This article is about how to play bass guitar without an amplifier. If you’re interested in how easy it is to learn bass, see our article here. You can also view our courses here.
If you have just purchased a bass guitar, or are looking into starting your bass guitar journey, you may be wondering if you will also need to acquire an amplifier as well. Ideally, having a bass amplifier is a great idea, but I know from my own experience, that the cost of a bass amp and space an amplifier will occupy in your home, can be a problem. However, there are some simple and cost-effective solutions to playing bass without an amplifier.
So, how can you play bass guitar without an amp? A bass guitar may be played without an amplifier by using a headphone amplifier, digital audio interface with software, multi-effects processor, or a bass preamp. Your playing goals will determine which option is best for you.
Let’s take a look at five simple ways to play bass without an amp.
#1 Play The Bass By Itself
Of course, the simplest way to play the bass without an amplifier is to just play it by itself. You will be able to hear the bass acoustically; however, there will not be much volume and the low frequency bass tones that an amplifier produces will be absent. Interestingly, when the bass is played this way, it allows you to completely focus on the music you are learning- especially timing and technique.
This is a great way to “wood shed”, i.e. refine the details of your playing, particularly, your rhythmic skills. Why is this? Without the normal sustain of the notes that occurs when they are amplified, your ear is more focused on the placement of the notes in relation to rhythm; this awareness increases your rhythmic accuracy, which will carry over into your playing, when the bass is later amplified.
However, developing your bass tone is as equally important as developing your technical and rhythmic accuracy; and so, let’s take a look at some options for doing this without a traditional amplifier.
#2 Bass Headphone Amplifier
A bass headphone amplifier is a relatively inexpensive way to produce a great bass tone for at-home practicing. The headphone amplifier plugs directly in to your bass guitar; you can then plug your headphones into the device and hear your bass. Each brand will have its own unique tone modelled from classic bass guitar amplifiers. You will be able to create bass tones similar to amplifiers at a fraction of the cost.
Many of these devices allow for multiple variations of the basic tone and may include effects as well. Some headphone amplifiers use batteries and some are USB charged. The device is small and made from plastic; so, there is a potential for damaging the unit if you become tangled in the headphone cord and it is forcefully pulled out of the device.
But, with care, this will not be a problem, and the benefits outweigh this minor issue. This option is best suited for someone looking to play for fun at home, and for someone who is on a budget.
#3 Digital Audio Interface And Amp Simulation Apps
This next option is also suited for the at-home player; however, it will offer more tonal possibilities than a bass headphone amp, and the possibility of recording your bass with recording software. For this system, you will need two things: a digital audio interface (DAI), and software in the form of an App or Plugin. (An App is software you can use on your smartphone or tablet, while a plugin is software that is used inside recording software on your laptop or computer.)
A DAI changes the analog signal from your bass into a digital signal that can be processed by software. Today, the software available is very large. You can find free and paid versions of amp simulators, speaker modelers, and effects units. The tonal possibilities are almost limitless when using this system. You can listen to the bass through headphones attached to your smartphone or tablet; or, you can output the sound through computer speakers or studio monitor speakers.
Because the analog signal is changed into a digital signal and then back to an analog signal, sometimes the sound quality will be degraded; this typically occurs in the form of latency. Latency happens when there is a slight delay between what you play and what you hear. The result is most noticeable in the ability of the fingers to articulate subtle changes in the sounding of the strings. However, this issue can be overcome by a good quality DAI and software program.
#4 Multi-Effects Processor
A multi-effects processor is an all-in-one amp simulator and effects processor combination. These units are designed with knobs or buttons, or they may include foot switches. (For performing situations, foot switches are necessary for a hands-free operation.) The advantage to this type of “closed” system is that there are no latency issues or interference from other applications that may be running on your smartphone or tablet; therefore, a more consistent and reliable signal output results.
This option is ideal for professional recording and performing, as well as, problem free rehearsing. The output signal can be routed through a headphone jack for practicing, or sent to a P.A. system via an output jack for live performance or rehearsals. The sounds are limited to the software in the system, but many multi-effects processors allow the software to be adjusted through internal system controls or by using a software interface on your computer. This means that within the system you can create your own tones and save them for use.
Different types of amplifiers are modeled as well as different types of speakers. This will allow you to create simulations of vintage amp and speaker configurations and also apply different effects to the sound. If you are planning to use a multi-effects processor for live performance and will be sending your signal through a P.A. system, it is important that the unit has a “dry” output or that the speaker simulation can be turned off. Otherwise, the sound of speaker simulation coupled with the actual sound of the P.A. speakers can produce an undesirable sound. Generally, most multi-effects have this option.
#5 Bass PreAmp
If you are looking for a non-processor based sound that will allow you to boost and color the tone of your bass through E.Q., a bass preamp is a great solution. This device will allow you to shape your sound and send the signal to a P.A., or to a powered monitor on stage. It may also be used for practicing at home using headphones or computer speakers, and for professional recording.
A bass preamp will not digitally alter the sound of your bass. Many bass players prefer this more natural bass tone and use this not only for live performances, but also for recording. Effects pedals can also be added into the signal change if desired.These devices are much less expensive, and much lighter than a traditional bass amplifier. For live performance, you will need some type of monitoring device, e.g. in ear monitors, P.A. monitors ,or an onstage amplifier.
In addition, bass preamps have two types of outputs: 1) a direct output for the soundman, and 2) an output that can be used for in-ear monitoring or stage amplification. In this way, the bass player can create a stage mix for himself and send a dry signal to the sound engineer for the front of house mix. Most professional bass players use this option.
Depending on your playing goal, there are different ways to play the bass without using a traditional amplifier. The best approach is to decide where you are most likely to play your bass, e.g. at home, recording studio, or live performance and how much sound-shaping parameters you desire. Once those two elements have been figured out, based on your budget, you can then select the most appropriate device for your needs.