What is a Combo Amp? Better Option than Amp Head & Cabinets?

Author: Liam Whelan | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

If you’ve ever carried a Marshall stack up a set of venue stairs to a gig, wondering “do I really need a head and cab?” you’re not alone.

Most electric guitar players start out with a small practice amp before upgrading to a more professional rig. For a long time, this meant a powerful (preferably tube-filled) head and a loudspeaker cabinet.

But is that still necessary? Can you get the same, or better tonal and performance results with a simple combo amp?

As with anything in the world of music, asking twenty guitarists will give you thirty opinions. However, in this article, I’ll aim to answer that question, and help you to decide what amplification setup is best for you.

What is a Guitar Amp?

Before we ask what kind of guitar amp is best, let’s make sure we’re all across what amps actually do.

Electric guitars require amplification to perform. A guitar amp is a system that boosts the signal from your guitar’s pickup, producing sound through a speaker or set of speakers.

For non-guitar players, the amps are the big loud things you see on stage behind a band.

The signal from a guitar simply isn’t strong enough just to plug your guitar into a speaker. The amplifier is the vital piece between the guitar and the speaker and is a major piece of any guitar player’s tone.

What is a Combo Amp?

There’s an enormous range of different kinds of guitar amplifiers out there. You can get tiny practice amps for bedroom use like those that come in beginner guitar packages, all the way up to 100-watt behemoths designed to fill stadiums.

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of amp. You can get a combo amp, in which the amplifier and the speaker are included in the same housing.

Alternatively, you can go the head-and-cab route, where the amplifier and speaker must be purchased separately and connected via a speaker cable.

But which is better?

Combo Amp vs Head and Cabinet

I’m of the opinion that most professional guitarists can get good use out of multiple amps.

For instance, I have a small practice amp for home use, a 20-watt Marshall Studio Vintage combo for most club-sized gigs, and a Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister head and cab for larger venues or gigs where I’m sharing backline with another band.

There are a few factors I like to consider when deciding which amp to use, and you can use these to guide your choice of amp. I’m choosing to focus on gigging, rehearsing and recording needs instead of practice.

These are:

  • Who is carrying the amp
  • Volume required for the gig
  • Style/genre of gig
  • How cool you need to look

Portability

The first question to ask yourself is how much weight you’re willing to carry to gigs and rehearsals. Carrying a 4×12 cab, guitars, pedalboard, and head can get tiresome.

You’ll also want to consider whether you can fit all of that in your vehicle! There’s a very good reason bands tour in vans: you need the room.

Combo amps are pretty heavy, but they are far more portable than a head and cab.

Volume

Volume is self-explanatory. Head-and-cab arrangements are usually louder than combo amps because you can use more speakers.

Most combo amps are limited to one or two speakers. A head can plug into an infinite array of speakers. Heads, then, are usually louder than combos.

Venue

The style of gig you’re playing will also affect your amp choice. Smaller venues demand smaller amplifiers. If I’m playing a show with other bands on the bill, and one act is generously offering to share speaker cabinets, I’ll just bring my head and plug it into their cabs.

That said, I’m usually the guy offering his cab for other people to use, but the idea holds up.

Genre

The genre of the gig matters, too. I’ve never seen a jazz ensemble use anything other than a compact, ultra-clean combo amp.

Similarly, it’s rare to see a full-bore metal band playing something other than a full stack with head and cabs.

Appearance

That brings me to another important consideration, one that guitar players hate to admit matters.

How cool do you need to look?

Simply put, depending on the genre of music you play, your audience may expect to see a certain array of equipment. There’s a reason Airbourne play in front of a wall of Marshall cabs: it’s part of their balls-to-the-wall hard rock branding. Some bands even use fake cabs just to get the look!

On the other hand, if you’re showing up to sit in at a blues session or your local jazz club, a full stack won’t make you many friends.

It’s all about the right amp for the right gig.

The exception, of course, is if you’re in a Rush tribute band. Then you can get away with having washing machines and dryers on stage.

Otherwise, you’ll want to consider the appearance of your act.

Modern Amp Technology

Most of my advice comes from my own experience of gigging around pubs, clubs, and the odd theater for the past fifteen years.

It’s important to note that amp technology has progressed in leaps and bounds in that time.

Once upon a time, if I wanted full tube drive and grunt, I needed a big tube amp with plenty of watts and a speaker cab to match.

These days, I can show up to a full band rehearsal with my Hughes & Kettner Stompman, a pedalboard amp that provides an astonishing impression of a saturated tube amp.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need to get a full head and cab to access those classic tones.

There’s no shortage of amp modelers out there, like the Line6 Helix.

If you’re mostly doing studio work, you can get excellent results from a combo amp. Take Eric Clapton, who made his mark with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers using a Marshall 2×12 combo.

The Boss Katana comes in a variety of sizes, with a seemingly infinite array of tones on offer.

Amplifiers are better than they used to be, and smaller amps are often as good as, if not better, than larger ones.

There’s even an entire cottage industry of neutral pedal-platform amplifiers, where guitar players build most of their tone from their pedals, not the amp. The Orange Pedal Baby is probably the best example of this, as it’s designed specifically to use your choice of pedal as a preamp.

The reality is that you don’t necessarily need a head-and-cab array in order to achieve the tones typically associated with that setup.

It’s possible to get close with a combo, modeler, or even a pedal platform amp.

Final Verdict: What Should I Get?

Considering that I use my combo as well as my head-and-cab arrangement frequently, I’d argue that both setups have their merits.

The question you want to ask yourself is what you’re using the amp for.

For most guitar players rehearsing with a band and playing smaller venues, a professional quality combo amp will be more than enough. A 10 or 12-inch speaker is best to keep up with your drummer and a PA.

If, however, you’re going to play larger rooms, share the backline, or you simply love the look of a full amp stack, then a head and cabinet is definitely a justifiable choice.

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About Liam Whelan

Liam Whelan was raised in Sydney, Australia, where he went to university for long enough to realize he strongly prefers playing guitar in a rock band to writing essays. Liam spends most of his life sipping strong coffee, playing guitar, and driving from one gig to the next. He still nurses a deep conviction that Eddie Van Halen is the greatest of all time, and that Liverpool FC will reclaim the English Premier League title.

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