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Evolution of Guitar Amps (Back to the Future Part 2)

by vaughn skow October 01, 2020 3 min read

Hi again fellow guitaraholics!  If you have not yet done so, you might want to begin by going back and reading last weeks blog on the evolution of guitar pickups, as it was kinda what sparked this idea.  While working on this young up and coming Nashville super-picker's Tele he asked a simple question I'd never heard before:  "What's the advantage of having a separate amp "head" with the electronics in it and a speaker cabinet with just speakers in it, versus just having it all in one combo amp?".  Pretty straight-forward question, right?  Let's talk about that!

So in the beginning of time (like the late 1040's and early 50's), pretty much all the musical instrument amps were small combo amps with a simple tube amp and a speaker or two housed in a simple pine cabinet.  Through the 50's and early 60's the amps got more complex, and then, in the 1960's we saw the first of the head-n-cabinet models come out.  Why?  Because folks were wanting more and more VOLUME out of their amps, rock and roll was getting LOUD!  By separating the amplifier from the speaker cabinet you accomplished three things: 1) You could make bigger speaker cabinets than ever before, that did not have the combined weight of both the amplifier and the speakers all together in one 125-pound package.  2) You had less chance of the sheer volume of the speakers rattling tubes loose and creating physical havoc on the electronics. 3) You could actually combine a number of speaker cabinets to a single head, making for some serious ability to move air, ie: be LOUD! Oh, and of course there was the side benefit of looking pretty darn impressive to the crowd!  And so, led by Jim Marshall and the amps that carried his name, the "stack" became almost the defacto standard for playing on a big stage.  As a direct result, singers rarely could hear themselves, and many aging guitar slingers have very bad backs today.

evolution of Guitar amps

So what about today?  Well, to say the small combo amp has made a comeback is an understatement!  Original teeny-tiny little vintage combos like Fender Champs, Princtons, and Deluxes are bringing top dollar, and all have been re-issued to great success.  In addition, many companies are making awesome sounding combo amps using various "new" technology to pack more and more bells and whistles into an unimaginably small package, again to great success.

Why, you may be asking, are we abandoning big amps?  Simple:  PA systems have gotten so good that we just don't NEED them anymore, and most pros are hearing themselves through in-ear monitors anyway, so getting a GREAT tone is all that matters ... not getting a LOUD tone!  Just put a mic in front of that fabulous sounding Princton and let 100,000-watts of insanely great sounding PA smartly disperse your excellent tone to the crowd.  Of course, many folks are taking it one step further and just ditching the amp all together and employing some manner of a direct rig to get their tone to the PA system.  Personally, I still like an actual amp, but there are TONS of circumstances where a direct rig can be VERY appropriate.  Next week, we'll discuss THAT option.  It's gonna be awesome, y'all come back now!

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