The Great Debate: Can you use a Guitar Amp for Bass?
Last Updated on May 21, 2023 by Dave Tudor
So can you plug a bass into a guitar amp?
Well, before we get this discussion underway, we do absolutely believe that it’s always best to use the right tools for any job and that philosophy applies to musical instruments as much as anything else.
You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to bang in a nail; an artist’s brush to paint a wall; or a pair of scissors to cut a lawn – but hell, we all bend the rules from time to time don’t we and that’s what we’re going to discuss here.
So can you play a bass through a guitar amp? The answer has to be yes – but why would you want to? Well there may be circumstances as you’re about to find out. Read on!
- What are the main differences between a bass amp and a guitar amp?
- All that said, are there any reasons why bass players use guitar amps?
- Combos and separate amps/cabs
- The benefits of using a guitar amp for bass
- EQ techniques for shaping your bass tone on a guitar amp
- Passive vs Active basses
- Honing your tone: using effects pedals
- Role reversal: playing guitar through bass amps
- The bottom line: can you play bass through a guitar amp?
I remember when I joined my first band as a schoolkid, we only had a single 15W guitar amp because that’s all we could afford.
But it was a three channel affair so we threw everything nervously through it: bass, guitar, and vocals. We did it out of necessity really – and amazingly, we didn’t blow it up!
Playing a bass guitar through a guitar amp is a topic that has been the subject of much debate among musicians.
On the one hand, amps designed for guitars can’t really amplify the lower frequencies of basses and indeed won’t provide the best sound quality for the instrument.
On the other however, some musicians use guitar amps to great effect with their bass, and some even prefer the tonal characteristics that a guitar amp can bring to their sound.
Let’s look at the pros, cons and considerations.
What are the main differences between a bass amp and a guitar amp?
Both are designed to amplify the sound of their respective instruments and as such, there are some fundamental differences between the two types:
Bass amplifiers are designed to reproduce the lower register of the bass guitar, while guitar amplifiers focus on a much broader frequency range.
The fundamental range of a 4-string bass is approximately 40Hz to 400Hz but the overtones extend higher than that up to around 4kHz. For electric guitar it’s in the 70Hz – 6kHz ballpark so you can see there are different tonal requirements here.
Power and wattage
Bass amps generally have more power and wattage than guitar amps, as they require more grunt (energy) to produce the lower frequencies.
Bass amplifier rigs often have larger speakers than their guitar counterparts simply because they need to reproduce lower frequencies. They have to shift more air in other words.
Bass speakers can go as large as 18 inch diameter but 15 inches is more common. 12 inch speakers are arguably the most common for guitar but practice amps can go much smaller.
Bass frequencies are lower in pitch and have longer wavelengths, so they require larger speakers with greater surface area in order to be reproduced accurately.
In addition to the size of the speaker, the design of the cabinet and the type of speaker cone can also affect the ability of an amp to reproduce bass frequencies.
Bass amps are designed with these factors in mind, which is why they are typically better suited for amplifying bass instruments.
But some bass cabs have 10 inch speakers don’t they? Yep that’s true. And many bass players combine a 1 x 15” speaker cab with a 4 x 10” for example for the best of both worlds.
Smaller speakers may be used to achieve a specific tone or to make the amp more portable. Some players may also prefer the sound of smaller speakers when playing certain styles of music.
For example reggae players will most likely prefer the flare wobbling whoompf of a 15” speaker while slappers will need a brighter tone. Others may opt for a combination of the two.
The Orange Crush 12 guitar combo only has a 6 inch speaker so don’t expect much from the low end, but at sensible volumes it’ll handle bass OK
Essentially, speakers can be manufactured from a variety of materials, including paper, plastic, and various types of metal like aluminum. The specific material used can affect the tone and durability of the speaker.
The materials used in bass amp speakers are more robust than on a guitar speaker to handle the lower frequencies, but in general, the specific material used is less important than the design and construction of the speaker as a whole.
The size, shape, and type of cone, as well as the suspension and magnet structure, can all play a role in the performance and sound of the speaker.
