Bass Guitar Amplifiers | How to buy a bass amp

This article is an attempt to answer the timeless ‘which bass guitar amplifier should I buy’ question. By the time you finish reading it you’ll know exactly how to find the perfect bass amplifier for your current and future needs.

Which bass guitar amplifier should I buy?

Hang out on a bass guitar forum for any amount of time and you’ll see this question over and over again. It’s a valid question, but we need more information to give you a legitimate answer. More questions need to be asked like: how much money do you have to spend on a bass amp? What kind of music do you play? How many watts do you need? Do you want the bass amp for gigging, recording and practicing or all of the above? The answer those questions will help to determine what your true bass amp needs actually are.

Let me get one fact about bass amps out of the way – there is no single perfect bass amp out there for everyone in the world. If anyone tries to tell you that there is (especially without asking you some of those other questions I mentioned above) then I would question their motives. Maybe they own stock in Ampeg amplifiers, or get a referral bonus by sending you to a particular web site or music store. Or maybe their way of stroking their own ego is to convert others to their particular bass amp manufacturer of choice. No matter what the reason is, these people clearly don’t have your interests at the core of their answer, so beware.

Since I can’t get more details from you, I’m going to describe what I think are the common types of bassist and the types of amps that would most likely serve them best.

The four levels of bassist

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to say that there are four types of bass player: beginner, intermediate, serious and professional. I’ll describe what each one is and the type of bass amp that will best suit them – your job will be to decide which category you fall into and look into my suggestions. Keep in mind that only you can know what your level of commitment is; you may fit the description of a beginner but be 100 % committed to playing the bass and so be much closer to an intermediate bassist., just keep this in mind as you read on. Anyway, let’s get into it.

The Beginner Bassist

My definition of a beginner bassist is one that is starting at ground zero, with no experience whatsoever. They may have recently just found out that an electric bass is “…the guitar with only four strings on it”.  The beginner has decided on some level to experiment with the bass guitar in a limited fashion, they’re not ready to drop huge wads of cash (whether they have it or not) because they’re not be sure that they’re going to play the instrument for the long haul.  For any beginner with a low commitment to playing bass guitar, I recommend buying a small combo bass amp, something with 15 to 50 watts . This will enable you to plug in and hear your bass guitar without investing a huge fortune in gear that you may never grow into. You can play along to the radio or mp3s and if you decide that’s all you ever intend to do and you don’t want to pursue playing the electric bass, you can sell it and get most of your money back.

Another option is to find a music retailer that rents bass guitar amps by the month for a reasonable amount ($25 – $35). If after two months you’re no longer interested in playing bass, you don’t have to worry about finding a buyer for your amp.

The Intermediate Bassist

An intermediate bassist isn’t necessarily more skilled than the beginner; I make the distinction between them on more of a commitment level. An intermediate bassist has zero doubt that they want to play the bass guitar while interacting with other musicians. In other words, they plan to perform and not just practice in their bedroom.

For this bassist I recommend that they invest more money for a combo bass amp with 100 to 150 watts, probably with a single 15 inch speaker. This type of bass amplifier will have enough volume so that they can play with other guitarists and a live drummer and still be heard. An amp of this type can be easily sold or retired from live performance and kept as a personal practice amp should the intermediate bassist evolve to the next level.

The Serious Bassist

As a serious bassist, again we’re not talking about the expression that dominates the serious bassist’s face -we’re talking about their commitment level. The serious bassist has paid their dues; they’ve been practicing for a while, playing with other musicians live and are hooked on the bass guitar. Some of their beginner gear has begun to fail them and they’re ready to make a hefty investment to get a better sound, more durability and power. They’re getting paid to play and are also looking for something that can handle the demands of recording.

For this bassist, the sky is the limit. Since their commitment isn’t in doubt, it often makes sense to spend as much as possible now, rather than repeatedly upgrading in the future (and losing money each time along the way). The serious bassist now gets to have the fun of experimenting with numerous pieces of bass gear to find the perfect sound or different sounds they need to get the job done. A serious bassist should have a bass amp in their arsenal that is at least 300 watts up to 1,000 or beyond. It will depend mostly on the size of venue, the style(s) of music they play and whether they’re going through a public address (PA) system or not.

If you start getting into the ‘serious’ side of the bass guitar, you’ll probably want to look into getting a separate bass amp head and bass cabinet. This allows you a greater degree of flexibility in your sound than you can get with a bass combo amp. For instance, you may like Ampeg bass amplifiers and prefer SWR bass cabinets – if you bought a combo bass amp from either company you’d be compromising. However, with a modular or bass guitar stack set up, you could buy an Ampeg bass amp and connect it to an SWR bass cabinet and truly have the best of both worlds. You could also switch up your cabinet configuration according to the style of music that you play: a 4 x 10 cabinet for rock n’ roll, a single 2 x 15 cabinet for reggae and so on.

