Some of the most glorious guitar rock ever has been played through tiny guitar combos. Conversely, certain guitarists wouldn’t dream of plugging into anything less than a towering backline of Marshall full stacks. While a close-miked dinky combo in the studio and a big backline of full stacks in large venues might be stereotypes, there are lots of points between those extremes that may make sense for your music and playing/recording needs.
Before we look at those options, for the uninitiated, let’s first define our terms.
A guitar combo includes an amplifier and one or more speakers in a single housing. A half stack consists of an amplifier head unit and separate speaker cabinet usually containing up to four speakers. A full stack adds one more speaker cabinet to the half-stack configuration.
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Sizing up your needs
If you play in a band, obviously the amps you consider need to get loud enough to be heard in that setting. If your band plays any of the harder flavors of rock or metal, your guitar needs to be heard alongside the powerful output of electric bass, drums and other heavily amplified instruments.
If it were just a matter of getting loud enough, though, things would be simple. But guitar amps impart a whole lot more than simply volume to your performance. Everything from subtle nuances in your tone to massive guitar distortion are all influenced by the amp you play through. Factor in the countless guitar effects pedals out there and suddenly figuring out the right signal chain becomes a maze of possible avenues. With all those variables, we can’t tell you what your ideal stage rig ought to be. But we can give you some pros and cons to consider in figuring out your solution.
Is a full stack overkill?
In the late 1960s as hard rock was taking shape, music venue PA systems were wimpy by comparison with those of today. Playing in front of a full stack was pretty much essential in larger venues since house systems weren’t up to the task. That’s all changed today with much more powerful house PA systems that include speaker arrays designed specifically for the space. Modern live sound engineers prefer to have guitarists plug directly into the house mixer giving them more control over the mix balance.
That said, many guitarists, especially metal players, like a lot of stage volume. Others simply want to retain control over their guitar sound. But even those players who seem to be using a wall of speaker cabinets onstage may be routing most or all of their signal through the venue’s sound system. In some cases those additional cabs and amp heads seen onstage are there as backup, (or even for show where some international touring acts are concerned).
These days many amp builders such as Marshall, Peavey, and Egnater offer full and half stacks in which the head is carefully matched to the speaker complement. The preamp sections of these rigs have been fine-tuned to extract all the musical complexity that can be wrung out of the speakers.
Pros: You’ll be ready to play just about any larger gig with a full stack. And when less sound pressure’s needed, you can just leave one of the speaker cabinets at home. Some Marshall amp heads allow you to switch from pentode to triode tube operation halving the output for smaller spaces and recording. A “power soak” is used in some amp circuits in order to overdrive the amp without reaching insane volume levels.
Cons: Cost and weight. A top-shelf full stack is a serious investment and requires plenty of muscle and space to transport. You will also likely need a smaller practice amp and perhaps a smaller stage and a studio amp that you can more easily push into overdrive and distortion at reasonable volume levels.
Half stacks still rule the high-gain roost
Metal guitarists such as Kirk Hammett of Metallica put a lot of focus on creating signature tones that they can readily replicate onstage. Their stage rigs are often the product of a lot of experimentation. A great case in point is Hammett’s half-stack rig on which he collaborated with amp maker Randall. The two channel KH120RH amp head has three modes: one with Hammett’s clean sound and the other two producing respectively his vintage and modern high-gain tones. The KH412 cabinet is loaded with a quartet Celestion Rocket 50 speakers that are ideally matched to the amp’s 120W RMS output.
Pros: Half stacks can be easily upgraded to full stacks when needed while also offering much of the roar of a full stack. They also generally cost less and are easier to to transport and set up than full stacks.
Cons: Though they weigh less than full stacks, a 4x12 cabinet is still a very hefty object to move. Combining the cost of a top flight amp head with a pro-level speaker cabinet is still a substantial investment. And like a full stack, there will be times a half stack is just too big when you’re trying to drive the amp’s front end into distortion without getting too loud.
The Randall Kirk Hammett KH120RHS Half Stack is specifically designed to reproduce the Metallica guitarist's signature sounds..
Guitar combos—the best of all worlds?
If you’re looking for that plaster-shattering Marshall roar, a combo guitar amp is unlikely to give you enough sonic punch. But a well designed guitar combo with with one or two 12” speakers or a quartet of 10-inchers can deliver a surprisingly big sound. All-tube combos in the 5 - 60W range can get crazy loud, and with some judicious tweaking of your guitar’s pots as well as stomp and amp settings, you can serve up a very convincing sound. Especially if that combo is then going to get miked or routed via a DI box into the house mix.
Many guitarists who depend on the house PA put lots of time into experimenting with mic types and positioning to find the setups that best capture the complex harmonics generated by their combo and instrument. The same goes for studio work. A lot of guitarists prefer working with smaller amps that can easily be driven into overdrive. And if your studio is also your dorm or bedroom, then a mini guitar amp might be the answer.
The Fender Hot Rod DeVille 410 III is a popular choice with a lot of weekend warriors for its decent portability without any tonal sacrifice. The four 10” special Eminence speakers give it a lot of chest-pounding punch—the same visceral energy shared by the legendary Fender Bassman and Super Reverb amps. Like many other combos, it has an external output for extension cabs, and with its astounding Class A 60W output, it’ll drive those extra speakers easily.
Pros: Portability and price. Although boutique and high-end combo amp prices can easily rival those of stack components, on average you’ll spend less with a combo. Combos also typically include onboard effects, effects loops and EQ sections. If you handle your own sound, having all control parameters close at hand can be an advantage.
Cons: The only real disadvantage is one of sheer output. If you require very high levels of stage volume and/or rely on your stage rig instead of the house PA, then a combo may lack the sonic heft you need. In some ways it’s as simple as the amount of air you need your speakers to move.
With a complement of 6L6 power and 12AX7 preamp tubes driving and shaping the output of 4 Eminence 10” speakers, the Fender Hot Rod DeVille 410 III gets high marks from tone freaks.
So, what’s right for you?
As we said at the outset, there are no hard and fast rules about guitar amplification. But we are willing to make a few generalizations.
Hard rock and metal players are likely to be pleased with a half stack. If brands like Marshall, Randall and Egnater are too rich for your budget, check out Peavey or Blackstar who make serious gear at more accessible prices.
If you play pop, surf, lighter forms of rock, country, blues or jazz, then a guitar combo is likely to meet your needs. You’ll find hundreds of models to choose from at Musician’s Friend.
If you need further help sorting out all the specs and features, give one of our Gear Heads a call at 800-449-9128. With thousands of hours of collective guitar-playing experience, we can help you find the right amp for your budget and sound.