Have you ever wondered whether you can play the electric guitar without an amp?
Obviously, you can strum the guitar without it being plugged in and it will make some noise.
However, you won’t unleash an electric guitar’s true potential until you plug it into a full rig with an amplifier and effects pedals.
The problem with amplifiers, cabinets and pedal boards is that they are extremely inconvenient and expensive.
They aren’t very practical since they take up so much space.
If you’re living in a tiny apartment with a lack of space, or need to travel around with your gear for gigs, then you know exactly how painful it can be.
Fortunately, technology has allowed us to replace our entire guitar rigs with software in the form of digital amp simulators. The best part is that it can all be done right on our laptops, or better yet, our smartphones.
So, can you play an electric guitar without an amp? In short, yes you can play an electric guitar without an amp. However, due to the weak electromagnetic signal generated by the pickups, the volume will be low unless fed through a guitar amp or amplified through other means.
In this article, you will learn exactly how to amplify an electric guitar without an amp.
How Does an Electric Guitar Make Sound?
To help understand why electric guitars typically require an amplifier in the first place, it helps to understand how electric guitars make sound.
When you strum the metal strings on a guitar, (usually made of nickel or steel) they vibrate back and forth.
To actually produce a sound, the electric guitar has magnetic pickups that convert the vibrations of the strings into electrical signals. This process is called electromagnetic induction.
The problem with this is that the signal is very weak and barely audible on its own.
As a result, this electric signal needs to be fed into an amplifier, which then outputs a louder sound through its speakers.
Unlike, an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar does not have a hollow body with a sound hole that allows it to transmit vibrations into the air.
While you can still hear an electric guitar when it’s not plugged in, the output will be much lower than an acoustic.
How to Play Electric Guitar Without an Amp (4 Simple Ways)
As I mentioned, the main problem with using an actual amplifier and effects pedals is that they are expensive and take up a lot of space.
Full guitar rigs with amp heads, cabinets, pedal boards, and microphones can cost upwards of $10,000.
Not to mention how inconvenient it is to lug all of that equipment around, whether you’re playing a gig, or going to a recording studio.
However, With advancements in technology and home recording equipment, you actually do not need a traditional amplifier to play an electric guitar anymore.
While an electric guitar usually requires an amplifier, there are plenty of ways around it.
Nowadays, we can use software and digital effects processing to simulate amplifiers and effects pedals, so you can essentially have your entire rig in a single unit.
Here is a breakdown of how to play electric guitar without an amp.
Below you’ll find 4 very simple methods for playing electric guitar without an amp.
Connecting Your Guitar to a Computer (PC or Mac)
One of the best ways to play electric guitar without an amp is to connect your guitar directly into your computer.
From here you can use amp simulator software instead of an actual amp to get all of your guitar tones.
No lugging around heavy amps, cabinets, pedal boards, or recording equipment. Your entire guitar rig is contained right on your laptop.
Here’s how it works:
First, you’ll need a USB audio interface. This will allow you to connect your electric guitar directly into your computer (Pc or Mac).
I would recommend the Focusrite Scarlett Solo on Amazon. The build quality is excellent. It has industry leading preamps, so the audio quality is amazing.
In addition, it’s a dead simple plug-and-play solution. Just plug it into your computer via USB, plug your guitar into it, and you should all set.
The best part is that it’s a really cheap audio interface for the value you’re getting.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
Now that you’ve connected your guitar to your computer, you’ll need some software to actually play guitar without an amp.
The first piece of software you’ll need is a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW.
Just think of this as a full recording studio in one compact piece of software. It’s basically your recording and editing software for music.
You’ll be using this to load to the virtual amp software. One benefit to having your guitar connected right into your DAW is that it makes recording music an absolute breeze.
Not only can we play electric guitar without an amp, but we’ll also be able to record guitar without microphones. You’ll be directly recording your guitar’s signal right into your computer, so you’ll get the best possible quality, without the hassle of using mic’ing up an amplifier.
If you’re using a Windows computer, I would HIGHLY recommend using Cockos Reaper. It’s professional quality software that’s super easy to use. And it’s free (technically it costs $60, but you can “try” the full version for as long as you want without paying a dime).
Amp Simulator VST Plugin
The amp simulator plugin is where all the magic happens.
Amp simulators, or amp sims, are software that is designed to replicate the sound of real amplifiers.
They can also emulate cabinets, effects pedals, and even microphones.
It’s essentially your entire guitar rig in one self-contained piece of software.
I would personally recommend Bias FX. It’s the best sounding, most intuitive, and most feature-packed amp simulator plugin I have ever used.
You’ll get access to dozens of different amp models for the most iconic amps out there, including the Peavey 5150, Marshall JCM 800, Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and more.