The Professional Bassist

There’s not a lot of difference between a professional bassist and a serious bassist. The main difference is that the pro bassist is earning their entire income (or at least the vast majority) from solely playing the bass guitar. Whether they play in an original act, a cover band, record, tour relentlessly or all of the above, they are getting paid to provide the low end and need to have the gear to match just about any type of gig imaginable.

The professional bassist’s amp doesn’t have to be bigger than the serious bassist. Often the pro bass player will be playing through a PA system and will only need to use their bass amp as a monitor to hear themselves on stage (unless they use an in-ear monitor system). A huge bass guitar amp in this instance is only necessary if they’re on a stage that is equally big and they can’t hear themselves accurately with anything less. Still, in-ear systems are superior since you can get a perfect mix from venue to venue, and you can wander wherever you like without a single change in your personal mix in your earphones. Should you decide to go for an in-ear monitor setup, make sure you shell out the extra cash for the ear buds that can reproduce the lowest bass frequencies.

The pro bassist isn’t necessarily concerned about the latest trends in bass gear, they just want something reliable that works and that can handle the road or the studio for weeks or months at a time. Their gear may look ‘broken in’ but chances are, it is reliable and sounds great.

Best Bass Amps for Recording

The best bass amps for recording will vary according to the sound that the bassist, the engineer or the producer wants to achieve. Even if a bassist endorses a particular brand of bass amplifier, usually in the studio all bets are off – and whatever sounds best for the song wins the day.

Sometimes smaller wattage amps are preferred because they can be driven to distort at lower volumes and recorded almost as an effect. The main requirement for any bass amp to be used during a recording session is that the cabinet has to be quiet. You don’t want to hear a lot of extra noise beyond the sound of the instrument and the note that’s being played. This means you don’t want to hear any rattles that can be captured during the recording process. Often this can come from loose grates or speakers within the enclosure. While you may not notice it, chances are the engineer will let you know if they hear anything odd. Sometimes you can do a quick fix if you tape down the parts that are causing the rattle; but may professional bass guitar amps feature rubber gaskets to hold the grate solidly to the cabinet and minimize rattle at the same time.

Cheap Bass Amps

The price for quality bass amps is coming down all the time. With a little searching you should be able to find a new 100 watt amp for around $500 or less. While the price has come down a lot, usually you pay more for the first 100 watts and less dollars per watt the higher you go. While buying a used bass amp can save you a lot of money compared to buying brand new, I find that it is harder to know that you’re getting a good bass amp than when you go to purchase a bass guitar. Unless you happen to trust the store, know the original owner or have some sort of extended warranty on it, I recommend that you stay away from a used bass guitar amp until you know more about how they function and what to look for in a bass amp. Though it will cost you more to buy a new bass guitar amp, most amplifier manufacturers offer decent warranties to protect your investment for at least one year if anything goes wrong with it during normal usage. Some brands to check out for cheap bass amps include Peavey, Hartke and Behringer.

Top Bass Amps

Finding the best bass amp will ultimately be your own decision, but I thought it would be worth mentioning some of the top bass amps selling right now. Most of these manufacturers have been around for decades and offer dedicated bass guitar products, rather than them being last minute modified guitar amp wannabes.

  • Ampeg
  • Trace Elliot
  • Eden
  • SWR
  • Aguilar
  • Mark Bass
  • Gallien Kruger
  • Mesa Boogie

These companies offer stand-alone bass amp heads and bass cabinets along with combo bass amps as well. Try them all, compare the wattages, warranties, features and price tags and see which one has the best sound and volume per dollar.

Bass Amp Testing

Before you go out and to purchase your new (or new to you) bass amp, you should keep the following in mind.

  • Try as many bass amps as you can
  • Pay for only the features that you think you’ll actually use
  • Compare prices online and offline
  • Compare customer service between stores
  • Avoid testing bass amps on Saturdays, music stores tend to be over crowded and you’ll have a harder time finding a representative from the bass department that can help you out.
  • Bring your own bass to the store for the bass amp audition, or find a one that is most similar to your bass guitar.
  • Remove any treble, bass or mid boosts – do you like the sound without any boosted bass amp eq settings at all? If it takes a long time to dial in a sound you like, you’re probably better off investing in a different amp.

Thank you for reading how to buy a bass guitar amplifier. I hope these tips will help you narrow down the perfect bass guitar amp for you. For more bass amp information check out my Bass Amp FAQ, Bass Amp Alternatives and discover bass amp eq settings and tips here.