So, after weeks and weeks of deliberation, you’ve finally done it. You’re a bassist, and you finally bought that guitar you were eyeing at the local music store.
You’re super excited to play it! Only problem is, you’re a broke musician (aren’t we all?), and you haven’t bought a guitar amp yet.
Many bassists find themselves interested in the guitar, and vice versa. This makes perfect sense, since both instruments are in the same family and share similar techniques.
As a natural result, many bassists-turn-guitarists have wondered if they can play guitar through a bass amp. But is it a good idea?
In this article, we’ll be exploring the differences between bass and guitar amps. Based on those statistics, I’ll give advice on if it’s a good idea to play guitars through bass amps.
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The Short Answer!
Rather than stringing you along with lots of facts, I’ll begin with my conclusion.
You certainly can play guitar through a bass amp, and there is absolutely no risk involved. Given the right setup, you can actually create a distinct, rich sound.
However, a good tone is not guaranteed. Obviously, bass amps are different from guitar amps – otherwise, there’d be no need for distinction. Because these differences exist, you have to be extra vigilant to shape a quality tone.
Differences Between Guitar and Bass Amps
If you look at a guitar amp and a bass amp side by side, you’ll immediately notice their size difference. Guitar amps are built smaller by default, whereas bass amps are much larger and bulkier.
Their size difference is a direct result of the soundwaves each instrument produces. Low notes make waves that are very spread out. Higher notes create notes that are tightly scrunched together.
A wave’s width is measured by frequency. The lower the frequency, the lower the note (and the wider the wavelengths). In contrast, the higher the frequency, the higher the note (and the smaller the wavelengths).
Naturally, a bass’s low notes will have low frequencies. In order for an amp to effectively reproduce these low notes, it has to have lots of physical space for the notes to vibrate and move air. A guitar doesn’t need all this space because its notes vibrate faster at higher frequencies.
Lower frequencies also require more energy than higher frequencies. As a result, a plucked note on a bass will produce more energy than a plucked note on a guitar.
Bass amps are built thicker and sturdier to withstand this energy. Guitar amps are built with lighter materials – not because they’re cheap, but because thick materials would actually mute their higher frequencies.
In addition to their physical differences, bass and guitar amps also differ in their electronic setups. Unlike computer speakers that simply amplify a sound, amps actually shape the sound coming from the strings.
This is where things get interesting! Obviously, they are geared towards different note ranges. However, there are also some counterintuitive factors that you might not expect.
First, bass notes are built on low and mid frequencies. However, the sound of a bass still needs high frequencies. – Why? Because they are responsible for creating the “punchy” and “slappy” sounds of the plucked strings.
Without them, the bass would sound rather boring. Therefore, in order to create a rich bass sound, a bass amp needs to process all the frequencies (that’s important for later!)
In contrast, electric guitar amps are actually designed to be a tad inefficient. They focus on mid and high frequencies, omitting some of the depth of bass notes.
But they also want to be overwhelmed and sonically abused (within reason, of course), because that is how distortion and overdrive are created. Ironically, by purposely cutting out space for high and low frequencies to resonate, guitar amps create sounds that are musically interesting.
To briefly summarize, here are the differences and why they’re important:
- Bass amps are bigger because they give more space for low notes to resonate.
- Bass amps are sturdier because bass guitars emit more energy.
- Guitar amps restrict high and low frequencies to create musical sounds.
Is it Safe to Play a Guitar Through a Bass Amp?
Since bass amps shape sound differently than guitar amps, does that mean it’s dangerous to play a guitar through a bass amp?
As it turns out, it’s perfectly safe! Guitars cannot make soundwaves big enough to wreck bass amp cabinets. And even when they’re dialed all the way up, guitars won’t emit enough energy to blow up a bass amp.
However, it’s worth noting that the opposite is NOT true! You can play basses through guitar amps in isolated situations, but it’s a very bad idea. You risk physically breaking your guitar amp and creating dangerous electric currents.
Is it Practical to Play Guitars Through Bass Amps?
While you certainly can play guitars through bass amps, it doesn’t always create interesting sounds. To be effective, you need to be very intentional about your sound shaping and setup.
That isn’t meant to be a discouragement; in fact, acts like Queens of the Stone Age and Stevie Ray Vaughan played guitar through bass amps! It’s simply a fact you’ll have to consider.
First off, bass amps will naturally emphasize the bass qualities of each note. For guitars with tinny sounds, this will automatically make their sound richer.
Additionally, their wider range of frequencies will make note resonate more. For styles emphasizing clean tones, like jazz and country, this is fantastic by itself.
However, for other styles like rock and funk, it can actually make your guitar sound uninspiring and dry. With so much space for your notes to “breath,” they can actually spread out too much and get lost.
If that’s the case though, all is not lost! Here are several tips to hone in your tone.
First, focus on dialing in your tone through EQ manipulation. Most bass amps have built-in dials for EQ manipulation, whether it’s a literal EQ effect or low/mid/hi dials.
Even better, if you have an EQ pedal, use it! If you can shape your sound before it even hits the amp, you have more control over your final sound.
Either way, it’s hard to say exactly what settings you’ll want since each style is different. Experiment for yourself until something sounds great!
Second, you’ll have to use gutsy effect pedals cranked all the way up if you want to create more complex sounds. Bass amps can create rich sounds by themselves, but they won’t help make distortion or other similar effects.
Lastly, some physical features will lend themselves to certain sounds. Bigger cabinets will produce more frequencies than smaller ones. Big speakers will produce fewer high frequencies, while small speakers will produce fewer low frequencies.
As I explained, you can play guitar through a bass amp without any risks. Furthermore, it can produce richer clean notes than typical guitar amps.
However, if you want to create complex sounds that aren’t clean, you will need to put in considerable effort to shape your sound with effects.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference and the sound you want to make. Whether you want to recreate the sound of previous bands, or want to experiment for yourself, there is plenty of room for innovation!
Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy the process!