Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 3

OK, so you’ve been practicing the bass for a while on your own and you would like to take a chance at jamming with some other bluegrassers. I haven’t gone into discussing bass guitar amplifiers yet, so let’s do that.

Before we go any further, make sure you are purchasing an amplifier for bass guitar. A regular guitar amplifier has different circuitry, and the speakers cannot handle the low end of a bass guitar, which will mean they will get blown out pretty quickly.

When purchasing a bass amp, there are three main things to consider: Power output – this means the wattage kicking out through the speaker, so to speak. You can get anything from a 5-watt practice amp to a 1,000-watt thunder-creating mammoth! Since you will be working with three or four acoustic musicians at this time, a 20- to 25-watt bass amp should be sufficient. You could probably get away with something as low as 10 watts, but you may find that you are turning up the volume to distortion levels just to be heard at times. Anything more than 50 watts, and you are paying for wattage that you don’t need at this time (unless you also plan to play in a rock band), plus you have to consider the size of the amp with that much wattage (covered later). Take a look at Guitar Center and Sweetwater websites and see what they have in that area. Remember to be looking at power output wattage. Some of the off-shoot and unfamiliar name brands of amplifiers will list an amp as a 25 watt, but the back panel of that amp will show a 25-watt “power consumption,” which is the power it is taking in, so it may be only putting out 10 watts. Buying one brand new, expect to pay about $100 for a reputable brand (Fender, Acoustic, Ampeg) 25-watt bass amp. You may find one a lot less used on eBay or Craigslist, or a lesser-known brand (be sure to test it out before buying).
Portability – Everyone at a jam will be walking in with his/her instrument in its case – except YOU! You will also be carrying in an amplifier (as well as necessary cords, more on that later), so think about that. You don’t want to be needing a hand cart to move your stuff, and others will be irritated if they have to help you with your equipment for a simple jam. A typical P-bass weighs about 10 pounds, and more depending on if you are using a gig bag or hard case. As an example, the Fender Rumble 25 bass amp weighs about 21 pounds, and that is one of the lighter 25-watt amps! This amp (and comparable ones) use an 8-inch speaker and are solid state circuitry. A bigger speaker will mean more weight, as well as tube circuitry. On the flip side, you may find a bass amp using smaller speakers, but because of the ultra-portability, you are paying extra. One thing to mention here: get a combo amp, which means the amp and the speaker are in one unit. Buying the amp and speaker cabinet as separate units (known in the rock world as a “stack”) does not make sense for a small-wattage amp. Again, shop around a bit, and if you are able to test them out at a music stores, pick the amp up to test the weight as well as plugging in to test the sound.
Features – An input jack, volume and tone controls, and a speaker are obvious. However, there are a lot of features on amps that you may or may not need.

  • Multiple inputs. Some amps have two input jacks, which is fine, but not necessary.
  • Advanced tone control. This can range from a single tone control on off-brand amps to slider graphic equalizer controls. While shaping the tone, like cutting some of the high end, is useful, a graphic EQ may not be worth to price in features, especially if you are playing live, and the room shapes the sound as much as the amp. A single tone control is sufficient, but a two- or three-knob tone control circuit is perfect.
  • Headphone out jack. If you don’t already have a headphone amp and want to hear yourself practicing, this is useful.
  • Auxiliary input jack. This is if you want to run a CD or MP3 player into the amp so you can play along to songs. Useful for some, not for others.
  • Line output jack. Used if you are using the amp as a pre-amplifier to a larger amp. This is actually a good feature if you are playing a larger venue and they are using a PA system. The soundman can tap into that jack and mix the bass into the house PA without miking your amp. These are usually 1/4-inch high impedance jacks, but some amps actually have the XLR low-impedance microphone jacks, which are better for the soundman.
  • Effect loop jacks. Meant to plug in a special effect guitar pedal or rack unit to mix it in through the amp. Definitely not needed unless the amp is a good price.
  • Fuse holder. Some amps will have a small fuse wired into the system to protect the circuitry. A good feature.

The thing to remember is that, with more features, the higher the cost. Reputable brands such as Fender and Ampeg are going to cost more than some unknown brand, and buying brand new from a reputable dealer will be a bit safer if something needs fixing.

If for some reason you decide to surf eBay or Craigslist for a bargain, be cautious. That doesn’t mean that there are no great buys there (I recently purchased a Fender BXR-100 100-watt bass amp in great shape, only two knobs missing, off the local Craigslist for $50! That’s less than half of what it is worth on the used amp market), but you are not going to have the same warranty coverage that you would get from buying at Guitar Center. As for eBay, if you don’t know much about amplifiers, stay away from anything used, even if it is a great price. Check the reputation score of the seller, then don’t be afraid to email questions. If buying from Craigslist, try to take someone with you that can at least listen to the amp with you. Make sure that the person will allow you to plug the amp in and try it out. If not, skip that person altogether! A lot of people will say that they got it in an estate sale and don’t know if it works, then skip that person as well. Make sure to take a guitar cord and power cord with you as well as the bass.

If testing a used amp, check for a few things. Turn each knob and listen for scratching noise. This means the controls are dirty. If it’s slight, a shot of contact cleaner spray can help once you get it home. However , if the scratching is loud and all over the spin, that pot will need replacing, which is costly if you don’t know how to do it yourself. Also listen for speaker distortion at higher volume. Wiggle the guitar jack at the input slightly to hear if there is any loose contact. Also, look for physical abuse, like massive duct tape patches or hot glue spots. This may mean that the amp was kicked around a lot and one more knock may do permanent damage to the inside wiring.

One final note on this matter: Make sure to invest in a good-quality guitar cable. The cables that sometimes come when purchasing a new bass guitar are poor quality, not even good in an emergency situation. A decent 25-foot cable should cost about $20, but it’s worth it. The more you pay, in all honesty, the better quality it will be. Also, get yourself a good extension cord, a heavy-duty one (not an appliance type) if you don’t have one already.

This ran longer than I thought. The next blog will be about tips to make the electric bass sound a bit more like a stand-up bass. In the meantime, chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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