Everything You Need to Know About This Daring Sonic Crossover
When we’re taking our first steps as young musicians, money can be, shall we say…tight. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you used up all your Christmases and birthdays for the following five years just to snag the axe you’ve been ogling through the guitar shop window every day on your way to school.
As such, when we schedule our first jam sessions with other musicians, gear can be a little thin on the ground, especially when it comes to bass amplifiers.
There are simply fewer bassists than guitarists, so, usually, a guitarist will be bullied (playfully) into playing bass, but what then? Should you just plug the bass into a spare guitar amp, or will that create some sort of sonic apocalypse?
Well, the truth is, you absolutely can plug a bass guitar into a standard guitar amp. You won’t need any special leads, the world won’t implode, and the amp won’t instantly burst into flames, but that’s not to say it’s a particularly good idea.
What Are The Risks Of Playing A Bass Through A Guitar Amp?
Playing a bass through a guitar amp is as easy as plugging your ¼ inch jack into the amp input and flicking the on switch, but here’s the thing…the speakers in a guitar amp aren’t designed to work with such low frequencies.
Have you ever seen a subwoofer in action? The surround and cone body dance all over the place. This is because lower frequencies move tons of air, and only large specialized speakers are capable of shouldering that burden.
The speakers in guitar amps just don’t move in the same way, meaning that the bass you’re plugging in for an impromptu band practice is going to sound strange, and worst of all, the pummeling low frequencies may even damage the speakers.
New amp speakers can be pretty pricey, depending on the type, and that’s money you could have put towards buying a specialist bass amplifier to begin with.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…What about tuned down 8 or 9-string guitars, or octave pedals? Surely they operate in the same frequencies as a bass, right? Why don’t they damage a guitar amp?
Well, octave pedals and super tuned down guitars pose the exact same risks to a guitar amp as a bass, but some guitar amps are designed to handle that kind of input.
Metal-oriented amps, for instance, are made with the intention of someone chugging away on a B.C. Rich tuned to drop A, so it’s unlikely a bass will damage the speakers, unless, that is, you crank the volume too high.
What Does A Bass Sound Like When Played Through A Guitar Amp?
The second reason you may not want to plug a four-string into an amp designed to pump out six-string frequencies is the timbre of the sound.
For the uninitiated, timbre is the character of a sound. It’s the difference between playing a note on a flute and playing the same note on a piano, or, in this instance, playing a note on a bass through a guitar amp, and playing the same note through a bass amp.
As we just discussed, the speakers in guitar amps have a much smaller recoil than those found in their bass counterparts, meaning they’re incapable of pushing out sufficient air to produce high-quality bass frequencies.
When you play a bass through a guitar amp, instead of that full-bodied, rich, warm tone, you’ll hear quite a thin sound devoid of that essential bass power. You can drop the mids a little on the amp to reduce the tinny quality of the output, but then it becomes muddy and inarticulate.
If you’re practicing with a drummer, the bass won’t cut through quite as well, so naturally, you’ll dime the volume, but the louder you go, the worse the instrument will sound.
Past a certain volume, the frequency starts to break up, amounting to an unpleasant distortion that competes with guitars in the audio spectrum. Before you know it, everybody in the band has cranked their volume, and your neighbors have called the police.
That distorted bass sound is your speaker’s cry for help. It’s their way of telling you that they’re overloaded with your bass signal.
How To Protect Your Speakers When Playing A Bass Through A Guitar Amp
I don’t recommend it, but if you have no choice but to run your bass through a guitar amplifier, there are measures you can take to reduce possible damage to the speakers.
Wattage — Bigger is Better
Low wattage amplifiers should be avoided if you’re planning to “slap-a-da-bass”. They don’t handle low frequencies well at all, so if you have the option, always choose a higher wattage amp.
Volume — Listen To Your Speakers
Keeping the volume at a reasonable level is key! As long as you don’t hear that nasty break-up sound, the speakers are coping with the load.
Compressors — Your Secret Weapon
A standard compressor pedal such as the Boss CS-3 will act as a buffer, reducing the signal of your bass before it hits your amp, keeping the speakers safe. What’s more, it will help to warm up and thicken your tone.
Active vs Passive Bass
If you’re using a passive bass, make sure to keep tabs on the master volume on the amp, but if you’re using an active bass with an integrated battery, you’ll need to keep the volume knob on the bass itself nice and low.
Input 1 vs Input 2
If your guitar amp has two inputs, use the second. This is almost always a lower decibel “rhythm” input.
Can You Use A Guitar Amp For Bass — Summing Up
If you need to plug your bass into a guitar amp, you can. It doesn’t matter if it’s a practice amp, a combo amp, a tube amp, or a stack, but the key takeaway here is that you need to be as kind to your speakers as possible as you play.
Overload your amp with low frequencies, and you’ll potentially blow the speakers or at least deteriorate their sound quality.
Keep the volume at a reasonable level, listen for unwanted clipping, use a compressor pedal if you have one lying around, and your guitar amp should be just fine!