What Is a Guitar Amp Head? And Should You Get One?

Photo shows readers a guitar amp head

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With so many different guitars, amps, pedals, and other gear, it’s becoming challenging to find the right one for your needs. And all these things might get a little confusing for beginners or intermediate players.

But whatever it may be, don’t worry – everyone had these difficulties figuring things out about guitars and related gear. One of the most common issues comes down to so-called “amp heads” and the amp and cabinet formations. Since it causes some confusion, I will now do my best to clear things up and explain what is a guitar amp head.

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What is a guitar amp head?

Photo shows readers what guitar amp heads look like

Here you can see how guitar amp heads look like.

When someone mentions an amplifier, the first thing that comes to mind is the standard “combo” guitar amp. But where does this word “combo” come from? What does this have to do with amp heads?

These combo amplifiers come with all the essential components combined (thus the name “combo”) into one device. You have a preamp, power amp, and the speaker cabined together. All you have to do is plug in, turn the amp on, and rock.

But there’s another formation that’s pretty popular, especially among more experienced guitar players and professional performers. This formation includes a separate amp head and a passive cabinet.

An amp head is just a preamp and a power amp section without any speakers. It processes the signal and amplifies it before it goes into a speaker cabinet. We can find this same formation with some home stereo systems with a separate amplifier and passive speakers.

If you want to go deeper into this, there are even guitar preamps (usually in the form of somewhat larger floor pedals) and power amplifiers as two separate devices. It’s not a common formation, but there are some examples.

Just like combo amplifiers, amp heads can also be solid-state or tube-driven.

How does a guitar amp head work?

Well, to put it simply, amp heads work just like any other amplifiers, only without the speakers. As already explained, an amp had has a preamp section and a power amp section. The main tone-shaping process happens in the preamp section. Almost all of the knobs and controls that you see on the amp’s front panel are for the preamp section.

In almost all of the cases, preamps of amp heads (and combo amps) have at least two channels. These channels have their own separate controls for volume, sometimes even separate equalization (lows, mids, and highs). Each channel will give you a different tone, and they’re usually labeled as “clean” and “drive.”

In some cases, two channels might be identical, but they’ll allow you to create two completely different presets using their individual controls. Preamp sections can also come with some additional effects.

Meanwhile, the power amp section does all the “heavy lifting.” It amplifies the signal and gives it enough power before it goes into the speakers. It also makes its impact on the overall tone, especially if we’re talking about tube-driven amp heads. Master volume and presence are part of the power amp section.

Can you use an amp head without a cabinet

A simple answer – no, you cannot use an amp head without a cabinet(if you don’t know what a cabinet is, scroll down to find out!). In fact, there’s a high chance that you’ll damage your amp head if you turn it on without connecting it to a speaker cabinet. So that’s a no-go zone unless you really feel like wasting your money away. After all, you won’t be able to get any kind of sound, since an amp head has no speakers.

There are so-called “dummy load” devices that make your amp head work safely without a cabinet, but these are only for testing purposes.

The point is – any amp head must have some kind of a load connected to it. Speaker cabinets and amp heads come with a specified resistance. This is why you have ohmage specified on any amp head and a cabinet (labeled as “Ω”). It’s important to take care of impedance and to have cabinets and amp heads with matching ohmage.

There are also ways to connect multiple cabinets to one amp head, but this is a more advanced territory.

Should I get a combo amp or an amp head?

Well, it depends on what you really want. Combo amplifiers are simpler and more compact. Most often, you have two or one speakers within a combo guitar amplifier. There are actually many guitar amp models available both as amp head and combo versions.

Combo amps are usually a more practical solution. You just take everything with you in one device. Although they’re mostly associated with cheaper amps for beginners, there are many high-end combo amplifiers with great tone and features. But overall, combo amps are more widespread.

Although amp head and a cabinet formation might be a bit “bulky,” it opens up a few different possibilities. First, you can combine any type of an amp with any type of cabinet. In this sense, it’s more customizable. Just find the best speaker and amp combination that will suit your needs. In addition, different construction and cabinet material can also impact the tone.

In some cases, guitar players like to remove the back cover of the cabinet, which changes the overall tone.

