5 Vintage Bass Amps Used and Loved by Guitarists

When bubble wrap was invented in 1957 by Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, it was marketed as a textured, three-dimensional wallpaper. Feel free to pause for a moment and contemplate the glorious possibilities of this concept. It was not until several years later, after the utter failure of this wallpaper idea (as well as several others), that the team at the Sealed Air company decided to try marketing bubble wrap as protective packing material to the then-fledgling computer industry. IBM took them up on their pitch, and the rest is history.

You might be wondering what this story has to do with electric guitars. Well, not that much really, but it is a colorful and illustrative example of the dichotomy that often exists between a product's original intent, and where it ultimately finds its place in the market.

There are, in fact, many such stories in the guitar industry. More than a few of them have to do with bass amplifiers.

In the beginning of the electric era, tube amps were just not terribly powerful, and they were next to impossible to keep clean at live band volume levels. For guitarists, this was not so bad, and many quickly grew to love the warm grit of a smaller tube amp pushed to its limit. For bassists, however, the situation was far less satisfying.

Fender's Precision Bass came out in 1951—the first production-model electric bass guitar ever—but an amplifier designed specifically for it did not appear in music stores until 1952. Even then, this amp was rated at a mere 26 watts, not even close to enough power to keep up with a loud drummer, particularly if any sort of moderately clean tone was desired.

Cleanly amplifying low-frequency sounds requires substantial headroom, and these early tube amps were just not up to the job. It wasn't long, however, before guitarists started plugging into some of these underpowered bass amps, giving them a whole new life. This legacy is an important one, as more than a few of today's prized vintage guitar amplifiers were originally designed with bass in mind. Let's look at a handful of notable examples.

Fender Bassman

The story of the Fender Bassman is well-known. Originally released in 1952 to pair up with Fender's new Precision Bass (released a year earlier and already taking the world by storm), the first Bassman was a 15" combo amp rated at around 26 watts, powered by a pair of 5881 vacuum tubes. It wouldn't take the more familiar narrow-panel, tweed 4x10 combo form until around 1954, which also saw the power increased to a somewhat more robust 40 watts.

It was quite successful as a bass amp in the beginning, largely because there were very few other options, but as bassists began to demand ever-more volume and clean headroom to compete with loud drums and guitars, the Bassman fell out of favor with the four-stringers, while simultaneously developing a reputation as a stellar guitar and harmonica amp. Fender took notice and began to market it as an all-purpose instrument amplifier.

Today it is legendary among guitarists for its sensitivity and creamy overdrive characteristics, and for its influence on the Marshall JTM45, which was basically a shameless 1959 Bassman copy assembled with British components. Consequently, vintage models have become exceedingly valuable.

Marshall 1992 Super Bass

Readers are undoubtedly familiar with the Marshall 100-watt 1959 Super Lead amplifier. Slightly lesser known is the model 1992 Super Bass, which of course was the bass version of the same amp, tweaked for extra headroom and a darker, more bass-friendly voicing and EQ. The differences in circuitry are slight, with the two amps being the same in most regards, including the use of EL34 power tubes. As a bass amp the Super Bass was certainly no slouch. It was responsible for the grinding rock tones of players like Jon Entwistle, Lemmy, Jack Bruce, Chris Squire, and others.

It was known to lack deep low-end, however, which was an ongoing source of frustration for many bassists, and even its mighty 100 watts of power wasn't quite enough to deliver clean bass reproduction at stadium-rock volumes. As bass players looking for clean, extended low-end began to move on from the SB, guitarists began snatching them up, finding in them an interesting variation of the classic Marshall sound. And because the differences in circuitry are minimal, converting a Super Bass to Super Lead specifications was a simple job.

Today, Super Bass models are nearly as valuable and coveted as Super Leads, with players from Adam Jones of Tool to Free's Paul Kossoff being associated with them. And they're still amazing for filthy Motörhead-style bass tones.

Ampeg V-4B

1969 saw the release of Ampeg's legendary SVT bass amp, a 300-watt monolith that once-and-for-all delivered what bassists had been yearning for – an amp that could deliver big, bottom-heavy bass with perfect cleanliness and clarity at incredible volume. '69 also saw the release of the V series guitar amps, including the V-4, a 100-watt, 7027A-powered head notable for its burly tones and formidable output. Curiously, the V-4 began to catch on with rock bass players of the day as well, who took a liking to its power and throaty bark.

