What Is a Combo Amp for Guitar?

What is a Combo Amp

Amplifiers come as amp heads and combo amps. Choosing one or the other will determine what equipment you need, what your gear is compatible with, and more. However, combo amps aren’t for all guitarists.

A combo amp for the guitar is an amplifier head (the main amp) combined with a built-in speaker. The speaker is enclosed with the amp head, so you can’t see the cones. You can use combo amps with all other guitar equipment, including additional speakers and amp heads.

In this post, I’ll explain what a combo is and how you can use it. I’ll also help you find out whether or not they’re the best choice for your gear kit.

How Do Combo Amps Work?

Combo amps work by pulling electrical signals from your guitar pickup. The signals go between two terminals for solid-state amps or into a preamp valve for tube amps. These signals convert into audible sound waves that play through the system’s built-in speaker.

Here’s the detailed process:

  1. Every time you strum or pick your guitar strings, the signal goes from the pickup, through the cable, and into the amp. The quality of the pickup and the cable affects how well your amp can receive the signal. Additionally, it can alter your combo amp’s clarity. 
  2. Depending on the amp you have, the signal either converts into a binary format, goes through two tubes (they look like light bulbs), or between two electrical terminals. Combo amps can be added to any type of amp (tube, solid-state, and modeling amps).
  3. The signals turn into sound waves that can be amplified through the speakers. Regular amp heads send those waves into another cable that goes to an external speaker. However, combo amps send the signals straight to the internal speaker, allowing you to bypass additional equipment.
  4. Each adjustment you make on the amp influences the sound waves. You can usually change the bass, treble, mid, volume, gain, and more. Modeling amps alter the sound waves in the internal computer. Some people use combo amps between amp heads and speaker cabinets for the modeling aspect.

Every guitar amp works differently. Tube amps use lights and filaments, modeling amps use computers, and solid-state amps use numerous terminals to convert audio waves. You can use a combo amp with any of these amps, so the way your amp functions can differ drastically.

Pros and Cons of Combo Amps

Combo amps have become so popular because they’re easy to use and they minimize how much equipment you need to purchase. However, they have a fair share of issues that lead many pro-level musicians toward stacked amps and speaker cabinets. Let’s break down all of the reasons you may or may not want a combo amp below.

Pros of Combo Amps

  • Combo amps are much lighter than an amp head with a speaker cabinet. They use smaller speakers than you’d use with most cabinets. While combo amps are heavier than amp heads, the added weight of the external speaker of the head makes the combo models a lot easier to carry.
  • You’ll save a lot of room in your equipment area. Not having to deal with a massive speaker cabinet or an amp stack means you’ll have more space for pedals, wires, and so on. This is one of many reasons that musicians with smaller recording rooms choose combo amplifiers.
  • Combo amps are easy to work with, especially for beginners. Everything you need to control is on top of the amp. There’s no need to go back and forth between the amp and an external speaker, which keeps the same tone. Having fewer wires also tidies up the room and makes it a lot less overwhelming.
  • Many combo amps are cheaper than the combined price of amp heads and speaker cabinets. If you’re on a budget and you don’t want to buy too much equipment, a combo amp is undoubtedly the best way to go. Not only are they cheaper than an amp head and a cabinet, but you’ll save money on cables, too.
  • You can connect a combo amp to most other amp equipment. Their compatibility makes them a top selection for people who don’t want to buy brand-new pedals, speakers, amp heads, wires, and so on. Simply plug them into an old amp or directly into your guitar. The majority of combo amps include the necessary cables.

Cons of Combo Amps

  • Combo amps rarely produce as much volume as separate speaker cabinets. You can’t fit a big speaker in most combo amps. They can also produce a subtle rattling sound after a couple of years of wear and tear. You can prevent this by tightening the internal wires regularly.
  • You can’t easily swap out the speaker if anything goes wrong with it. In fact, a lot of combo amps are soldered to the control board. Not being able to change the speaker means you’ll have to replace the whole amp if something goes wrong. People with external speakers can swap out individual parts for cheaper long-term repairs.
  • You’re stuck with whichever tones and limitations the built-in speaker has. External speakers can be changed and altered. You can’t do the same thing when you have a combo amp because the speaker is rarely accessible. If you don’t like the tone, you’ll have to edit it in a DAW or change the amp for live performances.

Can You Plug a Combo Amp Into a Cabinet? 

You can plug a combo amp into a cabinet if they have the same input and output port. Most combo amps use a ¼-in (0.6 cm) output. Plug the cable into the amp’s output and into a speaker cabinet’s input. Reduce the volume going through the amp, then increase the gain and volume on the cabinet.

Consider these variables before connecting a combo amp to an external speaker:

  • A speaker cabinet won’t make a combo amp’s tone sound any better. It amplifies the existing tones. If you choose a low-quality speaker cabinet, you’ll end up making your combo amp sound a lot worse. Furthermore, your amp cables make a massive difference in sound quality.
  • You can use as many speaker cabinets as the amount of outputs on your combo amp. This is a huge benefit for live performances, especially if you prefer surround sound. Place one speaker on the right side of the amp and another on the left side, allowing you to fill the room with rounded tones.
  • Your combo amp will still produce sound. You have to greatly reduce the amp’s volume, then increase the speaker cabinet’s volume. If you have too much noise coming from the amp, it’ll echo and vibrate the speakers. This process muddies the final product. It can also cause problems while micing an amp.

Many guitarists use combo amps as amp heads, plugging them into external speakers if there’s not enough volume. Combo amps often have a lot of settings, not to mention the fact that they’re a lot smaller than standard amp heads. You could get a combo amp for practice sessions, then plug it into an external amp during gigs.

What’s the Difference Between a Head, Cab, and a Combo Amp? 

