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Power attenuators have been around for decades in various forms, but with the proliferation of enterprising companies and the need to control the various scenarios mentioned above, they have never been as popular as they are today. As much as we love our 50- and 100-watt non-master volume amps, long gone is the need for this kind of power for the majority of us. PA systems have dramatically improved to the point where a 5-watt amp can keep up with the loudest drummer in arena settings and still be heard by all—the sound man was right! But aside from their ability to reduce the volume of higher wattage amps, many modern attenuators can serve us in ways that range from downright practical to creative tone shaping and beyond. This article will focus on some of the other creative uses of attenuators and will hopefully shine some new light on the “big volume knob” we know them as today.
Caution: High Voltage
Before even getting into the various uses of attenuators, it should be stated that tube amps carry lethal voltages and you shouldn’t go poking around your amp’s innards if you don’t know what you’re doing! Leave that to a qualified tech and save yourself to continue playing guitar another day. That said, this is not a technical article, and I won’t be asking you to take plate voltage readings or bias your amp, so let’s move on!
The Power and the Glory
Sometimes attenuators get a bad reputation for blowing up amps. There may have been some questionable designs in the past that put amps at risk, but these days there are a lot of great choices available that are safe to use. While I personally have never blown an amp while using an attenuator, I do know that if you dime your amp, any parts that are stressed are going to be exposed. And most of us running attenuators are using them because we like the tone of the amp full up, or close to that. Before you fear the attenuator will blow the output transformer on your favorite vintage amp, it might be wise to take it to a qualified tech and have it tuned up. What you may have thought of as a solid and safe amp (because you run an overdrive pedal in front of it with the volume on 3) could be teetering on the edge of destruction if you ramp it up. How are the tubes and tube sockets? What about the filter caps (especially on vintage amps)? Is it properly biased? So many things need to be right when you run an amp full out, just like a car in the Indy 500. And don’t let anyone tell you that vintage Marshalls, Hiwatts and the like weren’t designed to be run on 10. They were, and players have been using them that way for decades! Besides, even at a volume of 6, 7 or 8, you’re dealing with some serious power, so take care of your amp and know its running order before plugging it into an attenuator, or a speaker cabinet for that matter.