The design of the cabinet can affect the sound of an amp, and bass amplifiers are designed with a focus on reproducing deep, rich bass tones. This might involve the use of special materials or construction techniques.
Different instruments need different EQ. For bass guitar you might need more control over the mid-range so there’s often upper and lower mid controls and/or a parametric sweep. On guitar because of its different characteristics you may see controls like presence.
Some bass amplifiers have a preamp section with additional controls, such as a compressor or a crossover, which can shape the sound of the bass.
Overall, bass amps and guitar amps are designed to amplify the specific characteristics of their respective instruments and as such, have some differences in their design and features.
All that said, are there any reasons why bass players use guitar amps?
Yes there are, and these are largely centered around tone, versatility and personal taste.
Some prefer the sound of a guitar amp to a bass amp because it can give their instrument a different tonal character.
For example, a guitar amplifier tends to accentuate mid-range frequencies which can provide crunch and grit that’s perhaps not achievable with some bass amps.
Other players may like the levels of gain and distortion offered by guitar amps for their bass tones. Some bass amps offer distortion built-in – but the quality varies from pretty good to downright horrible.
If you like the specific tone of a particular guitar amp, why not use it?
Guitar amps are often more versatile than their bass counterparts because by design they’re built to amplify a wider range of frequencies. This can make them more suitable for bass players who want to experiment with different sounds and styles.
It is worth noting that playing bass through a guitar amp may not be suitable for all playing situations, and it may not provide the same level of power and control as a dedicated bass amp.
Combos and separate amps/cabs
Both bass amps and guitar amps are available in two flavors – combos and separate amp/cab setups.
This is an important consideration because the question ‘can you use a bass on a guitar amp’ is influenced by what camp you’re in.
A guitar or bass combo is where the amp and speaker are a single unit. Yes you can add external extension cabs on certain models but let’s not over-complicate things here. If you buy a guitar or bass combo, the amp and speaker are matched as a pair and you can’t change the configuration.
In these instances, playing a bass guitar through a guitar combo isn’t ideal and in a worst case scenario, if you start to crank the volume up, you could do some damage because guitar amp speakers simply aren’t designed for low end frequencies.
You should however be relatively safe at lower volumes.
With a separate amp and cab, it’s a slightly different ballgame depending on your choices. Here, providing amp/speaker impedances and power ratings play nicely with each other, there’s nothing to stop a bit of mixing and matching.
Separate amp heads and cabs allow for mixing and matching. How about a guitar amp head combined with a bass cab?
You could for example have a Marshall JCM 900 tube guitar amp and combine it with a Trace Elliot 4 x 10 bass cab to produce your signature killer sound. Or how about a Mesa Boogie guitar amp and an Ampeg bass cab?
But if you’re using a dedicated guitar amp and cab – even as separates – the same tonal boundaries still apply as with combos. You could still potentially blow the speaker at higher volumes.
While it’s not conventional to use a guitar amp for bass, it’s certainly not unheard of – and you’d be in good company.
Paul McCartney ran his Hofner violin bass through a Vox guitar amp back in the day; Chris Squire used Vox AC30 cabinets; and John Entwhistle, before discovering Hi-Watts used Marshall Super Lead amps. The late, great Dusty Hill from ZZ Top used Marshall heads.
The benefits of using a guitar amp for bass
As we’ve discussed, for bass players, using a specific guitar amp may practically be the only way to obtain a particular sound that you like, but aside from that, there are one or two other benefits.
If you happen to play guitar and bass, play at home at quiet volumes and can only afford one amp, you could use a guitar amp for both instruments. Or perhaps you share an amp with another musician?
Also, if you’re on a budget, guitar amps are often less expensive than bass amps, so using one for bass can be a cost-effective solution.
Additionally, guitar amps tend to be smaller and lighter than bass amps, which can make them easier to transport around.
Keep in mind however that while a guitar amp can be used to amplify bass, it may not provide the same level of low-end response or headroom as a dedicated bass amp.
