I hear people ask all the time about making their tone better, and sometimes it can be as easy as a speaker upgrade. Today we go over all of the advantages, and take a step by step look at how to install your new speaker.
Is It Time For A Speaker Upgrade?
It seems like I hear it all the time. Guitarists are obsessed with tone, and dialing in something unique. We are all tone chasers to a certain extent. This is why we buy so many different pieces of gear to try and achieve a different sound that really stands out from other guitarists. Some people buy multiple amplifiers, and that can get really expensive rather quickly.
Other people may try out something new with effects and pedals. I have friends that are constantly changing out the pedals on their pedalboard in an attempt to get new sounds. Some guitarists go the digital route and start adding in stuff like the Helix or the HX Stomp to their rig to try and spice things up. I have one friend that has gone completely digital, and then went back to standard amps after a year or two, and then back to digital!
I’m guilty of doing this kind of thing as well. I think every guitarist goes through changes at some point in their journey. We see famous guitarists do this all the time. They switch pedals, guitar brands, amplifiers, and all sorts of other gear in an attempt to refine their tone. Now most of us are not famous, and don’t have the luxury of changing our entire rig on a whim. That kind of stuff can take thousands of dollars!
This is why we have entire forums dedicated to budget options for changing your tone. Pickups are usually the first thing that guitarists look at changing when they want a new sound. This makes sense, because your pickups are capturing the vibration of the guitar strings, and turning it into sound via amplification. Pickups can be a great affordable option for changing your tone. There is another component that often eludes most guitarists…speakers!
Now some guitarists will start by changing out tubes, but much like the “tone wood” argument, I don’t think that tubes have a big impact on your sound. At least it hasn’t made a difference in my 25 years of experience. Different tubes can have subtle effects on the way your amp responds, but it won’t completely change your amp’s sound. Tubes actually have little effect on the overall tone, unfortunately.
But what if I told you that a simple speaker upgrade could totally change your sound? Changing the speaker in your combo amp or cabinet can have a huge effect on your overall sound, and can be an affordable option. Pickups can change your sound, for sure. But I feel like guitarists sometimes overlook just how incredibly important the speaker is when it comes to your overall tone. Today, we are going through the basics of doing a speaker upgrade, and see if it would benefit you!
We also have an easy step by step guide to changing out your speakers. This is probably a much easier project than you think, and can be done at home with some simple tools! So why don’t we take a look at the benefits, and then we can do a full walkthrough of how easy it is to do your own speaker upgrade.
Do I NEED A Speaker Upgrade?
This is a great place to start, right? I mean, you might not even need a speaker upgrade at all when it comes down to it. If you have a fantastic name brand cabinet with Celestion speakers, then maybe you don’t need to change anything. On the other hand, you may have those vintage Celestion speakers and not like the tone they have at all. That’s the cool thing about being a guitar player, there is a pile of gear out there to choose from. Celestion alone has dozens of speaker options!
So maybe you already have a great setup that just needs a change. Your setup might have some legendary speakers that just don’t cut it. Personally, there are a lot of popular speakers that artists mention using that I am not a fan of. Just because these speakers sound good to everyone else, doesn’t mean that they sound good to me. Some popular options sound bland to me, even though they are expensive speakers!
But the other side of that coin, some guitarists that may have a nice amplifier but the speaker cab might suck. You might even have a combo amp that came with a generic speaker and you know the amp can sound better. Most 1×12 combo amps can probably use a speaker upgrade. Those stock speakers are sometimes “not so great” or just middle of the road. I’ve had lots of amps that I knew would sound better with a different cabinet, or speaker.
Then there are some amps that absolutely do no not need a speaker upgrade, and we should talk about those for sure. If you have a modeling amp, like a Fender GTX or a BOSS Katana, then a speaker upgrade may be a bad idea. You’re probably wondering why I say that, since these are obviously “middle of the road” speakers. But in the BOSS Katana’s case, the speaker was designed for the amp’s modeling technology.
I have seen a lot of videos about doing a speaker upgrade on a BOSS Katana, and I saw that a few of those experiences actually ended up sounding bad! This is because that speaker was designed to work with BOSS modeling tech. The same can go for FRFR speaker set ups. These have already been upgraded and optimized to work with the modeling tech. Experiment with these if you want, but it may be a fruitless endeavor in the end. Most modeling speakers are “tuned” to deal with modeling tones specifically.
But with that out of the way, if you have a cabinet or combo amp that doesn’t use modeling technology, a speaker upgrade can change your whole rig’s sound. I mean it can drastically change the sound! A speaker upgrade can change the volume of your amp, as well as the tone and frequency response. Lots of guitarists go out and buy new guitars, pedals, and new amps chasing a sound. When really, the answer may be a simple speaker upgrade!
