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So, you have a guitar and/or a bass and are wondering which route to go down? You have heard some of your idols use a bass amp with a guitar or a guitar amp with bass and thought you would follow in their footsteps (though not before checking out the do’s and do not’s from a reputable online resource on the subject)?
Well, you are in the right place, as today we will be elucidating for you the 4 main differences between a bass amp vs guitar amp, those being: size, wattage, frequency, and range.
Some Speaker Cabinet History
The amplifier as we know it today, whether that be the bass amp vs guitar amp, we properly conceived by none other than Leo Fender, right after he had released into the world his first run of affordable instruments. This was something that many other companies had attempted to do beforehand with limited success.
And, since Fender himself was an engineer and not a musician, he knew about speaker configuration and the like, and knew precisely what he needed to do and to bring to the task. Incensed in this way, he invented the Fender Bassman, now a legend amongst amplifiers not least for being one of the first, but for being one of the only truly reliable and reliably loud amplifiers available at the time, thanks in no small part to the valve amp circuit installed within, with a difference.
Interesting enough, there was no real difference to what you could plug into it, and it was used in equal parts by bass and guitar, as well as harmonica, lap steel, and vocals, to name just a few.
One of these Bassman amps found its way to Jim Marshall across the pond, who decided to craft one of his own in reply to the complaints of some of the customers to his legendary music shop in Hanwell.
One of his most influential decisions was to separate the head and the cabinet parts of the amplifier, for transport purposes, though this was to have a far-reaching symbolic effect on the relationship between the guitar and bass, forever separating them ideologically into at least two separate units. Guitar amps became guitar amps, and bass amps became bass amps, and very rarely did they ever again meet in the middle.
So, with the seminal divide between bass and guitar amps came their growing apart into separate entities. Where once each would have sounded similarly through one piece, playing guitar through a bass amp is all but frowned upon and likewise for playing bass through most guitar amps. Though there are a handful of mavericks who choose not to see the difference between bass amp and guitar amp, this is the predominant state of things. Whenever I play bass in my own band, I play it alongside another bass player, and thus play through a regular guitar amp to avoid too many mixed low frequency sounds that do not sound good, though I am aware this is an unpopular course of action, similar to asking oneself: Can I use an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar amp?
One of the first and most obvious difference between bass and guitar amp is the sheer size. Even in combo bass amps where the head and the bass cabinet are combined into one unit, the entire thing and most bass amps will be considerably larger than the average guitar amp.
The simple reason is that it is a matter of low frequencies. Larger bass amp speakers are needed to sound out those low notes. Most guitar amplifiers simply are not going to need to play notes so low, and so their speaker size will be comparative smaller. All of this will affect the overall size of the amp, with bass cabinets sometimes reaching gargantuan sizes in comparison with their guitar signal brethren.
The guitar amp vs bass amp debate in terms of size is thus a non argument, for the size of the latter is almost always going to best that of the former, simply for want of those low frequencies sounding out as they should. So, as far as the more obvious and surface level noticeable difference between a bass amp and a guitar amp goes, the size is certainly going to factor in through the eyes of a beholder not so accustomed to electronics and the like.
Directly related to this is the wattage that both guitar amps and bass amps require to get up and running.
Guitar amps typically run at 100 watts or less. Anything more than this is simply unnecessary in this day and age, where even at gigs the guitar amp’s speakers are mic’d up by a sound guy and fed through the PA so that they can better control where exactly all of the frequencies are going. Try playing at a venue with a 100 watt and turning it up beyond 1 or 2, I double dare ya!
I have been toying with purchasing a Fender Twin Reverb for many years now, and whenever I bring up the idea to my bandmates they always trot out the same vitriol about how those amps are simply too heavy, and that they are so loud as to be almost useless. And I hate to admit it here and now, but they are not wrong.
Bass guitar amplifiers, by contrast, have a considerably higher wattage across the board, more or less to emit consistently the lower frequencies which are an integral part of the bass’ frequency range. In comparison the guitar amp, the bass amp will operate anywhere between 150 watts to 500 watts, with some more extreme examples of bass amplifiers even using 700 watts!
These kinds of figures might have been necessary in bygone days of festival going, where people were happy to have their ears pulverized by bass frequencies, but ironically now that modern life is about as loud this is no longer the case.
