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  • November 16, 2020 5 min read

    Rock Stock Pedals The Difference Between Guitar And Bass Effects

    Guitarists and bassists have been sharing gear for decades. Back in the 1960s, Ampeg bass amps became so popular that even guitarists started to use them. Bands like The Rolling Stones started to plug their guitars in to these bass amps and use them over guitar amps.

    The opposite is true too. Guys like Lemmy plugged their basses into Marshall stacks, forever changing metal bass tone.

    I’ve personally plugged my bass into my guitar processors out of convenience. Instead of re-routing my signal I just plugged into a clean or light gain setting with surprisingly acceptable (and borderline, good) results.

    Can the same be done with pedals? Yes and no.

    Some guitar pedals aren’t advertised as working on bass, but do the job extremely well. Others sound awful.

    Why is this? Let’s find out.

    Note: All of this is subjective and preference varies person to person. But based on my ears, and the general consensus of guitar and bass players, here’s some helpful observations.

    Why Are There Separate Pedals For Guitars And Basses?

    The Difference Between Guitar And Bass Effects fx pedals

    Almost all of the explanation has to do with the natural frequency ranges of both instruments. They obviously occupy different registers on the spectrum, which is why they work so well together.

    Guitar pedals that have any tone shaping controls are shaped for the frequencies that are common on guitars. Likewise, bass pedals that have any tone shaping controls are designed with low frequencies in mind.

    While in some cases the swapping of roles proved entirely successful, like the guitarists using bass amps and bassists using guitar amps, I would consider these to be outliers. Using a guitar pedal on bass or using a bass pedal on guitar can provide some really interesting results. Some good and some bad.

    Even in the good cases it’s helpful to think about “good” vs “great”. As in, does it genuinely sound good, or does it just sound better that you though. And does it sound better than the comparable (correct) pedal for the respective instrument.

    Let’s take the bass tone in modern metal. It’s super clanky, slightly overdriven, and has a pretty large cut in bass frequencies to allow the kick drum to take center stage. Mixes these days aren’t very bass heavy (even the kick drum), so one could posit that you could just as easily use a guitar amp or processor/modeler instead of a bass amp.

    But here’s the thing, bassists are still spending thousands of dollars to get that tone. And it’s not coming from guitar gear. Even though it sounds like less traditional bass tone (much of the boomy low end remove and other higher frequencies emphasized), it’s still bass gear making it.

    You can experiment to your heart's content, but here are some guidelines that will be helpful.

    What Pedals Work With Guitar And Bass?

    The pedals that work best with both guitars and basses don’t do much in the way of shaping tone. Because both instruments are better optimized in different frequency ranges, the bad ones might be more focused if you use the wrong instrument.

    Using that logic, what pedals don’t use tone shaping?

    Reverb Pedals

    While some reverbs, like our Skyline Reverb, do have a tone knob, you’re only controlling the tone of the reverb. Not the dry signal. You don’t often hear basses with reverb. It’s likely because of the purpose the bass serves in most bands. It drives the groove. It can get lost in audio mud if there’s too much verb (or too much of any effect, really).

    But it’s a really cool thing to experiment with. Just because basses traditionally do something, doesn’t mean they have to. I’ve always wanted to start a band that had two basses (panned left and right) and a guitar that was only a center channel, texture function. Kind of taking the place of keys or auxiliary instruments.

    Delay Pedals

    Delay pedals, for the most part, don’t offer tone. They’re mini loopers, simply repeating the signal that goes into them. That could be just about anything, including basses.

    Tool’s latest record Fear Inoculum has some very tasty use of delay. It’s digital, based (bass’ed!) on how the delay is used along with the tempo. But I suppose delay could be a cool way to add some excitement to bass solos.

    Some Modulation Pedals

    Boss made a series of bass pedals that are the same effect as the guitar version, but optimized for bass. Effects like flanger and chorus.

    From what I can see, the guitar versions are still what bass players prefer to use. I suppose modulation pedals can be considered as tone shaping, since the effects are frequency sweeps. But this is more of a grey area.

    Some pedals from some makers have a switch that allows a “bass version”, which I presume changes the sweep of the effect.

    What Pedals Don’t Work With Guitar And Bass?

    Big muff bass pedal Difference Between Guitar And Bass Effects article

    Anything with specific and intentional tone shaping might not sound as great on basses as they do on guitars. Here are a few that generally don’t work as well. These are also a majority of the bass specific pedals you’ll see on the market.

    Fuzz Pedals

    Fuzz pedals have a very aggressive tone sweep already. They (purposely) add mud to your tone. It’s part of the charm of fuzz pedals. And this tone stack is specifically modeled for the frequency range of guitars. Even using these on 7 or 8 string guitars (aka baby basses) might have a less than desirable sound.

    So when you take this pedal and put it on a bass you might not like the result. Which is why pedal companies make bass fuzzes that are optimized for the natural frequency range of the bass.

    Overdrive Pedals

    It’s not that the gain for bass and guitar is much different. This one again falls into the EQ category. I think you can get away with this perhaps more than fuzz pedals, and even create some cool sounds along the way. But it’s about optimization vs “sounds better than I thought”.

    Preamp Pedals

    This one is kind of an obvious one. The frequencies being cut or boosted with the tone knobs are targeted towards the frequencies on guitars. In addition to the shape of the tone built into the pedal.

    This one, like overdrives, can fool you a little bit, specifically because there is good EQ control. But if you were to compare an Xotic RC Booster guitar preamp with a Darkglass Alpha Omicron Bass preamp, one is going to sound substantially better with a bass.

    When In Doubt, Try It Out

    Plugging a guitar into a bass pedal or bass into a guitar pedal isn’t going to hurt anything (I’d stay away from putting a bass through a guitar amp specifically for the low end push the bass will have). In the last 10 years or so we’ve seen violins and cellos running into overdrive and distortion pedals with really cool results.

    Remember that effects like fuzz and overdrive were accidents and the sound came from faulty gear. Players like Jack White specifically used “bad” gear to create unique and creative tones. Music is art after all. So make your art how you hear it.

    Just be sure to share your results!