In addition, you’ll get hundreds of different effects pedals including distortion pedals, reverb, delay, loopers, flangers, equalizers and more.
Could you imagine carrying around 50 amplifiers and hundreds of effects pedal boards in real life?
Once you download your amp simulator, you can load it directly into your DAW.
You can now use a guitar that is plugged into your computer to record the signal directly from your pickups into your computer.
Then, the amp sim will apply the effects to your “dry” guitar signal in real time.
And since you’re playing directing in your digital audio workstation, you can record your playing as well without the need of any microphones.
You can even load backing track files into your DAW as well and play along to them.
Here is an example of a guitar cover I recorded using Bias FX on my PC:
As you can probably tell, the audio quality is amazing. The technology has gotten to the point where it’s indistinguishable from a real amp. You can’t even tell that it’s completely digital.
Overall, I would say this is one of the best options for playing electric guitar without an amp, especially for a home studio.
Connecting Your Guitar to a Smartphone or Tablet (iOS or Android)
Another convenient way to play your electric guitar without an amplifier is to connect it to your smartphone. This method can work on either iOS or Android.
That’s right, you can actually replace your amplifier and effects pedals with the smartphone in your pocket.
This concept is very similar to connecting your guitar to your computer, as mentioned in the previous method.
While you may not get as much control when compared to connecting to a full computer, the ability to carry your entire guitar rig with you in your pocket.
Similar to connecting your guitar to a computer, you’ll need a special audio interface to connect your guitar to your smartphone.
I would recommend getting the iRig HD 2. The audio quality of its preamps rivals that of any computer audio interface on the market. And it’s a dead simple to use plug and play solution.
Once you have connected your guitar to your phone or tablet, you’ll just need to download an amp simulator app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
If you’re on iOS, I would recommend Bias FX Mobile. It’s pretty much exactly the same as Bias FX for the PC in terms of sound quality, options, and user experience. The user interface is extremely intuitive on iOS, allowing you to drag and drop different amps and effects pedals into your chain.
Here is an example of a guitar cover I made where the lead guitar tracks were recorded exclusively using Bias FX Mobile:
If you’re on Android, I would recommend either Deplike or Amplitube. They’re similar to Bias FX in most ways.
When using these apps on your mobile device, you can actually link them to a mobile DAW app for recording, just like you would on a computer.
If you’re on an iOS device, you can use Garageband, and if you’re on Android, you can use FL Studio Mobile.
All in all, being able to play electric guitar on your smartphone or tablet without an amplifier makes for one of the most convenient experiences on this list. I would definitely recommend this option if you tend to travel a lot and want to play on the go.
Use a Guitar Headphone Amplifier
Another option for playing electric guitar without an amp would be to use a Guitar Headphone Amplifier.
Okay, while this technically IS an amplifier, it’s not what you would typically think of when you’re talking about amplifiers.
A guitar headphone amplifier is a tiny little battery powered amplifier that plugs directly into your guitar.
You can then plug in a pair of headphones and play your electric guitar without making any noise at all.
This is perfect if you’re looking for a convenient way to practice without disturbing anyone around you.
And since the device is so tiny, you can take with you anywhere you go.
The guitar headphone amp that I would recommend is the Vox amPlug 2. It’s cheap and sounds great for what it is. You can also choose between different versions for cleans, metal, bass, and more.
One thing to keep in mind is that these mini headphone amps are not a full replacement for your rig.
The sound quality is not as good as a VST Plugin and you’re obviously limited to the number of tones you can select from (only 1). In addition, you do not have any options for adding effects pedals. It is only the amplifier.
Guitar headphone amplifiers are really just meant to be used as a convenient practice amp, so you can practice without making too much noise.
They are also great for traveling because you can just throw it in your gig bag and carry it around with you. You can just plug it directly into your guitar without the hassle of cables.
Use a Guitar Multi Effects Processor
The final method for playing electric guitar without an amp is using a multi-effects processor.
A multi-effects processor is a unit that contains different amp models and effects pedals.
While this is probably the most expensive option on the list, multi-effects processors are probably the best sounding.
Everything is contained in a physical unit, so you won’t need to connect to your computer. However, it is an option if you want to connect it to your DAW for recording.
Since the amp models on these devices have very high audio fidelity, many musicians actually use multi-effects processors in place of their actual amplifiers when they are performing live, or recording demos.
Multi-effects processors can easily be connected to a PA system or studio monitors, which makes them great for gigging.
A great affordable multi-effects unit is the Boss ME-80 (link to Amazon). It’s an amazing value for what you’re paying. You’ll have access to 9 different amp models, 59 effects, and 36 presets that sound good out of the box.