Taking both an amp head and a separate cabinet to live gigs and rehearsals can be difficult. However, if you’re going to a rehearsal space or a club that has their own equipment, you can always just take your amp head and attach it to a suitable cabinet.

In short, combo amps are simpler, while amp heads and cabinets provide more versatility.

Guitar amp head recommendations

There are so many great amplifiers to choose from, and there are so many things to consider. First, if you’re looking for something that’s both reasonably-priced and that sounds good, go with Boss Katana-Head (if you click the name of the amp head you can check it out on Amazon). Although a solid-state amp, you can still get some great tones out of it. Line 6 also has Spider V head with its internal effects and amp modeling, although it’s a bit more expensive.

If you’re looking for great tube-driven amp heads, Marshall has some great stuff to offer. However, some of these are really expensive, and their JCM900 amp head can be somewhere around $2,500. If you’re looking for something tube-driven and more affordable, Orange DA15H Dark Terror is a good choice.

Bugera has some surprisingly great deals for the price, like their V55HD Infinium amp head. Although mostly vintage-oriented, it’s pretty versatile and comes in handy for any genre.

What is A Guitar Cabinet?

Photo helps readers to see how guitar amp heads and guitar cabinets look

Here you can see how guitar cabinets and amp heads look like.

A guitar cabinet is basically a wooden box with speakers in it. It has one or more input jacks. These can be used to either connect it to an amp head or to chain them together and make a bigger “stack.” However, for beginners and intermediate players, we advise that you stick to just one cabinet for now.

Speaker cabinets usually carry four speakers of the same size. These are usually 10-inches in diameter each, although there are other versions as well with 12-inch or other types of speakers. There are also cabinets with only two speakers, but they’re not as common.

Can you use a cabinet without an amp head?

Without an amp head, a speaker cabinet can only serve as a nightstand or just a pretty-looking decoration in your room. But all the jokes aside, we mentioned in the article that these are passive speakers. This means that they have no power source of their own and they require a power amplifier in order to work.

You can’t just plug in your guitar, pedals, preamps, or multi-effects processors and expect it to reproduce the sound. After all, aside from speakers, cabinets have just wires and a few other simple components.

To put it simply – an amp head without a cabinet or a cabinet without an amp head can’t do anything.

Guitar Cabinet recommendations

Of course, there are a lot of choices out there, but we’d mention a few good ones. Although they’re significantly cheaper than amp heads, there can be some pricy cabinets out there. For instance, we have Marshall’s classic 1960A, (if you click the name of the cabinet, you can check it out on Amazon) or the almost identical 1960B, which are over $1,000. Orange also has some high-end cabs, like their PPC412-C, and it can handle up to impressive 240 watts of output power.

If you’re looking into something more affordable level, then Marshall also has MG412AG. And if you need something smaller with only two speakers, then look no further than Boss’ Katana cab, which is the matching cabinet for their amp series of the same name. Or if you need just one speaker, Fender has their Super Champ SC112 which bears a single 12-inch Celestion driver.

When combining an amp head and a speaker cabinet, the possibilities are almost endless. There are only two things to think about – matching impedance and not exceeding the cabinet’s designated output power. Other than that, combine them as you please and find the tone that suits your needs (or budget).

Conclusion

In the end, as we already mentioned, it comes down to your personal choice. If you’re buying your first amp and are not feeling adventurous, then it’s the best idea to go with a simple solid-state combo amplifier. Tube amps are also an option, and they give more warmth and dynamic response to your tone. However, they’re way more expensive and require maintenance.

Using the amp and cabinet combination is more popular among experienced and professional guitarists. It’s versatile but it’s a more expensive option.

However, conventional amps are slowly becoming a thing of the past. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of some great digital amp modelers that do a really great job at replicating tube amps, speaker cabinets, and even specific microphones. They’re also expensive but bring a lot of stuff onto the table.

Here are a couple of other posts about amps that you might find helpful and interesting:

I hope that this post helped you out. If you have any questions, leave a comment down below. Feel free to share this post too.

I wish you all the best and keep rocking!

Teemu Suomala

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