Speakers: The Ultimate “Amp Mod”
Why switching speakers can be the tonal upgrade you''re looking for, and how to make sure you end up with what you''re looking for.
One of the most dramatic mods guitarists can make to an amplifier to personalize their sound is to change out the speakers, especially in older vintage amps—but also in newer models, especially economically priced amps that may have been fitted with an unlabeled, “generic” or “OEM” speaker. This is a subject many have covered, but thought I’d add my personal perspective, since I’ve been trying and buying many different speakers over the years.
There are dozens of options and brands available, whether you’re buying new, used or vintage. Familiar brands such as Celestion, Eminence and Jensen are available from most music stores or online retailers. There are boutique speaker manufacturers like Tone Tubby, Avatar’s Hellatone series, Weber and Scumback. There are also many vintage names besides the big three above to add to the list: Fane, Altec, JBL, Oxford, Utah, etc.
Buying a new speaker is relatively easy… well, sort of. There is no true way of knowing the end result until you’ve had a chance to actually hear it in your amp. But most companies now have extensive info and even soundclips on their websites to help make your initial decision a little easier. You can also pay attention to hearsay, check out YouTube demos, and listen to other friends’ amps. It might also help to try out a few different amps at the music store, paying attention to the speakers in each. Or ask an amp tech whose opinion you trust.
Vintage amps can be brought back to life or made even better. For instance, Ampeg combos from the late sixties and early seventies I’ve picked up have suffered from tired or aged speakers, a couple having blown almost immediately. They sit around for long periods, cones dry out and glue separates. It’s to be expected. A lot of times the speakers were underrated relative to the amp’s output. Sometimes all it takes is one modern-day power chord to send an old crusty speaker to its grave, so don’t be surprised. Just wait until you drop in a new speaker. You will never have imagined your old amp could sound so good.
A Few Things to Consider...
Usually (not always) a higher wattage handling speaker—let’s say 30 to 75 watt range—means a clearer, broader frequency range from lows to highs. Lower power handling—roughly 15 to 25 watts—may be more midrangy, with less defined lows and quicker breakup. Do you go for super clean? Historically, players would gravitate towards JBLs, Altecs and EVs rated for 100 to 200 watts. If you have a higher-wattage combo, around 100 watts or more, definitely buy a higher rated speaker or get proper advice.
Also make note of the “SPL” or “Sensitivity” rating of a speaker, which usually ranges between 96–100dB, the latter being louder. Some old speakers from the sixties must have had a rating of 50dB! I’m exaggerating, of course, but when these are replaced, the amp’s volume and tonal spectrum can increase dramatically. Is your combo too loud for your gig? Consider dropping to a lower sensitivity rated speaker. Make sure you match the speaker’s impedance rating to your amp’s output impedance, most often either 16 or 8 ohms.
As for personal faves, I’m more of a Celestion guy. The G12M-25 has great crunchy midrange. The G12H-30 Anniversary and Heritage 55-Hz has more clarity than the 25, and is good for clear, clanging rhythms. Blue and Gold Alnicos have that “in your face” Alnico mag crunch. Vintage 30s and G12T- 75s in Master Volume amps are great. I love vintage Jensens in my Fenders, namely the higher wattage Concert or Vibranto series from the sixties. I’ve also experimented with Altec 417s from the late sixties and early seventies, which are very cool, along with the JBL E120 & K120 series.
Buying Used Speakers on eBay
Avoid speakers with tears or punctures. If it’s been abused and worn out, it’ll most likely end up on eBay.
Avoid recones altogether, unless you can easily return if you don’t like them.
Ask if the speaker makes a rubbing or scraping noise when you push the cone in and out. If so, avoid like the plague.
Make sure the seller has listened to the speaker at time of auction, not “two years ago and it worked great then.”
Make sure they’re properly packed for shipment! Double-boxing is preferred. I’ve received a couple of DOAs due to the seller’s improper packing.
Install the speaker immediately upon receipt to check it out, with the agreement that you can return it if there are any issues.
Beware of the “whizzer” cone! Some Fanes and Celestion G12Hs from the late sixties and seventies had this additional cone in the center of the speaker over the voice coil that accented the highs, usually for PA or bass guitar use. They generally sound terrible for guitar.
I’ve had decent luck buying vintage Jensens on eBay. Vintage Celestions can be a relatively safe bet, as they were a sturdy speaker in the first place. My luck with buying old Altecs has not been good, as they don’t age well and are therefore fragile. Your best bet is to find these speakers in an old Ampeg or Fender cab, as opposed to one-off sales. A lot of old Altecs and JBLs listed on eBay have been reconed. I’d be wary.
Peter is co-founder of 65amps.