You may need to experiment with the amp’s settings and use a pedal or processor to shape the sound to your liking.
EQ techniques for shaping your bass tone on a guitar amp
If you are using a guitar amp for your bass guitar, equalization (EQ) can be a useful tone shaping tool. Here are a few EQ techniques you can try to achieve different bass tones:
Boost the low frequencies
Boosting the low frequencies (around 50-100Hz) can add depth and fullness to your bass tone.
Cut the mid-frequencies
Cutting or scooping the mids (around 500-1000Hz) can help to reduce any muddiness. Overdoing the mids can result in an unwanted ‘nasal’ tone which generally doesn’t lend itself too well to bass guitar.
Boost the high frequencies
This one will definitely depend on your bass style but adding a bit of top end can give a bass bite and clarity. Too much however and you’re into harsh sounding territory.
Passive vs Active basses
Sticking with tone shaping when using a bass guitar through a guitar amp, it’s also worth noting that the specific EQ settings you use will depend on the type of bass you are playing and if it’s passive or active.
Basses that use passive pickups (Fender Precision and Jazz for example) produce a warmer, rounder tone, while active bass guitars tend to have a brighter, more defined sound.
Actives often have on-board EQ controls which allow the player to shape the tone of the instrument. Passive bass guitars don’t.
One isn’t necessarily better than the other – it’s just that active instruments may offer more tonal variation which may help you to achieve your desired tone easier. Active basses also tend to be louder – so don’t overdo things.
In general, the best way to shape your bass tone on a guitar amp is to start with a relatively flat EQ and make small adjustments as needed. This will allow you to make subtle changes to your tone without drastically altering the overall sound.
Honing your tone: using effects pedals
If you are playing your bass through a guitar amp, using effects pedals can really help improve your tone.
There’s a whole host of effects pedals available that are designed specifically for bass.
In our article Essential Bass Pedals, we take a detailed look at some of the best products around which span everything from distortion and overdrive through to chorus pedals and octavers.
A bass EQ pedal can offer additional tonal variety that simply may not be available via the amp controls alone so this may be a worthwhile investment. Just watch the volume.
Role reversal: playing guitar through bass amps
The ‘can guitar amps be used for bass’ discussion can of course be flipped on its head. et’s flip things on their head. Is it possible to play a guitar through a bass amp?
Well of course it is theoretically, but generally it probably won’t produce the best results as bass amps are designed to amplify the lower frequencies of a bass guitar. Here’s a few things to consider.
The tone of a guitar played through a bass amp may not be as full or rich as when played through a guitar amp, as it may not be able to fully reproduce the higher frequencies of the guitar.
Also a bass amp may not be able to achieve the same level of volume as a guitar amp, especially if the guitar has a high output level.
Bass amps typically have larger speakers than guitar amps, which might not be able to produce the same level of clarity and definition as smaller speakers designed for guitar frequencies.
But again, as is often the case with music, there are no hard and fast rules. In fact historically, many guitar players have used bass amps to produce their sound.
The iconic and legendary Fender Bassman for example has been revered by six stringers for decades. If it sounds good to you, then it IS good!
The bottom line: can you play bass through a guitar amp?
Yes – but with caveats and it’s not ideal!
Few would argue that it’s a much better option to buy a bass amp for bass because that’s why they exist. For this reason, if you’re a bass player looking for an amp, then we’d always say go for something that has been designed from the ground up with bass in mind.
The Ampeg RB-18 Rocket bass combo at 30W is the smallest in the Rocket range. It has an 8 inch speaker – but the combo is designed to work with bass
However you CAN play bass through an electric guitar amp. If we’re talking combos, then keep volumes under control and you should be fine. You’ll know when you’re pushing the speaker too hard – it’ll start to rattle and break up.
If you’re using a separate cab and amp then depending on the choices you make you may or not have a problem.
As a final point though, you should really have a good reason for wanting or needing to use a guitar amp for bass.
It may be to achieve a specific tone, but in almost all other circumstances, it’s best to get something specifically designed for the job in hand. Check out our Best Bass Amps article.