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On Bass: Let's Go Amp Shopping

On Bass: Let's Go Amp Shopping
The features and power getting packed into today’s micro heads are pretty astounding.

In the market for a new bass rig? Before you plunk down the coin, ask yourself a few questions.

My first bass amplifier cost me about two bucks. With my pawnshop bass already secured, I went to the local electronics store and bought a 1/4" Y-adapter to plug into the input section of my parents’ stereo (AKA “my new amp”). I could monitor my signal by activating record and pause at the same time on the tape deck. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t count on a tape-deck-equipped stereo to be at every venue, and that I’d need to buy an actual freestanding bass amp.

With little money and even less knowledge, I started hanging out at the local music store. I was that kid: 13 years old, observing, occasionally playing, but dreaming more than anything else. Thankfully, my lawn mowing eventually paid off, and I went home with a 12-watt Fender Musicmaster.

It wasn’t long before I knew I needed more power and more gear to play out. I went completely overboard and bought a Peavey Mark IV head and a pair of 2x15 cabs for all those stadium shows I was planning for at age 16. I was driving the family station wagon at the time, so my gear fit, but hauling it all back and forth from my bedroom wasn’t such a fun task. Over the next several years I tried various makes of combo amps, heads, speakers, and even some keyboard amps before finding a rig I liked tonally.

With all of today’s tonal options, buying an amp can be an overwhelming task. So this month, I’d like to suggest some things to think about if you’re in the market for a new rig.

What’s Your Goal?
You should probably figure out exactly why you’re shopping in the first place. Maybe your current amp isn’t reliable, and having it serviced would cost more than a new replacement. Reliability is a huge consideration when buying an amp. I’ve had rigs crap out mid-show, pre-show, and between shows. Your amp is every bit as important as your car. And like your car, keeping it tuned up helps—but a day will come when you’ll probably trade it in for something more dependable.

Another reason you might be looking into new gear is a little more delicate. I often hear from fellow bassists that their guitarist just bought a newer, louder rig. So to balance things out, a new bass rig is needed, right? This is troubling on several fronts. First of all, unless you are playing through a 5-watt practice amp, you shouldn’t be playing a game of decibel catch-up. It’s a vicious cycle: The guitar player turns up, so you turn up. The drummer hits harder, and in an hour, you’re all worse off. The first thing a guitarist wants to do with a new rig is turn it up and show it off, and I get that. But musical sensibility needs to rule the day, not egos. You can have intensity without ear-splitting volume.

You’ve been playing a bunch of gigs and working hard, so this is your equivalent of a very expensive ice cream cone.

Maybe you’re just throwing practicality out the window and getting a new amp simply because you want one. You’ve been playing a bunch of gigs and working hard, so this is your equivalent of a very expensive ice cream cone. I have no problem with this—you probably deserve it! But I’ll let you explain it to your spouse, since the “I need it for my job” line doesn’t fly in my house anymore.

Practicality Sets In
Is this your first amp? If so, I know you’re excited, but let’s not get carried away and put the SVT on layaway just yet. Yes, there are even more questions you need to ask yourself before jumping in.

Where will the amp be used? This question may sound silly at first, but are you looking to play live, just in your house, or both? Will you play jazz gigs, rock gigs, or acoustic gigs? Maybe you need something for all three. Then we have to look at getting to the gig. Are you riding the subway, driving a car, or driving a van?

Luckily, in this wonderful age of progressive amp design, there are many options. I personally like the beefiness of big amps, but the new wave of micro heads is pretty exciting. Our egos might take a little hit not having a monstrous bass amp behind us, but the smaller heads are nothing to scoff at, and many boast features like DIs, compression, and auxiliary jacks, which used to be associated with larger amps.

Bass cabs are also getting downsized. Lighter materials and innovative speaker designs have lightened the weight while maintaining most tonal properties. It can be a tough fight getting us bassists to downsize our cabinets because we love to move air. But again, go back to your list of needs and wants, and match the cabinet to your situation. Purchasing bigger cabinets is not always the best route without regular large-venue gigs on the books, but choosing a rig that can be expanded later by adding a 1x15 on bottom or a 2x10 on top might make a world of difference.

As with any major purchase, do your homework. Read reviews, watch demos, and talk with other bassists. Don’t exceed your budget, try to pay cash, and by all means, have fun shopping. Good luck—and don’t forget those earplugs!