Which speaker is going to be right for you? That is going to be a separate article, and we will talk about different speaker types and what they do to change the sound, as well as the qualities of different speakers. But maybe you already have a brand of speaker upgrade in mind. Maybe you already have the exact speaker picked out and ready to go. Speakers are unique, because they will all sound different depending on the amp.
So let’s assume you are ready to go, and dive into the logistics of a speaker upgrade!
Speaker Upgrades: The Basics
Ok, so maybe you are thinking that a speaker upgrade might be a great idea at this point. There are a few things you need to know before you start shopping for new speakers. For the most part, there are not any rules when it comes to which speakers to use when it comes to tones. Different speakers are made to produce different sounds, but there is no rule here. If you like the sound of a “heavy metal” geared speaker in your blues guitar rig, that’s ok! The names and speaker descriptions are just there as a basic guideline.
But there are some important things to keep in mind when you start shopping for your new speaker. You want to make sure that you buy the correct speaker for your amp or cabinet. These rules should be followed no matter what type of amp you play. If you have a tube amp, the rules are going to be the same as a solid state amp. You risk some serious problems if you don’t pay attention to these guidelines. I have unfortunately seen some guitarists ruin their rigs by not paying attention to the fundamentals. Let’s take a look:
POWER: Power is the very first thing you need to consider when choosing a new speaker. Your speaker needs to at least have the power rating that matches your amplifier’s wattage. So if you have a 40 watt amp, the speaker upgrade needs to be at least rated for 40 watts. As a good rule of thumb, I like to go a little bit over if possible. For example, I had a 40 watt Blackstar that I gigged with. I had a speaker that was rated higher. You can damage your new speaker if it is rated lower than your wattage.
But what about if you have a 2×12, or a 4×12 cabinet for your guitar amp? Or maybe your combo amp has a stereo 2×12 setup. When choosing a speaker upgrade for these setups, the rule is: The minimum speaker power rating is half that of the amp for a 2×12 speaker combo, and for a 4×12 cabinet it will be a quarter of the amp’s maximum power output.
So POWER is something to keep in mind when shopping for a new speaker. You don’t want to get a 30 watt speaker for a 50 watt combo. Yes, it may work for a little while. But you could easily blow the speaker by accident, or any of a dozen different other things could occur that will blow the speaker. So it is always a good idea to follow power ratings, even if some guitarists may tell you differently.
IMPEDANCE: The impedance rating is just as important for choosing a speaker upgrade as the power rating. While the wrong power rating may blow your speakers, the wrong impedance may blow your amp. Which is a much bigger problem if you are playing a nice tube amp. I have seen a lot of guitarists destroy some really nice amps by not checking the impedance first. So what is the impedance rating, and what does it mean?
Impedance is the resistance of the electric circuit, and your amp’s power section is in direct connection with the passive speakers. Impedance is measured in ohms. The impedance is usually 8 or 16 ohms for guitar speakers, and you can usually find this info on the speaker or the cabinet itself. Look for the ohm symbol Ω on the speaker. Your speaker upgrade impedance should be the same as the original speaker that you are replacing.
(Some vintage speakers may be rated for 15Ω, which may seem weird, but it is okay to use 16Ω in this case.)
SAFETY: Changing out your speaker shouldn’t be a very hard job in most cases. Guitar cabinets, and combo amps are usually designed to be easily switched out just by unscrewing the speaker, and disconnecting two wires. Safety comes first though, especially guitar amps that are tube/valve powered. A tube amp could still have current running through it, and can be deadly. So always make sure the amp is unplugged, and the tubes are cold since they can hold voltage even if it is unplugged.
If it sounds like I’m being over-cautious, then it’s because I am! Safety is super important when dealing with electricity in any case. When changing the speakers on a tube amp combo, I always do it after the amp has been unplugged overnight. I would rather be safe than sorry, though. There is a lot of power going through a guitar amp, so be careful!
(Always turn off and unplug your amp overnight before changing the speakers)
Performing Your Speaker Upgrade: Step By Step
Doing a speaker upgrade is something that can be easily done at home, and it can be super easy. The important part is to familiarized yourself with the combo amp or cabinet that you will be working on. Most speakers and cabinets use regular Phillips screw heads, but others may use hex bolts. Different manufacturers use different materials, so take a look before you grab your tools.
Tools You May Need Depending On Your Speaker Upgrade Type:
- 1. The combo amplifier/cabinet you’ll be working on and the speaker upgrade(s) you’re going to load into it.
- 2. A screwdriver to remove the back panel of the combo/cabinet.
- 3. The appropriate tool for the speaker bolts, for example a multi-wrench, Allen key or screwdriver. Check First!
- 4. Pen and paper for making a note of the existing wiring connections or camera/phone.
- 5. Pliers and electrical tape.
