The guitar community has a major predisposition against anything made from plywood. If we can afford better, we don’t want our acoustic or electric guitars to be made from laminated woods, right? That thinking seems to carry over to the arena of combo and speaker cabinets, too, where the cab made from solid wood—commonly pine—is often considered king of the heap, tone-wise. But does a solidpine cab really deliver optimum sonic goodness in all situations?
Solid-pine combo cabs very likely earned their legendary status thanks to Fender’s use of the wood for its “tweed” models of the 1950s and Tolex-covered amps of the ’60s and ’70s. Gibson and other great makers of early American tube amps also frequently used solid pine, or sometimes other sturdy softwoods with comparable weight, strength, and density, and plenty of new makers follow suit. The sonic splendor of many of these amps themselves has contributed to the pine mystique: a tweed Bassman sounds phenomenal, and it has a pine cab—ipso facto pine cabs must sound phenomenal. That said, a great tweed amp in good condition would sound pretty stunning through any decent cab, so we need to isolate the construction of the speaker cab from the unquestioned glories of the amps that we play through them in order to come to some understanding of the former’s contribution to the tone.
The wood from which a cab is made plays a significant role in determining its sound, and a selection of cabs made to the same dimensions and loaded with the same speakers, but constructed from different types of wood, will all sound subtly different. Well-dried solid pine tends to contribute resonance, warmth, and a lightly furry edge to your tone, which can all be a part of that thick, juicy “tweed tone.” When such resonance works with the amp it can sound glorious, making your tone feel extremely tactile and alive. If, on the other hand, it works against it—producing unflattering resonant peaks—it might contribute to a slightly blurry or dissonant tone. Generally speaking, though, a wellbuilt pine cab typically sounds very good, but it’s a lively kind of good, with a lot going on and a tendency to throw itself in with the core sound of the speaker.
A good plywood cab, on the other hand, has plenty of desirable properties working for it, too. The best such cabs are generally made from 11-ply Baltic birch, which is dense, rigid, and has a good bending strength before breaking. The firmness of such cabs translates to a tight, clear, punchy tone—relatively speaking—which benefits clarity, articulation, and the ability to push the sound at you. Such cabs tend to deliver a more uncolored picture of the sound of the speaker itself, although they do toss their own resonance into the brew. Vintage Vox and Marshall cabs, to name just two, were made from Baltic birch ply, so this wood has long earned kudos in the tone stakes.
Cabinets made from poor or indifferent varieties of plywood, or from MDF or particleboard, can often sound somewhat dead or dull (although with the right speakers they might also surprise you). These are likely to be cheaper options, and while occasionally passable, they can make good comparative examples of how any cab is more than “just a box to hold the speakers,” and will likely sound a little inferior up against a quality pine or Baltic-birch cab.
Ultimately, though, solid-pine cabs aren’t inherently superior to high-quality plywood cabs: each just presents different characteristics, which can be selected to enhance the type of performance you seek from your amp and guitar. Be aware, too, that subtle or significant differences in other aspects of cab construction—the depth and overall dimensions, the stiffness of the speaker baffle and how it’s affixed, whether the cab is open- or closed-backed, or the way the whole box is put together—will often have as much affect on its sound as the wood that it’s made from.