Can You Play Acoustic Bass Without An Amp? (8 Tips For Different Situations)

Playing Acoustic Bass Guitar Without A Bass Amp? (8 Tips For Different Situations)

Playing an acoustic bass without an amp? Does it even work? As an acoustic cover band, we need to address that question quite often. How can we get our bass player audible in different locations and situations? Here’s what we learned over the years.

In short, yes, you can play an acoustic bass guitar without amplification. In quiet environments, the bass will be audible to some extent.

But the more musicians get involved and the larger the venue, including audiences, the more you will need amplification.

Acoustic Bass Guitar

It really would be convenient if you didn’t have to carry your whole amplification setup with you, right?

I will discuss in which situations you will be successful in doing so and when it might get difficult.

Finally, you will also read some practical tips on clever and affordable acoustic bass amp solutions for live and rehearsal settings.

Can you play an acoustic bass guitar without amplification?

It will depend strongly on the use case and your situation whether bass playing acoustically will work or not.

It probably should work out well if you, for example, find yourself in a simple practice environment at your home. Or maybe you do a small concert in which musicians perform rather quietly. 

But non-amplified acoustic basses will most probably get to their limits when it comes to louder band rehearsals. Even more so during larger gig environments with audiences.

With lots of musicians involved an acoustic bass will not be able to “cut through” the noise. You’re going to need some kind of sonic support then.

Otherwise, it will not be audible because an acoustic bass guitar will get masked by other instruments and voices. Often multiple different noises from the audience room (talking, laughing, etc.) come into play as well.

For louder environments, it will make sense to use at least some kind of amplification for your acoustic bass guitar so that you make sure it will be audible.

Why would you need to play an acoustic bass without any amplification?

Different situations can come to mind:

  • You could be willing to practice at home using your acoustic bass.
  • You’re in a rehearsal or jam situation but don’t want to carry all your equipment with you.
  • Atmosphere’ and ‘pureness’ are the main focus of your (band’s) musical performance. Any kind of amplification would destroy that kind of feel.
  • Amplification is not possible – for example due to missing electricity in your rehearsal or performing environment.

In those cases, you would need to adjust your workarounds.

But before we dig down deeper let us first take a little dive into the world of lower frequencies and their physics.

Why are acoustic bass instruments sometimes not loud enough?

We can build a simple rule: The larger the (bass) instrument’s body the higher the chances that it might be audible on a sufficient level.

Why is that? That’s because lower tones produce long-form waveforms that need space to expand to their full length which they do inside the instrument’s body.

Of course, those bodies come in different sizes depending on the kind of instrument you’re using.

If you intend to push low sounds to an audible level you will need to go for a preferably large resonator, hence a larger instrument body.

You can find that in real life with instruments that get bigger and bigger as their frequencies become lower and lower. See violin, viola, cello, and eventually upright bass as the largest body with the lowest frequencies.

Now, the waveform might get cut off too early because the instrument’s body is too small. Think regular acoustic bass guitars or even semi-acoustic basses.

Then the waveform won’t be able to expand to its full length because it would already hit the edgings of the instrument’s body early. That means before the waveform could expand to its full length.

The tones won’t achieve their maximum loudness level in that case. That’s why such an instrument might be a lot quieter than your band members.

For loud locations and especially when competing with a full-set drummer, there is no way of getting around that issue. You’re going to need an amplifier for the bass instrument then.

It is that simple.

A rule of thumb: The smaller the body of the acoustic bass instrument the bigger the chance that you will need an amplifier for it to cut through.

Also, it’s even more obvious that you will need bass amplification anyway if it comes to larger venues and audiences.

How to become audible with your non-amplified acoustic bass?

That being said, we all know situations when bass amplification simply isn’t possible or not intended – for different reasons.

We will discuss two approaches to that matter. Firstly you can focus on your playing style or technique. Secondly, the body size of the instrument you’re using is important.

Here are some thoughts and ideas for getting audible in your rehearsal venue or maybe even on stage as an acoustic bass player.

Playing hard and very intensively.

