The Ultimate Bass Guitar Amplifier Buyer’s Guide

The Ultimate Bass Guitar Amplifier Buyer’s Guide featured image

Our Bass Guitar Amplifier Buyers Guide

If you are looking to buy a bass guitar amp for church or for a beginner then this article will help you understand what to look for when you are doing your shopping. So let’s get started with the question. What is a bass guitar amp?

Bass Amplifier Definition:

A bass amplifier (“bass amp”) is an electrical device that is used mainly to amplify the sounds coming from the bass guitar so that they are loud enough for all the performers and all the audience to hear what is being played. They typically consist of a preamplifier, tone controls, a power amplifier and one or two loudspeakers (“drivers”) in a cabinet. There are particular challenges pertaining to bass amps because of the low-frequency sound reproduction they must accomplish. A bass amp differs from a regular guitar amplifier in several ways:

  • Speaker cabinets for bass amps generally have larger loudspeakers (15” as opposed to 10” or 12” used in a regular guitar amplifier) and/or more speakers and larger cabinets.
  • The loudspeakers must be sturdier to handle the high-power levels. They must be able to reproduce very low pitches at high sound pressure levels.
  • Their speaker cabinets are usually made of thicker wood and more heavy bracing.
  • The cabinets include tuned bass reflex ports or vents cut into them for increased efficiency in low frequencies and improved bass sound.
  • Due to the high-power demands of amplifying bass sounds, bass amps usually are designed with heat sinks and cooling fans.
  • Their preamplifiers have equalization controls that are designed for the deeper frequency range of the bass guitar.
  • Audio compression or limiter circuitry is installed to prevent overloading of the power amplifier and to protect the speakers from damage.

The combo amp is a common format for a bass amp. It consists of the amplifier electronics and one or more speakers in a single wooden cabinet. It works for small halls, churches, and auditoriums and is not too heavy to easily transport from place to place. These have been used since the 1920s. They range from small low-powered amps for practice to larger sizes which are great for rehearsals and small to mid-size venues.

For a huge stadium, there is the “bass stack” approach in which there are one or more speaker cabinets, each having one or more speakers and a separate “head” that contains the amplifier electronics. The “bass stack” produces much higher wattage and volume than could ever come from a combo amp.

image of a Fender bass ampTop Manufacturers of Bass Amps

Bass amps are used not just for loudness, but they employ their onboard electronics to achieve their preferred tone. There are quite a few manufacturers of bass amps and they all have their own signature features.

History of Bass Amps

A bass amp is a necessity for an electric bass guitar.

  • The first company to produce a line of bass amps was the Ampeg Bassamp Company founded in 1949 by Everett Hull. Ampeg bass amps were popular and widely used in the1950’s and 1960s.
  • The first bass amp by Ampeg was the Super 800, an18-watt model with a single 12” speaker and a rear ventilation port.
  • A 20-watt version with one 15” speaker was introduced in 1951.
  • The Fender Bassman was first produced in 1952 to accompany the Fender Precision Bass guitar. It was a 26-watt tube amplifier with only one 15” speaker.
  • The Bassman was redesigned in 1954, with four 10” speakers and open-backed design, but it had poor low-frequency efficiency due to lack of damping. This meant it was prone to causing speaker blowout. It was later, after several updates, used as an electric guitar amplifier rather than a bass amp.
  • The Ampeg b-15 Portaflex (1960) was a flip-top 25-watt tube bass amp with a 15” inch speaker that was used by studio bass guitarists such as James Jamerson and Carol Kaye. It lacked sufficient power, however, to be used in a stadium or large arena.
  • By the late 1960s, rock electric guitarists began using the Ampeg SVT (Super Vacuum Tube) for large venues. This was a 300-watt amplifier head powered by 14 vacuum tubes, designed to be used with an 8×10” speaker cabinet.
  • John Entwistle, the bass guitarist for The Who, was one of the first major bass players to use Marshall Stacks. These were twin stacks with experimental prototype 200-watt amplifiers. He also experimented with “bi-amplification” where the higher frequencies of the bass sound were divided from the lower frequencies and each frequency sent to separate amplifiers and speakers. This gave more tone control as each portion of the frequency range could be modified separately.
  • A different approach to bi-amplification was used in the Versatone Pan-O-Flex amplifier, that is it had separate amplifier sections for bass and treble but only one 12” speaker. The Versatone was used by Jack Casady and Carol Kaye.
  • Another bass amp of the era was the Vox T-60/AC-100 with two 15” cabinets and 30 – 42 watts of solid-state power using “germanium transistors”.
  • The Sunn Model T had four 12AX7WA tubes, followed by two 12AX7A tubes and powered by four 6L6GC tubes. (Used by The Moody Blues, Kiss, Queen and Rush, besides The Who).
  • A Kustom 200 bass amplifier from 1971 featured a separate amp head on top of a 2 x 15″ speaker cabinet.
  • In 1983 the Gallien-Krueger 800RB was introduced. It was a solid-state bass amp head that featured a loud, clean sound and was durably made. It introduced the aforementioned concept of bi-amplification as it sent 300 watts of low register sound to the bass speaker and 100 wats of higher frequencies to the tweeter. It used a preamp simulator circuit called “boost”.
  • Progress led to the Marshall JMP Super bass amp and Peavey’s Mark IV.
antique Ampeg bass amplifier

Antique Ampeg Bass Amp

Improvements to PA systems and monitor systems mean that bass players today no longer need gigantic, powerful bass amps to play stadiums and arenas. How is this possible? It is because higher-end bass amps usually have DI output jacks that can be patched into the audio snake cable and then plugged into the mainstage mixing board and amplified through the PA system or sound reinforcement system.

