It can be confusing getting into the whole world of guitar and bass kit – the knobs, dials, and sheer variety of choice can make for a very confusing experience. There is however one simple distinction that can safely be made between amps, and that is between guitar and bass amps.
First of all, purely in terms of the sounds they produce, guitar and bass amps are totally different and are certainly not considered to be the same thing by guitarists.
That’s not to say that reverse coupling is necessarily a bad thing, just that you must be careful and be aware that each type of amp is made for very specific reasons.
It’s important that you can tell them apart, as using the wrong amp for the wrong instrument can be potentially damaging. This article takes a look at the differences between guitar and bass amps, with a bit of history and information that should help you to be able to choose your next amplifier.
Let’s Start From The Top – Exactly what is an amp?
An amp, or amplifier, is essentially a loudspeaker specifically designed to be linked directly to a guitar or bass guitar in order to amplify the signals from the guitar pickup. In their simplest form, amps are really quite basic pieces of kit; a power amplifier and preamp, some simple dials for volume and sound control, and one or more speakers.
All of this tends to be contained in a strong, durable box like structure, so that they can handle a little throwing around, as musicians can’t always ensure that their kit will be handled with the care it deserves.
A short history
The first effective and popular amp was born of the fruits of the American Leo Fender’s efforts. A lot of brands had tried to create amplifiers before then, but few had reached any real levels of success, certainly not compared to the legendary Fender Bassman, first introduced to the scene in 1951 and still going strong today. To begin with, Fender’s amp was used for everything, not just the guitar, partly as a result of it being the only truly effective portable and robust speaker.
The Fender Bassman saw hegemony for around decade, but in the sixties, a music shop owner from London called Jim Marshall threw something new into the mix. Importing Fenders to the UK and Europe was expensive, and Marshall thought there was something missing. Using 12” speakers rather than Fender’s 10”, he introduced the JM45. To this day, Marshall and Fender are arguably the two biggest names in the amplifier industry, even after spending around 60 years at the top.
A guitar amp is, as you may have guessed, specifically designed to be used with a guitar. As Jim Marshall discovered back in the day, 12” speakers are the most effective at producing mid to mid-high frequencies, a discovery which has led to 12” drivers being the predominant guitar amp speaker size. Guitar amps tend to be in the 15–100-watt range, a far lower power than bass amps.
This isn’t because guitar amps are quieter, but because smaller speakers need less power to move them, and because the lower tones of a bass are less audible to the human ear, needing a little more oomph to get them across. This is because the sound that guitars produce is situated within a similar range to the human voice, meaning that they need less amplification to achieve comparably ‘loud’ volume than a bass.
Guitar amp features
As well as volume controls, on guitar amps you’ll often have several features suited to guitar playing. These include the following:
The reverb effect produces the effect of sounding like you’re in a big, empty room, emulating some of the echoes that you’d hear. Not all amps have it, but it’s common to have one on practice amps.
A gain control dial is a common feature found on most guitar amps, allowing you to control how much distortion you create.
- EQ controls
Most guitar amps will have at least basic equalisation settings, allowing you to control bass, mid, and treble, giving for at least basic control of your sound. You can even find mini amps that are perfect the player requiring portable amplification!
Basses create tones at a far lower frequency than guitars, and as a result, bass amps need to be able to handle those lower tones. This is why you’ll often find 10” and 15” drivers in bass amps, as these speaker sizes are more suited to moving larger amounts of air at lower frequencies. Bass amps operate in a far higher power bracket to guitar amps, often between 150–500 watts.
This extra power is needed to move the larger speakers, and because the bass has more competition to be heard in the lower frequencies, with other intensely loud low tones being produced by the drum kick for example. Bass amps tend to be around twice the size of a comparably loud guitar amp, because they have to fit larger speakers and more circuitry in them.
In terms of features, bass amps tend to have similar basics to guitar amps – volume, gain, and EQ. Additionally, some bass amps may have controls controlling sub, drive, enhance, and compression effects. However, the main difference between the amps is not in the controls, but in the power, and sheer size.
Are they interchangeable?
If you were to use a guitar on a bass amp, it would often sound dull, possibly too loud, and entirely lacking in any mid or high tones. Vice versa, if you were to manage to make a bass work on a guitar amp, it would be muted, and lacking any real welly. But technically yes, you can still use a 6 string guitar in a bass amp, and a bass in a 6 string or ‘standard’ guitar amp.
In terms of safety and potential damage, using the wrong setup could be significantly detrimental to the health of your amp. While it can be ‘safe’ to use a guitar with a bass amp, as the bass amp is built to handle far more power, doing it the other way round and using a bass with a guitar amp can be incredibly damaging.
If you have an active bass and pair it with a small guitar amp, the excessively powered low tones can blow both the amp and the speaker. Using a passive bass with a massive guitar amp or a large amp head can produce interesting tones, but unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s not wise to play around, or you could potentially end up damaging expensive kit.
If you enjoyed this guide, you might also enjoy my post on whether you can use an acoustic guitar through a regular amp.