Guitar Tone: Good Distortion -vs- Bad Distortion

We know that the speakers are responsible for providing more of our tone than we initially thought, and that volume and wattage are not the same. We can begin our discussion on what to listen for in a speaker, what do we need to get out of it, and finally what is good distortion, and bad distortion.

Let’s start out with the understanding that a good guitar tone is subjective and what I might consider the Holy Grail tone might not do it for another player, but understand that all tones good and bad have a purpose and a place and you should know how to achieve the tone you’re looking for.

To do this you need to be realistic about your needs and your function. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How loud do I need to be before the speaker starts to breaking up?
  2. What kind of low end response do I need to achieve?
  3. How smooth do I need the speaker to be?

This is a very important thing to know about your gear, because this could help you determine if your speakers are efficient enough for your needs or are your speakers to efficient and you have to turn up to loud to get the tone you want.

Keep in mind that all amplifiers and speakers distort, but knowing when that happens is the trick to getting your tone.

Let’s say you have a 20 watt tube amplifier that breaks-up to fast, and you wished it could stay cleaner at a higher volume, is that the amps fault? Do you need more wattage?

No. It’s the speaker. Before you run out and spend more money than you have too, try changing the speaker first.

But which one is the right choice? What specs should you be looking for?

Tip #1
Power rating does not always determine the amount of break-up.  Break-up is mostly influenced by the cone. Break-up occurs quicker in a thinner, lighter-weight cone, but some speakers have a heavier cone which produces a slower break up.

What you need to compare is the sensitivity or SPL ratings. 
(SPL stands for Sound Pressure Level. It basically relates to how much acoustic energy is in the sound that you hear. SPL is measured in decibels or dB)

Guitar speakers typically achieve 98dB-103dB measured at 1 watt-1 meter. Potentially, 30 watts will achieve 117dB of output on a speaker that has a sensitivity of 98dB (3dB increase for every doubling of power) 

A higher power rating typically means a larger voice coil.  Speakers with a larger voice coil tend to provide a more pronounced low end with less top end extension. But there are other factors to consider.

Tip #2
Alnico –vs- Ceramic magnets, each of course have different magnetic properties and cost. 

Alnico is a composite of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, and is more expensive.  Alnico is commonly thought to produce “The Vintage Tone”  and has a reputation for sounding compressed. 

Ceramic is cheaper and the most common used material.  If you are comparing speakers that have the same magnetic flux, but generated from different magnet compositions. You probably won't notice a difference in tonality. 

Neodymium seems to be the wave of the future, especially with the reduced weight and overall costs declining.  Neo produces the most magnetic flux per ounce, making it ideal for use in multiple speaker cabinets to maintain performance while reducing handling and overall weight.  The Future is here… Bigger magnets lend more efficiency, which translates to more output at a given power.

One other thing to consider when picking out a speaker is the dust cap. What does it do?

The differences in size, shape, weight and the material of the dust cap significantly affect the top end.  A small, conical cap can give you a little more sizzle on the top end, but a felt material produces a smoother top end. 

This information alone can help define your search and keep you from buying multiple speakers till you find the right one. If your desire is to clean up and/or smooth out the tone of your combo amp, a higher wattage speaker may be exactly what you need.  

That’s it for now but stay tuned because next time we will cover the other end of the spectrum and discuss adding distortion, and low end to a high gain amplifier. Is your speaker producing what the amp can produce?


Tony J. Pasko

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