The difference between a head, cab, and combo amp is that a head is a part that transmits signals, a cab is the speaker portion, and a combo amp is both pieces combined into one unit. An amp head without a cab or a built-in speaker won’t make any sound, so it’s useless for live performances.

There are many differences between these three pieces of equipment. Home Music Creator shows that a head and a cab use the same parts as a combo amp. That being said, a cab and a head don’t do much if they don’t have the other part. Combo amps can be used without adding anything else (other than your guitar).

Interestingly enough, all of this gear can be used together. You can use any combination of the aforementioned equipment to improve your guitar setup. Amp heads can use combo amps as speakers and pedals, combo amps can use cabs for more volume, and heads and cabs combine to make amp stacks.

Note: Although you can’t use an amp head without a speaker for a performance, you can use an amp head with an audio interface and a DAW to record your music. This method allows you to use headphones or your computer’s built-in sound system to play and edit.

Do You Need Pedals With a Combo Amp? 

You don’t need pedals with a combo amp, but you can use almost any pedal if you want. However, combo modeling amps have built-in effects and loops, which means you don’t have to use pedals. You can also connect your combo amp to an audio interface and edit it with a digital audio workstation.

Here’s what you should know about using pedals with combo amps:

  • Pedals have to be plugged into the amp’s inputs or effects loops. Modeling amps have numerous effects loops that save space on the input side. You can plug one or two guitars into the front of the amp, then reserve all of the loops for pedals. This is one of many pros of choosing a combo modeling amp.
  • Combo amp pedals typically work the same way as amp head pedals. You can mix and match all sorts of pedals, regardless of what kind of amp you have. This allows people to carry their old setup to a new combo amp, saving time, energy, space, and money in the process.
  • You can add digital pedals to a combo amp if you don’t have regular amp pedals. Plug your combo amp into an audio interface, then plug the audio interface into a computer. Download your preferred DAW (digital audio workstation), then check out all of the provided digital pedals. They’ll save a lot of money in the long run.
  • You’re limited to the amount of inputs you have unless you have a combo modeling amp. Modeling amps have several onboard effects that can mimic or replace pedals. Additionally, you can add new pedals to adjust or improve the effects. These options often include tremolo, delay, wah, and more.
  • Consider boost pedals if you want to make your combo amp louder. As mentioned earlier, combo amps don’t always get as loud as amp heads with speaker cabinets. Plugging a boost pedal into your combo amp is an excellent workaround. Another option is to place a mic in front of your amp to further amplify the sound.

There are more than enough amp pedals to choose from. Getting a combo amp won’t limit the pedal availability. You’ll also have more available outputs since you don’t need to use any of them for external speakers. Speaking of which, I’ll show you how you can plug an amp head into a combo amp below.

Can You Plug a Guitar Head Into a Combo Amp? 

You can plug a guitar head into a combo amp, allowing you to use the combo amp as a speaker. Keep in mind that this method can reduce sound quality, but it can help if you don’t have a spare speaker. Plug the amp head’s output into the combo amp’s input, then adjust the settings on the combo amp.

There are two easy ways to plug your amp head into your combo amp:

  • According to Pro Sound HQ, many combo amps let you unplug the back of the combo amp and plug it into an external source. Plug the input side of the jack into the amp head and leave the output side plugged into the combo amp. Reduce the volume on the amp head, then turn up the gain on the combo amp.
  • Plug an amp head into the main input on the combo amp. This method works around the combo amp’s head, allowing you to use the external head as the main amp. The combo amp only works as a speaker when you go through with this process. Don’t disconnect the combo amp from its speaker because it’ll prevent it from working.

Remember, all of the adjustments you make on the external amp head and the combo amp will impact the speaker. If you have too much volume on the head and lots of gain on the combo amp, you could blow out the speaker cones. Always start at low volume and gain before working your way up.

Are Combo Amps Worth It?

Combo amps are worth it for most guitarists because they’re easy to use and they don’t require too much equipment. You can use a combo amp with your at-home practice kit, then bring a head and a cabinet to your gigs. Combo amps are an excellent solution for many musicians around the world.

Check out these additional reasons combo amps are worth trying out:

  • Combo amps are more readily available than ever. You can get a combo amp at almost any music store, several websites (Amazon, Sweetwater, etc.), and on third-party apps. You can purchase and use a combo amp immediately, which allows ambitious musicians to start playing without needing more gear.
  • Most combo amps have come a long way in terms of quality and volume output. They used to have low-end speakers or constant rattling issues out of the box, but most of these problems have been remedied on newer combo amps. If you’re unsatisfied, you could always use some of the previously mentioned pedals.
  • Sweetwater suggests that combo amps are worth it because they’re great for grab-and-go musicians. You can pack your gear much faster than if you had to lug around an extra speaker, more cables, etc. Grab it, plug it in, and you’ll be good to go wherever you want to start jamming.
  • Beginners can get a cheap combo amp and practice guitar right away. Many manufacturers make combo amps a lot cheaper than getting an amp head with a separate speaker cabinet because the speaker is smaller and the amp usually isn’t the same quality. However, the difference is often negligible to a newbie.
  • A combo amp is easier to control and play at lower volumes if you live in apartments or with roommates. You can use the reduced speaker specifications to your advantage. Combo speakers don’t vibrate the floor and walls as much as large speaker cabinets.

I strongly recommend that every guitarist gets a combo amp at some point. Even if you don’t want to use it as your main amp, you can bring it with you almost anywhere. They work for long road trips with gigs, you can play them in your bedroom without taking up a lot of space, and more. They also let you learn your preferred genre before upgrading.

Final Thoughts

Combo amps are excellent for beginners and experts alike. They offer excellent portability without sacrificing sound quality. You might not get as much volume, but the compact size and durability make combo amps a go-to choice for many musicians.

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