Wake Up Tired Amps with New Speakers
An easy way to get better response, higher headroom, and more punch from your vintage Fender.
Let’s talk about one of my favorite topics: speakers. I love experimenting with them. Swapping speakers is an extremely easy way to drastically change your amp tone. I’ll explain some of the basics, like efficiency, construction, and power. And, as usual for this column, the focus is on vintage Fenders.
The most common question I get is, “What speaker goes best with my Deluxe Reverb.” If I lack time or energy, I simply answer “the Jensen P12R.” It sounds fabulous and vintage-correct, and is also easy to obtain new or used. There is much information and many sound clips available to support this decision. However, when I have more time I reply that there is no single answer to that question. The answer depends on personal preferences and what tone you seek from your amp. Talking about speakers and tone can be confusing, since we may lack a common perspective to describe guitar tone precisely.
Those of you who gig regularly and heavily with vintage amps should consider replacing the speakers with modern equivalents. Most speakers from 1950 to 1970 have a low power rating (power is measured in watts). Additionally, their already fragile paper cones have become even weaker due to moisture, dryness, oxidation, and aging. But please show care for these vintage speakers and always keep them intact if they’re removed. They are important to an amp’s second-hand value and are essential to true vintage tone.
Older speakers are also inefficient and have modest volume and bass response, which allows you to push an amp more and reach the sweet spot at a lower volume. They do not sound as fat and chunky as many modern speakers, which can sometimes make the guitar bass-heavy and dominating onstage. This works well in a power trio, but not in a larger band with several instruments. In general, vintage speakers are also bright, unless their paper cones are heavily saturated with dirt and dust. Then they will sound muddy. However, I do like some old-speaker dirt because it dampens treble and allows me to open the bright switch on Fender amps.
Typically, vintage speakers have a balanced tone, making it easy for the guitar to blend naturally in a mix. That’s why I like them—and particularly in bigger amps, with several speakers. Since these amps are more than loud enough, I prefer them with speakers with low power and low efficiency. Low-power speakers have a smaller and lighter construction. The magnets are smaller and lighter, and the copper voice coil is smaller in wire thickness and coil radius.
The cone is lighter and more flexible and moves more easily. A low-power speaker will, therefore, have better transparency and touch sensitivity than a stiff, high-power speaker, which requires more power to vibrate and operate. A general recommendation for vintage tone is to stay as low as possible on the speaker power handling. A 40-watt Super Reverb will distribute 10 watts to each of its four speakers, so therefore 20-to-30-watt speakers are more than enough in this amp. In loud amps, I also prefer speakers with alnico magnets. They will create sag and compression and make the amp softer, with less attack.
In some cases, I want more power and headroom from a speaker—particularly in smaller, single-speaker amps like vintage Princeton Reverbs and Deluxe Reverbs, which were poorly equipped from the Fender factory. The speakers were clearly the bottlenecks of these amps. Many players swapped the OEM speakers for more efficient and powerful 12" speakers with ceramic magnets, to get more clean headroom and firmer bass handling.
There are even more elements to consider when choosing speakers. Check out “How to Select Speakers” on my website, fenderguru.com. You will find some guidance based on the following questions:
• Do you play at modest volumes or extremely loud, pushing your amp and speakers?
• Do you want to achieve maximum volume and clean headroom? Or do you want more breakup at lower volumes?
• Do you have a bright or dark sounding guitar?
• Do you have effects pedals with high-frequency fuzz?
• Do you have a bright, dark, muddy, or mellow sounding amp with few EQ options (like tweeds)?
• What is your playing style? Do you have a hard pick attack or a soft finger touch?
• Do you want a chunky, fat tone or a snappy, quick response?
• Is weight an issue?
• Are you mixing different speakers for a more complex tone?
Until next time, may the tone be with you.