- 6. Wire cutters/strippers and soldering equipment (required for speakers with a ‘solder only’ tag panel)
PREP: The first thing you want to do, is see how the speaker is mounted and connected. If you need to take the chassis of the amp apart, then take it to a tech, please. Some combo amps will require complete disassembly and that is a job for a tech. You could break your amp if you don’t know what you’re doing.
There are also two different types of wire connections. There is the easy “clip style” where the wires have a harness clip. But there is also the kind that needs to be soldered. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, take it to a tech! Most speakers will be marked with a “Solder Only” tag if they cannot be used with a wire harness or “clip type” of system.
Luckily, most modern amplifiers and cabinets have the clip style wire connectors. So after you have unplugged the amp, or disconnected the amp head, its time to remove the speaker. Again, safety first if you are using a tube amplifier. Let it cool down, and unplug the amp overnight. If you feel at all freaked out about doing this yourself, take it to a tech. There is nothing wrong with asking a tech to do this for you, since it is their job!
Some combos and cabinets may be a “closed back” design, and if this is the case you will need to take the backing off first. The backing is usually held on with a few screws and bolts. I like to have a plastic sandwich bag to put the screws/nuts/bolts in, or you can use a plastic cup. This will be a lot easier down the road when its time to put everything back together!
STEP 1: Once you have taken all of the safety precautions, its time to get the old speaker out. Before I even take out the old speaker, I take a picture with my phone of the old speaker. That way you know which wires go to each terminal. There’s always going to be two wires, but some use red and black, while other companies use other colors. If you don’t have your phone or camera, just draw a picture! If it is a 4×12 cabinet, definitely take note of how everything is wired up.
STEP 2: Time to disconnect the wires! Once you have everything disconnected, unscrew the speaker from the housing. The speaker may be a little stuck to the baffle/molding, so be careful. You don’t want to mess up the cone or the magnet of the speaker. If it feels like its stuck, wiggle it back and forth and make sure that all of the screws are out. Once you have the speaker out, put it to the side with the cone up. Save the old speaker, since it could be used later as a speaker upgrade for another amp!
STEP 3: Time to get the new speaker inside the cab/housing. Be super careful when putting the new speaker in, you don’t want to damage the cone of the speaker upgrade before you get it in! Line up the screw holes with the ones in the housing, and go ahead and hand tighten the screws into each hole. Don’t go too tight with these screws, you want them right past “hand tight” with the screwdriver. It is super easy to bend the metal part of the speaker if you over tighten the screws. This can tear the speaker cone!
Once the speaker upgrade is mounted in its housing, you can take a look at your reference photo for the wiring. Make sure to reconnect everything the same way it was before. Crossing the wires would mean you have to start all of this over again, so make sure everything is right! Once everything has been reconnected properly, you can put the back panel back on if it has one. Everything is ready to go!
Speaker Upgrade: Breaking In And Wrapping Up!
Time To Wrap This Up: Alright, so you have everything put back together, and ready to go. You can now hook everything back up, because it is time to test out your speaker upgrade! Turn your amp’s main volume down to a really low level. The volume should be just loud enough to hear, but be able to talk over. You don’t want to crank the amp just in case there was something you missed during the installation.
Once you have the amp on, play for a little while. make sure there aren’t any pops or crackles in the sound. If there is, then there is something wrong with your connection and you need to go back through the steps to troubleshoot your speaker upgrade. But just play for a little while at low volume to make sure everything is working properly. If it is, then congrats to you!
Breaking In The Speaker: A lot of people will tell you dozens of different ways to break in your speaker. I recommend spending a day just playing at low volumes like you would use for solo practice. The next day, its time to crank it up. Use the channel volume and master volume to make the amp as loud as you can get it. I like to turn up the bass on the clean channel and chug. Play big chords, and try to be percussive to get that new speaker moving.
The third day, I like to use the overdrive/distortion channel at a loud volume. Again, I think you should chug, and play with a lot of bass frequencies to get the speakers pushing air. This gets the cone of the speaker really moving, and makes it flex back and forth. This will get the speaker broken in a little bit, but I think it takes a while to really break in properly. The best way to do this is to play! The more shows you play, and the more you practice with the new speaker upgrade, the better it will break in.
Doing a speaker upgrade is usually overlooked by guitarists, and hopefully you can see how easy it is to experiment with your sound. I think doing a speaker upgrade is just as important as the pedals or pickups that you use. So if you are wanting to experiment with your sound, this is the best place to start. It is easy, and it can honestly change your entire perspective.
Is it easy to do a speaker upgrade on my guitar amp?
It can be very easy to do, and it can change the entire sound of your rig. Most combo amps make it easy to change the speaker. cabinets can be just as easy if you follow the simple steps.
How much does a speaker upgrade cost for my guitar amp?
New speakers for your guitar amp can be pretty inexpensive. Name brand speakers start at about $60 and can go all the way up to several hundred. But good tone can be affordable!