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Tone Tip: Speaker Swapping

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

Players will chase that illusive “perfect tone” by making pickup swaps, changing bridges and hardware, upgrading the nut, tuners and more. But one of the biggest sonic alterations achievable, short of getting an entirely new guitar or amp, can be had from changing out your speaker. It’s usually even simpler than changing a pickup, costs around the same (give or take a few bucks), and arguably has a more immediate impact on your overall sound. Nevertheless the simple speaker swap is overlooked by many players. They struggle on with great guitars and amps that might be laboring under mediocre or worn-out speakers, and try new pickups, different strings, a dozen different pedals, and so on in an effort to perk up their tone, rather than unbolting that tired driver and wiring up something different that has some teeth to it.

Guitar speakers—which are often referred to as “drivers” to differentiate them from the enclosures (cabinets) they are mounted in, which might contain multiple drivers—come in an enormous range of styles, and you need to understand a little bit about the types available before you can begin to choose what might be right for you. You could write a book on the subject (well, I’ve written a few chapters at least), but I’ll try to categorize them efficiently here for you for the sake of brevity. Although few categories of anything apply universally in this post-modern age of tonal choice, for the sake of attacking the subject at all we can generally divide speakers, in the sonic sense, into two categories and two more sub-categories: vintage and modern, and British and American respectively. There is a lot of crossover these days, plenty of great new designs that are entirely out of the box, and―for example―many modern designs that emulate vintage tones but exhibit advanced technical specifications. As a rule, however, these categories will help you hone in on what you might want in a speaker.

Celestion Alnico Blue“Vintage” drivers, which, unless you’ve got a vintage amp with speakers that still function well, means new speakers designed to sound like those of the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, tend to have lower power-handling capabilities and exhibit a lot of interaction with the amp, and thereby the player. These are speakers rated anywhere between 15 watts and 30 watts. As a result of these characteristics, they tend to break up quicker than more modern (and/or higher rated) speakers, contributing an element of what we call “speaker distortion” to the amp’s own distortion sound. The earliest of these usually have alnico magnets, which are highly prized for their slightly softer response and overall musicality. In the British camp they include primarily the Celestion Alnico Blue (Vox Blue) and, from the mid- and late-’60s respectively, the G12M Greenback and G12H-30, all still made in reproduction form by Celestion today, with some similar versions made in the USA by Eminence and Weber. Other lesser-seen British makes include Fane and Goodmans. In the American-flavored camp notable drivers are the main Jensen alnico and ceramic models, such as the P10R and P10Q 10” speakers, and P12R, P12Q, and P12N 12” speakers (all of which are alnico speakers, but are represented in the ceramic-magnet camp by siblings with a “C” prefix). These, too, are made today by the current owner of the Jensen brand, Recoton in Italy,  alongside similar drivers made in the USA by Eminence, Weber, and others.

Jensen P12NLower-powered, vintage-styled drivers tend to partner well with lower-powered tube amps, especially when you’re looking for a lot of interaction from the speaker and a lively, juicy sound suitable for rock and roll, classic rock, blues, alt-country, garage rock, or any of the more rough-and-ready genres. You don’t necessarily need to partner British-style speakers with British amps, or vice-versa. British and American amps of the old days were born with British and American speakers respectively, but a lot of great tone tweaking can be achieved by mixing and matching the types available today. I’ve gotten great sounds from British speakers with ceramic-magnets in “tweed” style American amps from the late ’50s, for example.

By contrast, to define “modern” drivers, I mean the more advanced designs that appeared in the 1960s and beyond (the earliest types being from makers like JBL) and were much more commonplace from the late ’70s onward (Altec, but also “vintage” makers like Celestion, plus Eminence and other big contemporary makers too). These speakers have higher power-handling capabilities of 50 watts or more, and are firmer and more robust overall, meaning they give way to less speaker distortion, and instead translate the sound of the amp itself with more fidelity. These speakers are very often made with ceramic magnets, which have the combined qualities of being much more affordable and somewhat more powerful so they can be used to really crank up the output, although some classic models like the early JBLs were made with alnico speakers. Modern drivers are more appropriate for big amps that you want to stay clean right up to the max, and also modern high-gain amps where the majority of the distortion sound is to be generated by preamp distortion of one kind or another. Some players like to use them in vintage-style, non-master-volume amps, however, in order to get more fidelity from the amp and to drive that juicy, cranked-tube tone with a lot of punch and clarity, rather than softening it out with the speaker distortion generated by a vintage-styled driver.

Celestion G12M GreenbackBefore moving on, note that I have seemed to imply that “ceramic” equals “modern,” or at least “less vintage.” But that should be taken with a hefty caveat, and the great vintage designs are not all alnico-magnet speakers by any means. Celestions G12M Greenback and G12H-30, as mentioned above, both use ceramic magnets, and are among the most revered rock and blues-rock speakers of all time. Also, note that a speaker’s efficiency should always be taken into consideration, which is to say the amount of volume it is capable of putting out for every watt put into it. This rating is usually somewhere between 95 dB and 100 dB (occasionally a little more) for current-manufacture drivers,  which indicates the decibel level the speaker will achieve at one meter with a one watt input. A more efficient speaker can really pep up a low-powered amp, which might suddenly be loud enough to gig with where previously it had trouble competing with your drummer, with its low-efficiency speaker. On the other hand, a less efficient speaker sometimes helps to achieve just the right sense of drive and attack without being too harsh―and of course louder isn’t always better. Low and high efficiency don’t necessarily correspond with vintage and modern designs, by the way, so you just need to check specs. Celestion’s Alnico Blue, for example, a design that dates from the early 1960s, is rated at 100 dB.

The Guitar Amp Handbook by Dave HunterDig into the speaker market, do your research, read the manufacturers’ own descriptions of their drivers’ tonal characteristics alongside as many independent reviews as you can digest, and see if there’s an easy speaker swap that could kick your tone into the big leagues. Most guitarists can change speakers themselves―following the instructions of both your amp manufacturer and the speaker manufacturer themselves, of course―or any good amp tech can do it for a nominal fee. Before undertaking the exercise you need to know the impedance of the speaker(s) you are replacing, and the power handling capabilities of the speaker you are putting in its place, which should always be equal to or a little―or sometimes a lot―greater than the output rating of the amp. Note, too, that multiple speakers in the same cab (or two extension cabs) equally divide between them the power of the amp, which is why four 30 watt speakers can handle the blast of a 100 watt amp. It’s also worth ensuring that the speaker you intend to swap in will fit the amp: some amps have eight mounting bolts or screws, while some speakers are made with only four mounting holes (not a problem if you can easily removed four of the eight bolts from the baffle, but a problem if you can’t); equally problematic, some speakers with large bell covers on the back are too deep for the cabs of some small combos.

See what’s out there, listen to as many different speakers as you can, and you’ll find there’s a range of options for almost any amp that needs a little help in the driver department. For more information on the subject, two  popular books on amplifiers―The Tube Amp Book: Deluxe Revised Edition by Aspen Pittman and The Guitar Amp Handbook: Understanding Tube Amplifiers and Getting Great Sounds by yours truly―both include a wealth of information on speakers.