The first question you’re going to ask yourself when picking out a guitar or bass amplifier is: “Do I need a combo or a stack?” In short: a combo is an all-in-one solution that literally combines an amplifier and a speaker in one box, while a stack literally ‘stacks’ a separate amplifier head on top of a speaker cabinet. In this quick blog, we’ll look at the bonuses and pitfalls of both options so you can make the most informed decision.
A Ready-Made or a Fat Stack?
With a combo amplifier you get a kind of all-in-one, ready-made solution where the amplifier and speaker are combined in one box – hence ‘combo’. With a stack, you’re getting an amplifier head that’s literally stacked on top of a separate speaker cabinet.
The Full Stack and the Half Stack
When you combine an amplifier head with a single speaker cabinet, you get a half-stack, and when you combine an amplifier head with two speaker cabinets, you get a full stack. The ultimate stack has to be a whole wall of speaker cabinets, like the Marshall walls built by Yngwie Malmsteen, but really, they’re more for show than for sound.
The Combo: Compact, Easy & Affordable
For beginner guitarists and even gigging guitarists who don’t have the luxury of a team of roadies just yet, a combo amplifier can be the most compact, easiest and affordable option going. Simply plug your guitar in via a jack lead and you’re ready to play. Basically, if you’re constantly shifting gear between a rehearsal space and small to medium-sized venues and don’t necessarily need brain-breaking volume levels, then a combo will be ideal. To match what you plan to use your combo for, they also come in an array of different sizes and with different functions.
Raising & Tilting Your Combo
There are two important points worth thinking about when gigging with a combo amp. The first is, they don’t exactly sit at ear height so, if you’re on stage without a floor monitor or in-ear monitors, then it can be wise to raise and tilt your amp back so that the sound is pointed upwards a bit. There are amplifier stands you can get that are specifically designed to do this for you. This way, your amplifier also doubles as your monitor. Another thing worth being aware of is that, since everything has been packed into one box, some combo amplifiers can be pretty heavy.
The Stack: The Ease of Separate Bits
Ok, so a stack does take up a lot more space than your average combo, but because it’s made up of separate components, it’s much easier to load into the back of the car or van. Also, if the venue already has a backline available that includes a good speaker cabinet, then all you need to bring is your amplifier head and a speaker cable, which takes up far less loading space than a combo, and weighs less. If the weight of an amp head and speaker cabinet is going to be a problem, then you could opt for a transistor amplifier, which is always going to be far lighter than a valve amplifier. And, if you want to make gigging life with a stack as easy as possible, then take a look at the smallest amp heads, which are often referred to as micro-heads.
The Biggest Bonus? Mixing & Matching
The biggest bonus of going for a stack is that you can mix and match your head and cabinet to create the guitar sound that you’re after. You’re free to pick out the speaker cabinet that has the most effect on the sound. The type, the brand and the size can make a big difference. You can start with a half-stack and then graduate to a full-stack later. Just bear in mind that a full-stack can take up a lot of space and can quickly get too loud for the neighbours.
Pay Attention to the Ohmage & Wattage!
If you are mixing and matching your amp head and speaker cabinet then it’s essential to double check the impedance, otherwise, you run the risk of damaging your stack. The minimum power capacity of a speaker cabinet needs to match the wattage of your amp. For example: a 50 Watt head can be connected up to a speaker with a power capacity of 50 Watts or higher. Then you need to check that the impedance (or resistance, which is measured in Ohms), of your speaker cabinet is the same as the impedance of your amplifier head. The input/output of the head and speaker cabinet is always marked 2, 4, 8 or 16 Ohm and sometimes you can select the impedance, but the rule of thumb is always that an amplifier with a 4 Ohm input can only be connected to a 4 Ohm speaker cabinet and so on. Also – you should only ever use a dedicated speaker cable to connect your cabinet to your amplifier and never use a normal guitar cable – even though they look exactly the same!
A 16 or 18 Ohm speaker cabinet can be connected to this Peavey head
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