By hitting the strings hard you can surely achieve some kind of gain in volume. Hitting the strings harder leads to a louder tone on average.

But of course, this style of playing isn’t convenient and indeed it can get rather exhausting. That is true both for material, like strings or the wood of the instrument, and for human power, like fingertips and your muscular system in the forearm, hand, and finger regions.

I predict playing loud and hard on acoustic basses won’t be a sustainable solution. It will require very high energy efforts. 

Also, the performance won’t be that impressive due to the lack of subtle emotions while playing. But those would always make a great performance in the end though.

Using a pick (plectrum) for bass playing.

Using a guitar pick would make it a little bit easier to hit the strings harder and so push your performance to better audibility.

You should be able to get a little bit ‘more’ tone out of your acoustic bass. It should have a bit more attack to it.

At least it will sound a good amount different from what you’d get from your fingers picking the strings. Some might say it will get more interesting.

If that high-attack sound is a bit too much for your taste you can try to hit the strings more towards the body-neck transition. That will even out the sound and make it a bit more mellow.

But of course, this comes very much to personal taste and playing habits. It will be difficult for a finger-style bass player to switch to a pick and vice versa.

So, using a guitar pick might not be an option for every situation.

Play the acoustic bass in higher frequency ranges

That means you would play your acoustic bass differently from what you would do on your electric bass guitar.

You could just try to focus more on higher frequency ranges on the fretboard. That will bring to life more mid- and high-range frequencies of the spectrum.

Those higher tones will be more audible even on smaller instrument bodies. That’s due to the habits of the human ear. 

Even creatively this can be a really smart way to use your acoustic bass guitar.

This playing style can be rather inspiring which could make your performance even more interesting for both the audience and your band members.

But yes, it’s true – you would need to play bass differently which, of course, can be a good thing or not depending on your aims.

The second option, besides different playing techniques, would be the usage of larger bass instruments to achieve louder tones, even unplugged.

Using an upright bass will bring bass tones to an audible level

An upright bass or double bass can get the job done quite nicely since it’s a very large instrument with a large body.

It will probably be loud enough on several different occasions like band rehearsals, only for unplugged bands of course, or gigs in small venues with a low amount of listeners. 

If you’ve ever listened to an upright bass you might have noticed that its sound is very impressive.

The tones of a double bass will reach a level that gets ‘room-filling’ in good conscience. It’s something that you not only can hear but also feel in your whole body.

Another advantage is that an upright bass will collect a lot of attention due to its remarkable appearance. It’s pure eye candy.

Besides that, the double bass isn’t played that often by musicians compared to normal bass instruments. That raises attention.

Of course, there are drawbacks at the same time since carrying a double bass isn’t the funniest thing to do. Especially if the idea of less amp equipment was the intentional idea for a non-amplified bass solution.

On top of that double bass is also not the easiest instrument to learn. It requires a very different style of playing in comparison to a standard acoustic bass guitar and a lot of practicing.

Using a Guitarrón Mexicano as an option for non-amplified but loud bass tones

When it comes to instrument looks the guitarrón mexicano might get even more eyes from your audience.

It’s a very special instrument. Some say it has more similarities with a guitar than with a bass guitar.

It is built with six strings and also played in hung around the body, other than an upright bass, see picture.

When it comes to loudness a guitarrón mexicano should be quite on par with a double bass.

In this little video, you can get an impression of that mariachi instrument. Listen to how loud and perceptible it is.

The guitarrón is played in the context of a small ensemble with acoustic instruments like a violin, and a small guitar, and even in comparison to some nicely sung vocals.

Please note the playing technique of the guitarrón player.

Especially have a look at his right hand. As you might notice that’s quite different from both the guitar’s and also the bass guitar’s playing techniques.

Yes, that’s a thing to consider when deciding if a guitarrón could fit your needs. Because it might cause some practicing hours with a new instrument.

The downside here is also its large and cumbersome size. But then again it will still be a bit easier to carry than a double bass.

Also, it may not fit every ‘vibe’ perfectly for different kinds of music styles.