Seeing as the bass guitar and the electric guitar look incredibly similar, likely the defining difference between a bass and a guitar is the frequencies at which they operate, and thus the overall differences in pitch, note and tone that they will produce in conjunction with their bass amplifiers and guitar amplifier respectively.
Funnily enough, this also has everything to do with their individual and respective wattage requirement. The defining difference between the bass signal and the guitar sound is in the frequency. For the former, there are lower frequencies – bass frequencies – which fall far further down on the frequency range and produce a far warmer tone as a result. Bass is a frequency that is felt more than heard, something that many bass amps take into account, the direct opposite of a ukulele through a ukulele pickup.
Guitar speakers on guitar amps, on the other hand, are conduits for comparatively higher pitched notes. You have surely heard a guitar, whether fed through a guitar amp or not, you surely ought to have heard the difference between the pitch and frequency range of that and a bass guitar. Since these frequencies are higher and thus have shorter wavelengths, they genuinely require less power in order to sound aloud properly, tying in perfectly with the respective wattage requirements of guitar and bass amps.
There is thus an ingrained apartheid between these two poles of the guitar, bass amps needing more power to fuel longer wavelengths across the finish line, and an amp and a guitar needing less power to fuel shorter wavelengths in the same fashion.
So, as already discussed and elucidated above, the bass guitar exudes lower frequencies which, in turn, result in longer wavelengths. And the same is true for the higher frequencies of the guitar, which produce shorter wavelengths. And while we have also discussed the effect this can have on the wattage requirements of the respective guitar and bass amp, it can also have an effect in turn on the frequency range.
Since the divide between dedicated bass amp and dedicated guitar amp, there has also been a divide in the frequency range that each can offer. On average, bass amps tend will have a range of 30 Hz to 400 Hz, whereas the range of a guitar amplifier will be from 80 Hz to 1.2 kHz. It should be easy to see that the former’s range is far smaller than the latter.
This has everything to do with the kinds of things that bass guitar amps are being asked to do in comparison with a guitar amplifier. The former will be dealing with those low frequencies that are essentially unchanging, whereas the latter will be more often asked to cater for different palettes of sound, from an acoustic guitar amplifier to an electric guitar to all manner else, and might even be called upon to sound out guitar pedals.
All of this can have a bearing upon the requirements of the amplifier, the parts within that attempt to make the sound without.
So, there you have it! Hopefully you are now feeling somewhat the wiser about these 4 key differences between bass amp vs guitar amp, and are thus feeling better equipped to discuss these things with others out in the big wide world or to go ahead and do some more research of your own, safe in the knowledge that you have far more of an idea of what you are reading about!
FAQs Bass Amp vs Guitar Amp
In terms of what they do to the eventual signal, yes. In fact, at a certain point there was not much if any difference between a bass amp and a guitar amp, though with the advent of the Marshall amplifiers and the split between amp head and cabinet, the respective roles of these two things led to the separation of bass from guitar and guitar from bass, with separate amplifiers being manufactured for each of these separate instruments as they were called upon to do separate things.
Indeed they can, and they quite often are so that a guitarist can call upon more of those lower bass frequencies in their tone. This is particularly useful if the band is without a bassist. The guitarist / frontman in a local band I know called Belk feeds his guitar through a guitar amp and a bass amp simultaneously to get the full power that one might were there a bassist around.
Yes you can, and certain musicians have made a whole career out of such antics. One of the more notable examples would be Lemmy from Motorhead sending his Rickenbacker bass through a tall Marshall stack, though there are plenty of others. Even I am inclined to do the same. There is one song in out setlist where both I and our bassist are playing bass at the same time, and so to avoid an undesirable over blend of low frequencies, I feed my bass through a guitar amp with effects, all of which produces a delicious effect. This should not become too much of a habit though.
In essence no, though there are a number of things that separate them in reality. They originally stemmed from the same point of origin, but nowadays a bass amp, owing to the lower frequencies fed into it, is going to require more wattage and more power. This is because these lower frequencies have longer wavelengths which thus need more power in order to be sounded out properly, whereas a guitar will have a comparatively higher frequency output and thus shorter wavelengths (which in turn need less power to sound aloud properly).