In many large venues today, the onstage sound now comes from in-ear monitors or monitor speakers, not from the instrument amplifiers. Although stacks of large speaker cabinets may sometimes still be used, they are mainly for visual effect.

In a small setting, the PA system may not be able to carry the lower frequencies produced by a bass guitar, so the players must be responsible for providing their own bass amp system.

In the 2000s, many new technological developments used in the bass amp have come on the scene. Look at these:

  • Lightweight neodymium magnets in some high-end cabinets make transporting it easier.
  • Lightweight, powerful Class Dampers in some combo amps and amp heads also facilitate transportation.
  • Digital effects units and modeling amplifier features enable the simulation of the sound of numerous well-known bass amps, including vintage ones. This means all sorts of fantastic and varied sounds can come forth without the musicians having to carry around loads of cumbersome instruments.
  • Speakon speaker jacks in addition to or in place of ¼” jacks are considered far safer and they reduce the risk of accidental disconnection.
  • One of the latest improvements is a USB or other computer input port to allow users to download new sounds and presets.

Types of Bass Amps

The type of bass amp that will work best for you depends on the setting where you will be playing, the style of music you will be playing and the sound that you desire.

  • Small practice amplifiers have low wattage and low volume which make them most suited to individual learning of basslines.
  • Combo amps are perfect for rehearsals, studio recording sessions or small performances. They combine preamplifier, tone controls, power amplifier and speaker(s) in a single cabinet.
  • Bass stacks are for larger venues such as stadiums and outdoor music festivals or for music genres that use a bass instrument with extended lower range and higher stage volumes, such as heavy metal, grunge, hardcore punk. It is easier for a bassist to customize different parts of a stack than with a combo amp.
  • Heads often called “amp heads”, are separate bass amplifiers which do not contain speakers. They have usually integrated units with a preamplifier, equalizer, and a power amplifier combined in a single unit. They are available in high-wattage power ratings not available in combo amps and are often used in large and outdoor venues.
  • Hybrids do not fit into the combo amp, standalone amp or separate speaker cabinet categories. For example, some bass amps have a removable amplifier which can act as a portable amp head for practice or for laying down bass tracks in a studio. Some have a small built-in speaker which can be used for practice. Additionally, there are powered speaker cabinets designed for use with bass instruments. They are designed to operate as a “slave” to another amplifier’s overpowered signal. Another unusual configuration is Ashdown’s B-Social combo amp or a “desktop amp”. It operates at 75-watts with two 5” speakers that provide stereo sound. It can connect to a computer, iPhone or iPad. How far bass amps have evolved in the 20th century until now!

Bass Guitar Effects Pedals

The sound of a bass amp, just as with any other amp, can also be modified by all sorts of effects pedal configurations. Pedals are exciting and can enhance any guitar with cool effects such as more/deeper volume, and a more sustained gain.

  • A Boost Pedal has tone, attack and sustain knobs that allow you to control different aspects of bass guitar’s sound.
  • Overdrive or Distortion Petals give a metal/punk sound.
  • An EQ Pedal balances bass and treble sounds and allows you to change frequencies.
  • Compressors even out the sounds you are playing so that you can set them to never go too high or too low.
  • The Wah-Wah Pedal fluctuates the frequency up and down as you play.
  • The Delay Pedal adjusts the delay time and frequency to achieve different sounds. It will repeat the notes that you played in an echo over time.
  • Lastly, Multi-Effects Pedals let you do lots of functions with one pedal but are preset so that you might not be able to customize them as you would like.
  • Various Peavey amps have built-in distortion effects.

Care of Your Bass Amp

One of the best things you can do to ensure reliable performance from your bass amplifier is to simply take care of it. Use a simple dust cover to protect your investment. Covering your amp helps prevent dust and other particulates from accumulating around ports and inside jacks. An amp cover can even help protect against minor liquid spills that could seriously damage your amp’s electronics. Basically, when you’re not playing with your amp, simply putting a cover on it is one of the best things you can do to ensure long-term reliability.

Conclusion:

Truly there are many options for plugging your bass directly into a sound system or recording device, but there is no substitute for the sound of a powerful bass amp pushing air with real speakers. For practice or rehearsal, it is the most convenient thing to plug into a great bass amp and start playing. The different types of bass amps are

  • Small practice amplifiers have low wattage and low volume which make them most suited to individual learning of basslines.
  • Combo amps are perfect for rehearsals, studio recording sessions or small performances. They combine preamplifier, tone controls, power amplifier and speaker(s) in a single cabinet.
  • Bass stacks are for larger venues such as stadiums and outdoor music festivals or for music genres that use a bass instrument with extended lower range and higher stage volumes, such as heavy metal, grunge, hardcore punk. It is easier for a bassist to customize different parts of a stack than with a combo amp.
  • Heads often called “amp heads”, are separate bass amplifiers which do not contain speakers. They have usually integrated units with a preamplifier, equalizer, and a power amplifier combined in a single unit. They are available in high-wattage power ratings not available in combo amps and are often used in large and outdoor venues.
  • Hybrids of all sorts are also sometimes used.

May I encourage you to shop around, listen and learn what you like best for the venues you play most often before making your choice of bass amplifier. Most assuredly, as you can see from the many brands, types, and options presented here, there will be one that is just what you need.

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Duke Taber has been a Senior Pastor of various churches since 1988. Prior to that, he was involved in the Christian rock scene opening for such notables as Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Rez Band, and once played briefly with Darrel Mansfield. Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.Currently he is serving as a Technology Consultant for Living Waters Fellowship in Mesquite Nevada