This page may contain affiliate links. We make a small commission on purchases at no additional cost to you.

How To Use an Attenuator With a Combo Amp

Now that you have discovered how to tame a loud amp using an attenuator, you can safely crank up the gain without exceeding the volume limit. Even the procedure for installing an attenuator is simple – connect it between the amp head and the speaker, and you’re good to go.

But what if you don’t have separate units? Can you use an attenuator with a combo amp?

Even if the amp head and speaker are enclosed in one combo amp, you can still place the attenuator in between the amp’s speaker out, and the speaker’s in by unplugging the speaker from the amp and connecting the attenuator using a 1/4″ plug and a male-to-female extension cable if needed.

Nowadays, you can fix almost any digital device with patches and some adaptor; in the analog world, experience taught me that improvising saves the day. That practical experience is precisely what I’ll share here with you.

How To Use an Attenuator

Installing an attenuator is intuitive and follows a similar logic to connecting a pedal to the amp. Using it to get the best out of the amp is another thing – just like it’s not enough to add a pedal to your rig for it to sound great without turning the knobs.

If you ever find an overdrive pedal like that, you probably don’t need that attenuator anymore to get an excellent edge-of-breakup tone. I have written about how the amp’s overdrive and a pedal’s overdrive compare before, going into details about whether it’s worth being an amp-only purist.

First, make sure to pick a suitable attenuator for your amp. 

To tame a beast, you need an even more powerful one – if your amp’s output is 50 watts, the attenuator should be at least 100 watts. Roughly 2x your amp’s output is the criteria needed.

To connect an attenuator to a combo amp, follow these steps:

  1. Unplug the speaker from the amp if it has a detachable plug 
  2. Run the output of the amp to the input of the attenuator
  3. Plug the speaker into the speaker output of the attenuator.

No tools are involved, and nothing that can hurt your amp can go wrong.

Tips on using the attenuator 

All analog gear comes with some loss or alteration of the original signal. While an attenuator preserves the amp’s overdrive color – if you use too much, meaning you crank the main knob that tames the amp, the sound starts to suffer – In the same way as too much distortion kills the tone’s dynamics.

Use the attenuator at the bare minimum required and not anymore if you plan on recording or gigging with your tamed amp. If you can, add a footswitch to the attenuator to have the beast always under control and unleash it at will.

There’s a natural connection between speaker overdrive and loud volume, which no piece of great can replace. 

I had my first encounter with this when while playing for the first time in a large hall. My pristine clean tones started to break as if I had raised the volume knob, just from the speaker’s volume being pushed to the limit. 

The second time was when I started recording professionally in studios and understood how massive a loud amp sounds when recorded through a mic. Great rock players like Angus Young know how to let the amp do all the work and barely pick the strings harshly- even though it looks like they’re torturing their guitars.

I wrote a detailed guide on how an attenuator affects the amp and serves as a sort of external master volume with its pros and cons.

Help! The Speaker Cable is Too Short!

A pro tip is to use the shortest cable possible to avoid signal loss, feedback, and sometimes even weird squealing noises. Besides that, as guitar players, we already have enough cables to trip over, so another one, even if far from our feet, is unnecessary!  

If the speaker cable is too short, there’s no need to worry, as you can use a standard male-to-female extension cable to fix the problem. Also, It’s important to use only speaker cables, not instrument cables. They look similar but work differently. 

It would surprise you to know how much of my work as a studio musician relates to understanding cables and extensions. Knowing them is crucial; it makes a big difference if you want to make yourself more employable and have better relations with studio or live engineers.

Understanding the difference between an RCA and a TRS cable can save a gig! Sweetwater has a guide you should check out.

What if the Amp and Speakers Are Hardwired?

If the amp and speaker are hardwired, like in many modern amps, the principle remains the same but with some extra work with wires and soldering. 

To install an attenuator on a hardwired amp, follow these steps:

  1. Find and cut the connection between the amp and speaker.
  2. Connect a jack to the wire that goes from the amp into the attenuator’s input, and then connect the attenuator to the speaker using a ¼” female plug.

There’s not much soldering involved, yet keep in mind if you’re new to it that the positive is the tip, while the ground is the sleeve.

One YouTuber runs you through his finished work, suggesting a stylish homemade solution of putting an electrical box inside the chasse. It works and doesn’t involve having cables pop out of the speaker.

The main takeaway is that everything is amendable with the right knowledge and little expense if costly modern chips or vintage rare-to-find tubes are not involved. Even if you can’t get it right at first, anyone with experience with electrical devices can help install an attenuator after reading this article and going through some tutorials.

What you need to think through is whether you need an attenuator. I tried to answer this question in another article by comparing it in a fashionable way to a good ol’ overdrive pedal. If you decide it’s the right tool and worth the expense, installing it will be easy, whatever amp you have.