Assumably it won’t always be appropriate but the guitarrón mexicano is a nice alternative when it comes to non-amplified bass instruments.

On top of it, it’s an eye-catcher like few other instruments.

Using preferably large acoustic bass guitars for loud tones

There are acoustic bass guitars which are a good amount larger than one acoustic guitar.

As already stated before, the larger the body the louder the instrument. It’s simple.

One great example of such a large bass instrument is a very unique one. Unfortunately, it won’t be manufactured anymore. It’s the very special Ernie Ball Earthwood bass guitar.

Look at this huge body and its enormous size, even in comparison to an already large Jumbo-sized acoustic guitar (see picture).

Thanks to “The Guitar Broker Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA” for providing the pictures.

It’s a bass guitar made and produced from the early 1970s until around 1985. Today it’s only achievable through secondary markets.

It will then be sold for quite a lot of money which means well above 2,000 to 3,000 US dollars.

That boy is a monster of an acoustic bass guitar. And indeed, it was inspired by the above-mentioned guitarrón mexicano.

The Earnie Ball Earthwood combines a huge body with the vibe and appearance of a standard acoustic bass guitar. 

But, to be honest, in regards to volume, it probably won’t be able to reach the level of an upright bass, no matter how hard you’re going to have to play it.

Just have a quick look at that short YouTube video below and you will get an impression of what it’s capable of.

Unfortunately, the instrument salesman in the video shows the instrument only in solo mode, not in a band context which would be interesting.

But you will still get the idea of how impressive and how loud the instrument’s tone can get without any amplification.

Here’s another example, even better and much more bass likely played – good performance:

The Earnie Ball Earthwood of course isn’t the only bass guitar with a large body but honestly, few others can compete in regards to loudness.

There are well-established brands like Warwick, Guild, or Taylor that do offer rather large acoustic bass guitars also.

In the end, they won’t be as loud as an upright, a guitarrón mexicano, or an Earthwood.

Sure, those large basses might be a bit more difficult to play because of their size and their string action. But they still might be worth a look at them regardless if you’re looking for a great bass instrument.

But again, if audibility is crucial for your gig it’s worth having some thoughts on supportive amplification for your acoustic bass guitar.

Practical amplification tips for acoustic bass players in live or rehearsal situations

The tips above focus on the idea of playing a bass instrument without any amplification, for various reasons.

But there are still very good reasons for using some kind of amplification system for your bass guitar. It’s made easy today!

Especially for live and rehearsal situations, having an amplified bass guitar at hand can make things a lot easier, for both the bass player and the bandmates.

Amplifying a bass guitar back in the early days was demanding. You needed big and heavy equipment like amps and cabinets for that manner. Fortunately, today that has become a lot simpler.

Here are two recommendations on that issue from a guy (me) who has to deal with live or rehearsal situations every week in our acoustic cover band.

Playing bass through the Front-Of-House PA system

Most acoustic bass guitars today have at least some kind of pickup system (i.e. magnetic or piezo pickups). So, it’s very easy to have them plugged-in into an amplification system or amplifiers.

So, plugging your acoustic bass directly into the mixer in front of a PA system should work for literally 100 % of the cases.

Note we’re talking here about ‘acoustic music’, which is important. Hard Rock or Metal music with distorted guitars and bass tones, of course, is a different topic.

Check also our specific article on general differences between electric and acoustic bass guitars.

When it comes to lightweight acoustic music, I can assure you that playing the acoustic bass directly through a PA system will beneficially work out fine!

This will work for both rehearsal and gig environments. We’ve done so with our band successfully a hundred times.

We bring our pa system, which is a Bose L1 Modell II System, to our gigs including a mixer setup. The latter has changed over time but is currently a modern Soundcraft Ui24R Rack Mount Digital Mixer.

Our bass player simply plugs into the Soundcraft mixer and that goes into the Bose L1 Modell II and we’re good to go. The acoustic guitars do the same thing, by the way. No problems with bass tones whatsoever.

That leads to a very good sound that can be sculpted just like we want it to sound. Highly recommended.

