What is the difference between a bass amp and a guitar amp? A commonly asked question among beginning and intermediate bass and guitar players. Today we are going to break down the differences and hopefully clear up the mystery. We will be talking about combo amps, not modeling amps, amp heads, or stacks.
To better understand the differences between a combo bass amp and a combo guitar amp, it is good to start with a basic understanding of the two instruments. Electric bass guitars produce low cleaner frequencies than an electric guitar. These lower frequencies need a boost so they can resonate loud enough when using a solid body electric bass.
An electric guitar produces a wider, faster, and higher range of frequencies. This gives the electric guitar a greater range of sound that works well with pedal effects, such as distortion or overdriven tones. For these reasons, bass and guitar amps focus on the sound or tone the instruments produce over the frequency range of each instrument.
Basic Amp Concepts
Both bass amps and guitars amps have some similar features and or controls, such as gain and a master volume control. They may also have multiple instrument inputs and output connections for external accessories or speaker cabinets. However, this is where the similarities end. One of the most notable differences, a bass amp generally has a larger thicker speaker than a guitar amp. The reason for this has to do with the low frequency the bass guitar produces, which is slow yet produces a stronger vibrational frequency response.
The guitar amp, on the other hand, is designed for the wider, higher, and faster frequency range of an electric guitar. To accommodate the frequency range of the electric guitar, the speakers are generally smaller, thinner, and designed for faster response to keep up with the faster lighter frequencies of the electric guitar.
Size Matters…Sort Of
Why the different speaker sizes? The answer comes down to vibrational frequency response. Since an electric bass guitar produces a lower and slower frequency, the speaker vibration (or response) is more pronounced and stronger. The higher the volume, the more aggressive the frequency response action of the speaker cone. Therefore, the smaller and thinner speaker of an electric guitar amp could not handle the frequency response of an electric bass guitar, especially at higher volume levels. The larger, thicker speaker in a bass amp helps to resonate the sound better and louder while being able to handle the more aggressive frequency response.
Thanks to technology improvements, speaker size (diameter) for bass amps can be as small as eight inches. Smaller sized speakers are usually found in practice or solo amps for both instruments. Modern combo bass amps have an average speaker size of ten to twelve inches. Guitar combo amp speaker size range from five to twelve inches.
Watts the difference
Because the two instruments produce different frequency ranges, the amps are designed to enhance and optimize the given ranges for each instrument to maximum effect, especially at higher volume levels. Higher volume levels and pedal effects cause a greater frequency response through the speaker. For example, if you are using a guitar amp for an electric bass guitar when the volume increases, the smaller thinner speaker of the guitar amp would not be able to handle the frequency response at the cone and eventually “blow out.”
Which now leads us to the next main difference between the two amps, watts, or power output. Bass amps usually have a higher watt rating, power output, than a guitar amp. The lower frequency of bass amp requires more power output to drive the signal and resonate loud enough. A bass amp can reach 800 watts or more. While a guitar amp usually tops out around 200 to 300 watts. The watt rating can change from manufacturer to manufacturer and for higher professional stage quality amps. Therefore, speaker size and composition are critical features of the two amps.
It’s All About The Sound
Next up, tone and equalizer controls. Sound controls are another major difference between the two amps. Since electric bass guitars use a cleaner sound, the tone controls tend to be straight forward and simple. Generally, a bass amp will have bass, middle, and treble controls. Some bass amps, like the Peavey Max 300, have controls for overdrive, contour, mid-shift, and bright tonal effects. These additional controls help shape the tone or add a bit of color to the sound without overpowering the signal causing distortion or feedback.
Bass amps may also have an option for the type of pickups used on the electric bass guitar, either passive or active. It is important because active pickups are more powerful, producing a much stronger signal going into the amp. If your electric bass guitar uses active pickups, it is important to check that the bass amp you are using can accommodate active pickups. In some bass amps, this is accomplished by either a selector switch or separate inputs. Some of the new digital bass amps can automatically handle the higher input signal of active pickups. Therefore no option for pickup type is needed.
Guitar amps have a greater range of effects, functions, and tonal controls to accommodate the greater frequency range of the electric guitar. Guitar combo amps can include onboard pedal effects, equalization, and other functions, especially digital modeling amps. For example, the Peavey 6505 Plus 112 has functions for lead and rhythm guitars with separate tone controls for each. Digital electric guitar amps can include onboard pedal effects such as reverb, delay, compression, chorus, and more.
It Is Good To Be Different
To summarize, the main differences are watts (power output), speaker size, tone controls, equalization, and sound effects. Bass amps use tonal controls and some sound contours or profiles to help shape the sound while maintaining a clean tone. Higher-end bass amps may also incorporate an equalizer for better tonal control. Power output (watts) is a major difference with bass amps putting out as much as 1000 watts, compared to a guitar amp at around 200 watts. Both amps can have as little as 20 watts, usually in smaller personal or practice amps.
Guitar amps allow for greater control of the sound. Guitar amps can incorporate functions for lead and rhythm, as well as a wide range of onboard pedal effects. Because an electric guitar has a wider frequency range, guitar amps have evolved to take advantage of the electric guitar’s diverse ability. Digital and modeling amps take this to a whole new level. Even basic or beginner guitars amps will include a “dirty” channel at the very least.
The Right Tool For The Right Job
The main take away follows that old saying, the right tool for the right job. Though it is possible for each instrument to use the other instruments amp, the sound will not be the same. In the case of using an electric bass guitar with a guitar amp, the result could be costly.
There are many types of each amp out there, from basic to professional, for practice to garage band, and more. With so many options and styles, it is worth the time to research which amp is right for your music style and price range. Lastly, try it before you buy it, most music stores will let you try out an amp before buying. Take advantage and take your time, play, and explore, buying the right amp is important. However, the most important thing is to have fun!