sexy! The electronics were unstable as hell but the look was unmatched until Marshall came along.

Anyway, I have the head done and I'm torn between matching it to a Buckingham 2x12 open back cabinet or the Royal Guardsman 2x12 or Baby Beatle 4x12 closed back cabinet. Both of the last two are identical in physical size. The Buckingham cab and amp head mounted on the chrome dolly stands about 38" tall. The Royal Guardsman & Baby Beatle with amp head mounted on a chrome dolly stand about 49" tall. I'd like to hear an opinion on what would be more practical for use for today's musician. I'm from the days of BIG AMPS; Fender Dual Showman, Ampeg's, Vox Super Beatles, Marshall's, Hammond B-3's & Leslie's, etc. but I don't play in bands anymore so for now it's just for my entertainment but I'd go to any length for the right sound.

I really enjoyed this article on the practicality of an amp. I have collected and restored quite an assortment of various amps so if I EVER played out again, I'd bring one that sounded good and is portable. I don't see me hauling this one around but someone, sometime, after I'm gone, will take possession and I'd like to know what's important to today's musician. Would a larger amp be worth bringing on a gig if the sound was right? ...2x12? ....4x12? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this so bring it on!

Rankingroger on September 05, 2016:

A duel 60watt combo of 2x12 and 4x10 works great. Lotsa volume and lightweight. Also consider what your bandmates are playing through so you can keep up or drown them out.

Guitar Gopher (author) on January 28, 2016:

Good advice, TomBob! That also leaves the possibility of adding another 2x12 cab, which gives you a flexible rig where you can bring one or both cabs depending on the gig. Bassist tend to assemble their rigs like that a little more often, but no reason guitarists can do it as well.

TomBob on January 27, 2016:

In between the half stack and combo amp is a amp head and 2x12 cab. I've used this setup a lot, you get the fullness of a separate cab (I prefer a fairly large, closed back 2x12 to get a sound close to a 4x12) in a much easier to move around size. I find this setup easier to move around and lighter to carry than a half stack or a combo either one.

Guitar Gopher (author) on January 23, 2014:

Good point, nuffsaidstan. Effects and effects processors have come a long way. A loud, clean amp and a solid stable of effects is another viable option.

nuffsaidstan on January 23, 2014:

Hi, interesting hub, i always find a combo great for practice in the bedroom but for live playing i prefer an amp and cab set on clean and to use foot pedals for effects but only a couple with a volume control, some of these modern combos have great built in effects but the volume is too up and down for me.

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