Bose and Soundcraft, of course, are only examples and you will find a lot more PA solutions out on the market.

Playing bass through small battery amplifiers

The above solution might be appropriate if your band has a permanent PA installation in a rehearsal room.

But many times you will find yourself gigging somewhere else and you don’t have a PA system close at hand. Sometimes amplification might not even be wanted at all.

That’s when it might be neat if you could play your acoustic bass guitar through a small battery amplifier. Brands like Roland, Fishman, Fender, Blackstar, and many more are offering such solutions.

Those amps might seem small but I can assure you they will do a perfect job when it comes to small gigs when the whole band is performing without an amp, except for the bass player. 

If you don’t use at least a small amp as a bass player – except for very large bass instruments like those discussed above – your bass guitar will drown in the noise and it will not be audible at all.

There’s no chance a normal acoustic bass guitar would be audible against, let’s say, two acoustic guitars, a Cajon, and several singers, which would be a typical cast for an unplugged band. 

Small battery amplifiers like a ‘Roland Street Cube (EX)’ or an even smaller ‘Roland CUBE-20XL BASS’ will do an excellent job supporting the acoustic bass guitar. Both are battery-driven if needed, which can be a huge advantage.

Don’t get distracted by the small size of those battery amps. They will easily be loud enough for many bass amplification purposes.

We have been through these scenarios with our bandmates many times and the results have always turned out great.

Conclusion

  • Playing bass instruments without an amplifier can make sense for acoustic bass players for many different reasons. It’s possible to do so but there are some things to be considered.
  • Non-amplified bass playing will work for practicing purposes at home without any problems. Many bass guitarists consider this to be the main advantage of an acoustic bass guitar.
  • When it comes to rehearsals or even small live performances, then acoustic bass playing without an amp will only work for very quiet environments with purely acoustic musicians and very few listeners.
  • This will even work better for instruments that come with preferably large bodies (like an upright bass, guitarrón mexicano, or some special editions of acoustic bass guitars like an Earnie Ball Earthwood).
  • Larger and louder venues combined with larger audiences should not be played by acoustic bass musicians without at least some kind of amplification. Otherwise, they won’t be audible at all.
  • If acoustic bass players are aiming for less equipment then they can play their instrument directly into FOH pa systems or use smaller, maybe even battery-driven bass amplifiers
  • Overall it’s rather simple, inside louder environments acoustic bass guitars won’t cut through without an amp.

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can you play an acoustic bass guitar without an amp?

A: Yes, you can play an acoustic bass guitar without an amplifier, as it’s designed to project sound acoustically.

However, because bass frequencies are lower and less directional, the unamplified sound might be softer and less pronounced compared to a regular guitar.

Q: Do I need an amp to practice bass at home?

A: While practicing bass at home, you might not necessarily need an amp, especially if you’re looking to work on finger techniques or if you live in an environment where noise is a concern.

An acoustic bass can be sufficient, but remember, for the full experience of bass frequencies, an amp might be beneficial.

Q: Is it worth investing in a portable bass amp for small venues or street performances?

A: Yes, investing in a portable bass amp, can be beneficial for small venues or street performances.

These battery amps can greatly enhance your sound’s reach and quality, making your performance more enjoyable for your audience without the need to buy large or heavy equipment.

Q: Can I use a guitar amp instead of a bass amp?

A: While you can technically use a guitar amp with a bass, it’s not recommended for long-term use. Guitar amps and their speakers are not designed for the lower frequencies of a bass.

Q: How can playing bass without an amp improve my technique?

A: Playing bass unamplified can significantly improve your technique by forcing you to focus on finger placement and strength, as well as tone production. This way you can’t rely on amplification to cover up any mistakes.

It helps in developing a more nuanced and controlled playing style.

Q: Do professional bassists ever perform without an amp?

A: Yes, in certain situations like acoustic sets or when aiming for a very natural sound, professional bassists especially on upright basses may choose to perform without an amp. 

Sources

Many years of experience running an acoustic cover band.