Although hard in the beginning, they’re also fairly intuitive to learn to play without professional lessons once you overcome the first hurdles of pain and discomfort. At least to certain level. But what no one tells you when you start learning guitar is that depending on the type of guitar you play, there can be a lot of moving parts.
That’s especially true of electric guitars and basses. For the beginner guitarist, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by terms like amp head, cab, and combo, and it’s completely understandable.
So, what is an amp head? And do you need one? Let’s tackle these questions to help you understand your new guitar.
What Is An Amp Head?
Guitar anatomy is extensive, so let’s break down what some of their extraneous pieces do.
An amp head does what it says on the tin, and it helps amplify the sound your guitar makes. Well, sort of.
The amp head on a guitar taps into the signal your guitar sends out, and it works with a speaker to amplify the sound. Typically, the result is an instrumental sound that is louder than you could produce playing a classic, unamplified guitar.
However, it’s essential to understand that’s all the amplifier does, and it has nothing to do with turning your guitar playing into audible music.
Not only that, there are situations where trying to use an amp head alone can be dangerous. It risks electronic overload and can seriously damage your equipment. That’s where the cab comes in.
What Is A Cab?
All sounds vibrate, which enables you to pick up sounds, whether it’s the chaffinch on your porch or the hammers in a piano.
A cab is a glorified speaker. It’s the colloquial shorthand for ‘cabinet,’ it taps into those vibrations and makes them audible. It’s a vital part of any electric guitar setup because, without the cab, it doesn’t matter how you use the amp; No one will hear you play.
Do Cabs Work Without Amp Heads?
We’ve established that an amp head is only as effective as the cab you hook it up to. But can you use a cab without an amp head? After all, cabs are speakers when you get down to basics, right?
They are, but they won’t do anything for your guitar if you try using a cab independently.
The amp picks up the vibrations your electronic guitar creates and reduplicates them. Without an amp, there isn’t any sound to broadcast.
How Does a Cab Connect to an Amp Head?
Usually, you connect the cab to a guitar amp head using an output jack. This is fitted out to accommodate the charge created by the amp when it increases your sound while protecting your cab.
But there are several things worth considering when connecting the amp head to the cab. Sometimes you may pair an amp head with a cab with a different impedance, which means they aren’t calibrated to handle the same degree of electrical flow.
When that happens, you can damage your equipment. However, most cabs have several output jacks to help preserve your amp head and other equipment. With that in mind, pay careful attention to the ohms output on the jacks.
You can reduce the output from a cab by combining several cabs, and this is called wiring in parallel.
It’s popular with musicians because it reduces the resistance placed on the cab and the amp, but it does require more equipment.
What Is A Combo?
For that reason, many guitar players favor connecting their guitars to a combo. But what is a combo?
Much as the name suggests, it’s a combination of cab and amplifier. There are many reasons to recommend the combo, and one of them is that you don’t have to worry about things like ohms or impedance.
Crucially, if you connect your guitar to a combo, you will have no problems hearing the music you produce.
What Is A Stack?
If you’ve read this far, then you have probably encountered a discussion of stacks as you try to distinguish between amp heads, cabs, and combos.
The stack is the least complicated part of the guitar language surrounding amplifiers and combos, and this is musician-speak for the combination of an amplifier with a cab.
Why? Because it’s common practice to position your amp head on top of the cab to save space.
You may also hear the phrase “half-stack” bandied about. That’s because a full stack requires two or more cabinets and a half stack only has one.
Do I Need A Practice Amp?
Another question many aspiring guitar players have is whether or not they need a practice amp head or if they can use the same amp head they would use in gigs.
This comes down to how much you want to spend on your equipment. Most practice amps are part of a combo piece with a built-in speaker.
It also depends on whether or not you plan to start performing immediately. If you want to spend time honing your technique for the foreseeable future, a practice amp is – forgive the pun – ample. But if you have something more professional lined up, you want similarly professional equipment available to you.
Which Is Better: Combo Or Cab And Amp?
So, that’s what the amp head, cab, and combo do. But is one better than the other? Ultimately, it depends on what you are looking for. Let’s weigh up some of the pros and cons.
Here are some of the advantages of opting for an amp head and cab combination.
Weight: Amps and Cabs Are Lighter
Even though an amp head and a cab are two distinct pieces, they are cumulatively lighter than a combo. That makes them more portable, and that’s crucial if you plan to move your guitar equipment frequently.
Amps and Cabs Have More Variety
The other advantage of combining amps with cabinets is that you can customize them to your particular needs. You can mix and match without worrying if your output jacks agree on an ohms measure.
The major advantage here is that you have your choice of speakers. Some guitar players find the inbuilt speaker combos limiting, and sticking with an amp head and cabinet allows you more musical flexibility.
But there are advantages to using a combo, too. Let’s examine some of these.
Combos Offer Closed and Open Backs
Cabs and amp heads don’t have a monopoly on variety and customization. One benefit of pairing your guitar with a combo is that you can choose whether the combo has an open or closed back.
That determines where the sound comes from. On a closed-back combo, the sound issues from the front, and on an open-back combo, it also comes out of the device sides.
Combos Are Space Saving
The other significant advantage of a combo is that it saves space. Even though a combo is frequently heavier than the combined weight of an amplifier and a cab, it takes up less space when you need to transport it somewhere.
That can also be a positive if you need to conserve space in a performance venue. Many people who stick to small gig sizes find they manage fine with a combo connected to their guitar.
Combo, amp head, or cab – which is better?
It’s a question people get wildly worked up about. Unless you have strong preferences yourself, the best thing to do is nod politely while debate rages around you. Amp heads, cabs, and combos all have their advantages and disadvantages.
Amp heads and cabs are much lighter than combos, but combos save space. Amps and cabs give you more musical variety, especially over speakers. But a tech-savvy musician can change out the speaker in a combo if they want to.
At the end of the day, there are no wrong answers, whatever your fellow musicians tell you. Find a setup that works for you and stick to it. Whether that’s a combo or a cab and amp head setup doesn’t matter.