The guitar is a universally beloved instrument, admired for its versatility and affordability. And while it might be relatively easy to learn to play, it is challenging to truly master. Once a guitarist no longer considers himself a beginner, he may decide to move from playing a ‘Spanish’ or acoustic guitar to one of the many types of electric guitar to ramp up the volume and eloquence of his instrument. Such a move will invariably introduce him to the world guitar amps, heads, speakers and combos. But what does all this mean? Do guitar amp heads have speakers? And what is the difference between guitar amp heads and guitar amp combos? If it all sounds a bit confusing, read on and we’ll explain.
Do Guitar Amp Heads Have Speakers?
The term ‘amp’ is simply a shortening for the word ‘amplifier’, which an electric guitar virtually needs in order to make what is played audible at all. This is because whereas a traditional acoustic guitar has the hollow body which resonates with the vibrations caused by the strings and amplifying the sound, most electric guitars have a solid body. Their sound can only be amplified electronically by translating the vibrating strings into electrical current and sending it to a sound equipment piece called the amp, and from thence to the speakers. Whether the electric guitar is the usual six stringed lead or rhythm guitar, or a four stringed bass, the instrument will not be ‘wired for sound’ until it is plugged in to the sound equipment. The one exception would be a semi-electric, which as the name suggests, is an electric guitar that retains some of the characteristics of the acoustic instrument, including a modest sound chamber. So do guitar amp heads have speakers? The answer is no, not unless the head is also a ‘combo’ model which combines the amp head with a speaker cabinet in one unit.
The Difference Between Guitar Amp Heads and Guitar Amp Combos
Most professional electric guitar players prefer to use guitar amp heads rather than combo amps. Yet a guitar amp combo is the most popular and convenient type of amplifier for most casual guitar situations. The amp ‘head’ is the control unit itself where the adjustable settings and dials are mounted. Although the head cannot be used on its own without speakers, if it is purchased separately it gives the guitarist more freedom to choose the quality of amp they prefer, and then select one or more speaker sets to connect to it. This gives flexibility to the sound equipment configuration — components can be set up for practice gigs using perhaps a small all-in-one speaker, and then this can be swapped out for a large multi-speaker setup at a performance venue.
The Benefits of Using a Guitar Amp Combo
A guitar amp combo really shines as way to broaden the reach of an acoustic guitar fitted with a sound pickup. Acoustic guitar players far outnumber electric guitarists, and while their playing style is more suited to intimate group situations than huge music events, a small amount of amplification is still often needed. A compact guitar amp combo can deliver this where the mellow or intricate acoustic sound needs to be heard above today’s constant background buzz. Busking, coffee shop live music and community folk events can all be enhanced by the discreet amplification of an amp combo, without sacrificing portability.
As a beginner buying your first electric guitar, you will probably be inclined to start with a basic instrument and couple it with a guitar amp combo. This is a setup where the amp head and speaker are combined in one unit, and is a perfectly good way to get started. Having just one piece of sound equipment to connect up to simplifies things for the novice, and the modest cost will be more affordable. The serious guitarist, especially one who is getting paid for gigs, will probably soon invest in a guitar ‘stack’, of amp head plus speaker cabinets, to give him or her more control over sound output. This means that the overall sound quality is adjustable at three levels instead of only two: the guitar itself, the amp head and the speakers. Naturally, an elite band quality electric guitar will be best served by an equally high ticket premium amp stack.
Appreciating the Differences in Amp Configurations
So what do these components look like and how do they function? The only real visual difference between guitar amp heads and combos is in the front panel. Guitar amps have volume controls for each head and the sound will be amplified to the head itself. They also differ in power output and range. A guitar amp with a high wattage can produce sound at a much higher volume than a head with a lower wattage, but unless it is also of excellent quality, sound distortion can be a problem.
The guitar amp itself performs several functions. When the amplifier is turned on, it is supplying power to the guitar, so the first thing it does, in effect, is turn on the instrument. The next thing it does is create a signal ‘link’ with the guitar and responds to the playing of the strings by interpreting volume and pitch. A good quality amp will have less ‘hum’ and interference, and more ‘noise cancelling’ electronics and filters controlling the purity of sound than an inferior model. Of course, the electronic signalling going from the guitar to the amp head as the instrument is played is just pulses of voltage running through diodes and sophisticated circuitry. It does not become audible sound until it reaches the speakers.
Choosing The Best Amp Setup For Your Needs
The relevance of asking ‘Do guitar amp heads have speakers (difference between guitar amp heads and guitar amp combos)?’ becomes especially important for today’s many music and folk festival bands, where a robust amp stack has to cope with large outdoor venues. Not only is the weather a potential problem, but power supply to the sound equipment may be compromised by the use of generators or other alternative electricity suppliers in commonly remote or unpowered locations. Event managers do not always understand the power needs of the modern electric band, but a high quality amp stack will have the inbuilt voltage regulators, surge protectors and additional electronics to help smooth out a spikey power supply.
Finally, now that you understand the difference between guitar amp heads and guitar amp combos, where should you go to get advice on the best brands and specs of an amp stack for your needs? It might seem logical to approach your local music shop, but do not limit your questions to just retailers of the equipment you are interested in. It will be far better if you also speak to any experienced guitarists who can make suggestions in light of the amps they use every day and those they have used in the past. Guitarists are passionate about their favorite brands and equipment, as well as about their music, so they may even be keen to let you try out some of their gear. So whether you initially go for an entry level combo or decide on a full stack amp head and speakers, you’ll now know how to get the most sound quality out of your own electric guitar.