The two elements that will have the most significant impact on your bass tone are your bass guitar and your bass amp. It is therefore imperative that your bass amp can deliver the sound that you need. This bass amp buyers guide will equip you with the knowledge you require to make the best choice for your rig.
If you are new bass and haven’t yet bought a bass, we suggest that you first work through our bass guitar buyers guide.
Basic Buyers Guide
1) Ensure that you get the right size amp for your purposes. A 200W bass rig would be a poor choice for a home practice amp, and a 30W practice amp would be a horrible idea for live performances.
2) Decide if you want a combo amp or a head and cab rig. Combo amps ensure that you have less to carry, but head and cab rigs can be more versatile.
3) Choose between a solid state or a valve amp. Not only do they sound different, but there is also usually a significant weight difference.
4) Decide if you want to use your amp for live performance or for studio recording. This will help you determine what features on the amp are nice to have, and which features are imperative to your purpose of owning the amp.
5) Do you need built-in effects? There are many professional-quality amps that have onboard effects, so now you can, if you want to, ditch the pedal board.
In-Depth Buyers Guide
There is an almost overwhelming selection of bass guitar amps on the market. While on the one hand having so much choice allows us to find the ideal amp for our needs, on the other hand, it can make deciding on what amp to buy a tedious task filled with indecision.
By working through this buyers guide, you will be able to eliminate many of the options on the market, which will make your final decision much less daunting.
Get the Right Size Amp
When it comes to bass amps, size really does matter. If you live in an apartment, your neighbours won’t be too pleased if you practice on a 600W stage rig.
Of course, if you play in an acoustic band, and you only play smaller venues that have a capacity of 100 people or less, a 600W amp is also a poor choice. So, how do you know what size amp you should get?
Practice amp. If you’re looking for something for home use, then you should consider something in the 50W or smaller range. Not only will your neighbours thank you, but you can also protect your ears. It might be fun to play at loud volumes in a small room, where you can feel like a rockstar playing at a stadium, but the long-term effects on your are not worth it! If you are looking specifically for a practice amp, you should also try to see if you can find something that has a headphone output.
Small Venues. If you mostly play little coffee shops or smaller gigs, then you want something in the 50W to the 100W range. You want sufficient power to be heard, but so much that you are all that can be heard.
Medium Venues. So you’ve moved up and are playing at clubs and medium-sized venues? At this point you should be looking at amps in the 100W to the 200W range, depending on your amp. If you, for example, have a 65W amp which has a line-out option, and the venue you’re playing in has decent monitors, then you don’t really need a bigger amp. But, if you want to always be sure that you have enough power so that your amp can double as a monitor, and be miked up for live playing, then you should consider a larger amp.
Large Venues. Just like with medium-sized venues, if your amp can line out and there are good monitoring options, any size amp will work. But if you don’t want to risk poor monitors, or if you really want a massive 8×10 speaker rig, then you can get any amp from 100W up to 600W and over. After all, nothing screams “rockstar” quite as much as amp stack taller than the bass player!
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Combo Amps vs Amp Stacks
A combo amp is an amp that has a speaker and the amplifier built into one unit. A head and cab rig, or amp stack, is when the speakers (the cab) are separate from the amplifier (the head).
Combo amps are the perfect choice for anyone who likes ease and wants to carry as little gear as possible. With a combo amp, all you need to do is plug your bass in, turn on the amp, and play. Another advantage of combo amps is that they are usually cheaper than buying a stack since you only need to buy one unit.
Stacks, or head and cab rigs, give you more choice and versatility. You could buy a Fender head and a Laney cab to give yourself a unique tone. You can also decide how many speakers you want. With cabs ranging in size from a 1 x 15 speaker, to going all the way to two 4 x 12 speakers, you can fine tweak our output and significantly alter your tone. You can buy a single head, and multiple cabs, and simply decide which cab would be best suited to each venue in which you play.
Solid State vs Valve
The solid-state vs valve debate has been going on ever since the first solid state amps hit the market. The truth is, that neither amp is better than the other.
The most significant difference between a valve and transistor (solid state) amplifier, is personal preference. It’s like deciding if you like pineapple on pizza; there are die-hard fans on either side of the aisle.
So, which one should you get? We suggest that you listen to some of your favourite players, and listen to their tone. Once you establish the tone that you like, do some research to see what type of rig is being used to produce that sound. Remember, that the amp is only a single element in the chain, so buying the same amp as your hero won’t guarantee that you’ll get a similar tone. But, it is a good starting point.
Having said that, it is important to remember that valve amps require regular servicing and need their valves replaced when they burn out. So, if you decide that you love the tone of valve amps, remember that that tone comes at an additional, ongoing cost.
Live Performance vs Studio Recording
Are you playing at a stadium in front of 50,000 people? Then you can get the biggest, meanest amp on the market and go to town! Are you recording in a small studio? Then you really don’t want or need that much power.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself that surely you should record with your live rig? But the simple answer is no, not always. Look at Metallica for example; the guitars they use live are not the same ones they use in the studio.
For recording, you can layer sounds, record multiple tracks, and fine-tweak your tone until its perfect. Conversely, for live sound we try to find the best possible rig, knowing that we won’t always get the perfect tone.
If you’re looking for a studio-specific amp, power should not be your driving factor. Ideally, you want an amp that doesn’t have too much colour and allows you to record a fairly neutral tone. That way, the engineer can tweak your tone in editing, and ensure that the band gels together. So when choosing a studio amp, your only consideration should be the tone of the output.
When amps first started adding onboard effects, it was mostly as a gimmick. But the popularity of onboard effects took off, and the technology improved, and soon manufactures were adding professional quality effects into amps.
Nowadays we are spoilt for choice when it comes to amps with built-in effects. So why, if the quality is good, would you NOT want an amp with effects?
The short answer is that while the effects might be top-quality, they still do not offer the versatility of stand alone pedals. A chorus pedal will always have more options than a chorus effect built into an amp.
So, if effects are a cornerstone of your playing, you should rather get a standard amp with either a floorboard or a few stomp boxes. But, if you seldom use effects, or if you don’t require much fine-tuning of your effects, an amplifier with built-in effects is the perfect solution.
We have looked at five of the most significant elements when it comes to choosing your perfect bass amp. Now, it’s up to you to eliminate what you don’t want, so that you can try a few amps that fit your needs.
Once you’ve tried a few that meet your requirements, the final step in buying your amp is to find the one that best suits your bass.