After writing 25 Secret Ways to Get the Guitar Tone of Your Dreams for Gibson I had initially thought I’d said all there was to say.

Ha! Foolish thinking on my part. There’s always something more to say.

Lately, in particular, I have been contemplating some of the other considerations regarding speaker choices — factors that I didn’t have space to go into in depth in the original Tone Tips: Speaker Swapping — so it’s worth passing these thoughts along in the first of the continued series that we will occasionally roll out to you.

While our previous discussion of speakers covered the topic pretty thoroughly, it occurs to me that it’s particularly worth revisiting the issues of efficiency (sensitivity) and tone. A lot is written about how you can make an amp louder, and perhaps render a small amp gig-worthy where it just couldn’t cut it before, simply by swapping an inefficient speaker for a more sensitive one. That’s certainly true; changing a speaker with a 95 dB rating for one with a 100 dB rating can sound like you’re suddenly using a much more powerful amp. Sometimes, however, you want to go the other way, so let’s look at it from that perspective. (Note that a speaker’s “sensitivity” or “efficiency” rating indicates the decibel level the speaker will achieve when measured at one meter from the cone with a signal input of one watt).

These days, as regards guitar amplifiers, there’s a much greater consciousness of stage volume than ever before, and a general move toward acquiring great tone at suitable volume levels, rather than using a huge amp that only sounds its best when you get it cranked up way to loud for the gig, and blow everyone’s hearing to shreds in the process. With this in mind, let’s consider that, as well as using a more efficient speaker to make a small amp louder, you can use a less efficient speaker to make a great but too-loud amp less loud. In essence, you make your speaker choice work something like an attenuator. The trick is, you still want good all-round tone, and choosing a speaker according to its sensitivity rating can limit you somewhat in that respect. Of course, swapping in a new speaker is always a little bit of a crapshoot anyway if you don’t have the privilege of trying it with your own amp before buying it. But by reading the reviews, checking out the speakers your guitar-playing pals and band mates are using, and always keeping an eye peeled for the well-regarded speakers that carry slightly lower specs for efficiency, you can at least narrow down your selection.

Many vintage Jensen speakers typically have lower sensitivity ratings, and some of the new ones in the Italian-made Jensen Vintage Reissue series follow suit. The reissue alnico P12R and P12Q are both rated at 95 dB, which is fairly inefficient by today’s standards, and their ceramic counterparts the C12R and C12Q are even lower, at 93.8 dB and 94.6  dB respectively (consider these against the 98.4 dB rating of the P12N and C12N). Also, the new Jensen Jet Tornado neodymium-magnet speaker has a good all-purpose tone with plenty of warmth and roundness, and rates at 97.3 dB, while handling 100 watts of power. The Indiana-based speaker manufacture Weber Speakers also makes a number of good reproductions of vintage US-made speakers, and although they don’t publish their sensitivity figures, I know many of them fall in line with the lower ratings of the originals.

Celestion is perhaps best known for two great-sounding, classic high-efficiency speakers, the Alnico Blue and G12H-30, both rated at 100 dB, and if you like that tone you might just have to make do with a loud amp. But the British company does have a range of great, if different, sounding drivers with lower ratings. The legendary G12M Greenback comes in at 98 dB in the Chinese-made Classic Series and a mellower (and more authentic) 96 dB in the English-made Heritage Series. It’s a fantastic rock lead and rhythm speaker and an undeniable classic, although it doesn’t have the firm lows or snappy high-end twang that some players also need in a guitar driver, and it handles only 25 watts. The Heritage G12-65, however, offers much of the Greenback’s sweet midrange grind, but has a fuller bass response, clear, sweet highs, and handles 65 watts with an efficiency rating of 97 dB (original examples from the early ’80s are also often readily available on the used market, frequently offered up by players breaking up the big old 4x12 cabs the came in).

Note that the big American speaker maker Eminence makes some excellent sounding units these days, in their Legend, Patriot, and Red Coat series, although they are usually aiming for higher sensitivity specs than the speakers I have focused on so far. I do find, however, that some of them don’t sound quite as loud as their three-figure ratings might imply. The great Red Fang alnico speaker is spec’d at a whopping 103 dB, for example, but it sounded no louder than other 98-100 dB speakers I tested it against, so something like their 98.8 dB Legend 1218 or 99 dB Texas Heat might not be quite as blasting as you would expect.

Overall, you still need to select your speaker with tonal considerations at the top of your list. But if the driver sounds right to you and also drops your output down just a little, ideally allowing you to play right in the sweet spot without the sound guy and your band mates constantly shouting at you to turn it down, that’s a double bonus in my book.