Anyone who is even remotely interested in electric/acoustic guitar or bass has probably stumbled upon this term, and even if you’ve never heard it you’ll surely find it when you choose what gear to buy and how to start shaping your own sound.
So without losing time in useless introductions, let’s talk about this particular design of amplificator and why it’s different from others and also what can you achieve with that thing in particular.
What’s a Combo Amplifier?
These are usually cheaper all-in-one amplifiers designed to have everything you need for playing, containing preamplifier/power amplifier and the speaker built within, particularly suited for practice but also for live gigs in small places thanks to the great portability and small dimensions.
The other versions of the setup would be a so called “head and speaker cabinet” version, that has the components specifically made for amplification and handling the sound in one part (the head) and the “sound maker” part in the speaker cabinet, and those two have to be connected together (a head alone doesn’t make sound and therefore you have to buy and use both, and also using only the head would damage the head itself because of their own design).
So, what are those combo models used for?
In short, they can be very useful for guitarists that can find an usually cheaper alternative to buying separate speaker cabinets and amp heads and can also carried take their gear around more easily thanks to the light weight and smaller dimensions.
How Many Types Are There?
Those Combination Amplifiers can be:
- Tube models;
- Solid State models;
- Modeling models;
- Hybrid models
Tube versions have tubes (yeah, kind of obvious right?) and give a warm “traditional” sound with a lot of middle frequencies and a natural distortion as well when pushed with the settings.
Solid State use circuitry in order to simulate the sound (with transistors that replicate sound waves) and are cheaper than all-tube models.
Modeling amps (or “Amplifier simulators”) utilise software and digital processing in order to emulate and “copy” the sound of more than one model (high end models are true sonic chameleons that can have a lot of sounds going from a Fender-like sound to Gibson-signature tones and also have preamps and lots of different effects integrated as well).
Last but not least, Hybrid ones are built using tubes on the preamp section but then using solid state technology and circuitry for the power section, giving a warmer sound but with smaller costs and also less maintenance expenses (as you’ll have to change tubes after a while because they deteriorate with time and their sound gets worse and need to be replaced).
Pros and Advantages of Combos
- Price: you can get one for (usually) a cheaper price compared to buying an amp head and then a separate cabinet speaker (or more in some cases), so it can be good both for beginners that just want to practice or try the instrument and for other players that just want to try a different sound with a smaller budget (by the way you can also find expensive models obviously, especially if you go with an All-Tube model, but the entry level price for one is way lower usually);
- Easy to carry around: the portability of this kind of amplifier is a big deal in terms of comfort and convenience, as you can easily take it to gigs and small venues for concerts without breaking your back and take a massive stack of cabinet speakers around;
- Power sources: a lot of models can also be powered with batteries
Cons and Disadvantages of Combos
- Less sound customisation: when you use separate heads and speaker cabs you can try a lot of different combinations and experiment with your sound in a more extensive way, but with a “all-in-one” kind of design typical of combination amplifiers you have to use the components that you buy and can’t try different speakers (unless you are willing to work on the hardware). That doesn’t mean that you can’t experiment, though (as you can still use effect pedals and external preamp pedals as well as a lot of other external devices), but only that you may feel limited compared to other setups where you build your own stack of speakers and try different models and brands of head cabs. You can definitely find great sounds with both setups, it’s only depending on how much you want to experiment here
FAQ AND COMMON QUESTIONS
Are they good for gigs?
The answer is: definitely yes! A solid state of 80 Watts (or even 40 if you play alone) or a tube one with 40 Watts (20 if alone) are great for gigging in small venues and bar/pubs and also very easy to carry around without a lot of problems that happen for bigger stacks.
You should also consider, when you buy one of those, if you’re gonna use it also for practice and bedroom playing sessions, as in some case you may find them loud (or more often, the other people that happen to live near you will find them loud, and they definitely will let you know that more than once as well).
Anyway, those wattages should be good enough and in case you choose a version with less watts you can also use boost pedals for your gigs as well in order to make your guitar even louder.
How Many Watts Should They Have For Home Practice?
A combo amplifier for home practice and bedroom playing has usually around 20 watts for solid state models and between 1 to 5 watts if for tube models (10 could be fine as well but can’t guarantee for your neighbors).
Can I use Guitar Pedals With Them?
You can use guitar pedals without any restriction because combo configurations itself doesn’t particularly affect the sound, but the choice of solid state, tube, modeling or hybrid model definitely can change the sound when you experiment with effect pedals.
Why Do They Have An Open Back?
Combo amplifiers usually have an open back because that allows a more broader sound diffusion in the environment and gets more coverage (opposed to a closed back design that “aims” the sound only in the direction of the speakers).
You can read more about that and the sonic differences of this design in this article of Guitar World or in this one from Roland.
- You can find a good demo of the differences between Head&Cab setups and combo in this video (not mine, I just found it interesting and explained very clearly).