If you’re really looking for the top of the line modelers, then you should check out the Axe FX by Fractal Audio. This is definitely the best in class, offering hundreds of different amp models, cabs and effects.
I personally use an Axe FX and I absolutely love it. However, really pricey and can be difficult to program due to how many options there are, so if you’re a beginner, I probably wouldn’t start here.
How to Amplify an Electric Guitar Without an Amp
So, we’ve discussed 4 methods that allow you to play the electric guitar without an amp.
By using amp simulators, we can convert the electromagnetic signals coming from your guitar pickups into a digital signal. We can then replicate the tone of an amp with software and apply it to the digital signal.
However, in order to actually hear an audible sound, we’ll also need to amplify these signals, similar to how a traditional amp will output the signals through its speakers.
Now, we’ll discuss how to amplify an electric guitar without an amp.
Playing Guitar Through Headphones
One of the best ways to amplify an electric guitar without an amplifier is by using headphones.
Playing guitar through headphones is an excellent option because it works with all of the methods previously mentioned. Whether you’re connecting your guitar to a computer, phone, or multi-effects unit, you’ll be able to output the signal through headphones.
This is especially useful for playing at night, or in a small area where you need to be quiet.
I’ve personally lived in small apartments and college dorm rooms where I wasn’t able to actually crank up an amp. As a result, I almost exclusively use headphones when I am playing or recording guitar.
If you’re interested in learning exactly how to connect your guitar to a pair of headphones, check out my post on how to play electric guitar through headphones.
If you’re in the market for an awesome pair of guitar headphones, then I would recommend the Audio Technica ATH M50x. These are probably the best value headphones on the market in my opinion.
They are inexpensive and sound better than headphones that cost twice as much. Not to mention they are extremely versatile. I almost exclusively use these headphones for tracking guitar, mixing and general use.
Playing Guitar Through Studio Monitors
Another way to amplify an electric guitar signal without an amplifier is by connecting it to studio monitors.
Studio monitors are stereo speakers that are specifically designed for professional audio production, such as recording and mixing music.
They typically have a flat response, meaning they have no EQ. This allows you to clearly hear what a guitar track actually sounds like with no modifications.
This is ideal for mixing music because it allows you to clearly hear all of the imperfections, which makes editing the track in post-production much easier.
If you plan on setting up a home studio to create your own music, then studio monitors are a necessity.
If you are connecting your guitar to your computer with an audio interface or using a multi-effects processor, then there will be aux cables on your device that allow you to connect to your studio monitors.
For beginners, I would recommend starting out with the PreSonus Eris reference monitors. This pair of monitors is probably the best you’re going to see for this price. The sound quality is very good despite being fairly small speakers.
If you want a decent upgrade from these, it’ll cost over twice as much. This just goes to show how good of a value these monitors are.
Connecting Your Guitar to a PA System
If you’re going to be performing live using amp modelers, then connecting directly to a PA system is the best way to amplify your electric guitar without an amp.
Many musicians who regularly play gigs are opting to ditch their traditional amps and effects boards for multi-effects processors.
Instead of having to lug around hundreds of pounds of gear to the venue and setting everything up to work with their sound systems, they can just carry around one box with every tone that they’ll need.
You can then connect the multi-effects unit directly to the venue’s PA system to amplify the sound. One advantage to this is that you don’t need to worry about setting up amp microphones.
It’s also possible to connect a laptop or smartphone to a PA system if you’re using software plugins for your tones.
Connecting to Your Home Stereo System
Another way to amplify your electric guitar without an amplifier would be to connect it your home stereo system or speakers.
Most of us already have some sort of home stereo systems, whether they are a set of computer speakers, or a full surround sound system for our home theaters.
While home stereo systems are not designed for playing guitar, due to the bass frequencies, they’re sufficient for playing music.
There’s nothing wrong with using what you already have instead of going out and purchasing new studio monitors.
One thing to mention is that if you want to connect your audio interface to your stereo system, then you’ll likely need to purchase a ¼ inch to 3.5mm adapter.
You can use this to plug a standard 3.5mm jack (that most speakers and headphones use) into your audio interface.
They’re cheap and you might actually already have one laying around your house since they’re included with many headphones.
To wrap things up, you can absolutely play the electric guitar without an amplifier.
Personally, I made the switch to digital amp modelers back in 2011 and haven’t owned a physical amplifier since then.
There are various ways to play electric guitar without an amp including connecting to your computer, phone, or multi-effects processor. Using software, we can replicate guitar tones without the need for physical amps.
Once you have your tones, you’ll need to amplify these digital signals by outputting them to another device.
So with all of this said, are you ready to play electric guitar without an amp? Ditch the analog guitar rig and make the switch to digital amp simulators today!