Ampeg cottoned on and in 1971 released the V-4B, a bass V-4 that was essentially unchanged from the guitar version but for its lack of onboard reverb. The company developed a matching 2x15 cabinet to go with it, even though many bassists had been previously using the matching 4x12 with great success.

The V-4B developed a following and has become prized among bassists for its ability to get classic SVT tones at manageable volume levels, making it an excellent choice for studio work. It has traditionally been far more popular with guitarists, however, and today it is widely considered interchangeable with the V-4 (if you don't need the reverb).

With guitar, sitting atop a 4x12 or two, the V-4/V-4B is a shockingly loud amp that offers tremendous clarity and headroom, and a deep, powerful bottom end that has contributed to its iconic status among stoner and doom guitarists. It's also a fantastic amp for pedals and effects. No doubt noting the increasing value of vintage V-4Bs, Ampeg reissued the head in 2014. By all accounts the reissue nails everything people loved about the original, and it has remained popular.

Fender Musicmaster Bass

Originally released during the Silverface era of the 1970s as a student model practice amp, the Fender Musicmaster Bass combo was rated at a fierce 12 watts, powered by a pair of 6AQ5 valves (later changed to a pair of 6V6s) and outfitted with a rather flimsy Oxford or CTS 12-inch speaker. As one might imagine, it wasn't anything to write home about as a bass amp. That said, it did fulfill its original purpose as an affordable bedroom practice tool and remained in production from 1970 through 1982. In the present day, however, its story is somewhat reminiscent of the Bassman.

Cast aside by bassists looking for more clean power and low-end definition, the Musicmaster Bass has been re-discovered by guitarists. It has long been considered the ultimate sleeper among Silverface-era combos, common on the used market and much less expensive than other vintage Fender tube models. As a guitar amp, its 12-watt output is more than sufficient, and it really barks and sings when properly cranked up. It's also a fantastic pedal platform, particularly for recording work and smaller gigs. The Musicmaster Bass has become much more coveted in recent years, as word of its prowess has spread on various gear forums, but a well-preserved example can still be had for 400 to 500 dollars.

There are various modifications that can be done to make it more useful for guitar, but for most people a simple speaker change might be all that's required, as the original speaker is notoriously poorly suited for its job. The Musicmaster Bass is also said to be quite sensitive to various tube types, so some experimenting is usually required to find the ideal tube complement for any particular amp.

Traynor YBA-1 Bass Master

Its nickname is "the Canadian Plexi," and like its more famous British predecessor, the original Traynor YBA-1 is basically a 5F6A Fender Bassman circuit running on EL34s. At 40 watts, it is superb for grungy, aggressive bass tones at moderate live band volumes, but it really shines when used as a guitar amp, where its full-throated power and appealing similarity to early Marshalls comes to the fore. With a handful of minor circuit tweaks (easily executed by any reasonably competent tech) it can be converted into a spectacular JTM/Plexi clone.

The YBA-1 was the king of all vintage sleepers for several decades, but word has recently gotten out about its capabilities (thanks in part to positive forum chatter and articles such as this one), and prices have steadily been going up.

That said, an example in excellent condition can be had for around 600 dollars, often with the Plexi conversion already done. Traynor also reissued the amp in 2013, in the form of the YBA-1 Bass Master Tribute, a head that successfully captures the tone and mojo of the late-'60s originals, but with a few modern upgrades, including solid-state rectification and a built-in power attenuator that can take it down to 20, 10, 5, or even 2.5 watts, increasing its all-around usefulness dramatically over a vintage model.

The legacy of underwhelming vintage bass amps that have subsequently gone on to fame and glory in the hands of guitarists is an important one. After all, where would we be if some curious guitarist of yore had never thought to plug into that tweed Fender Bassman their bassist cast aside, or that lonely Marshall Super Bass sitting unused in the rehearsal room?

The sound of quite a few essential rock 'n' roll records would be very different, indeed. So, next time you're hanging out in the jam spot waiting for the bass player to show, fire up the bass rig, plug in a guitar, and strum a few chords. You never know where it might take you.

Have your own favorite bass-turned-guitar amplifier? Let us know in the comments.

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