Most electric guitarists find themselves in a situation at some point where they want to practice, but there isn’t an amp around to plug into. This can be frustrating because while electric guitars do make some noise without an amp, they are not very loud.
Luckily, there are quite a few alternatives to playing guitar without an amp. In this article, I will go over the different options for amplifying your guitar so you can play an electric guitar without an amp.
Can you play electric guitar without an amp?
Electric guitars are most commonly played with amplifiers because amps are designed specifically for projecting the sound of a guitar. So, if you want to get the most out of your electric guitar, playing it with an amp is your best bet. However, it may not always be possible to play through an amp, so you may ask yourself, do you really need one?
In short, no. You don’t technically need an amp to play an electric guitar. And you’ll be happy to know your only option isn’t to just play the guitar with its natural unamplified tone.
The main difference between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar is how they produce sound. Acoustic guitars have a large hollow body, so when you play a note or chord on the guitar, the sound projects through the body, creating a fairly loud noise. Acoustic guitars can be played without any amplification, but you can also mic the guitar or plug an acoustic-electric guitar into an amp.
Electric guitars don’t produce a very loud sound on their own, so they need help in the form of an amplifier, a PA system, or an audio interface.
Can you plug headphones directly into an electric guitar?
Imagine how easy life would be if you could simply plug your headphones into your electric guitar and start jamming. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible as you’ll need to plug the guitar into an amp, audio interface, PA system, multi-effects pedal, or some other device before plugging in your headphones. Disappointed? Trust me; I wish this was possible too.
That said, if you have an amp or another supported device, you can plug your headphones in and listen to yourself play without disturbing others. This has come in handy countless times for me as I practice electric guitar well into the night. You can still get the loud crunchy distortion tones and experiment with different effects without waking the entire neighborhood up. Most amps now have a headphones aux input, but if you have an older model, you may need to get an aux to quarter-inch adapter.
How to play electric guitar without an amp
So, now you know that you don’t necessarily need an amp to play electric guitar. But how do you play your guitar without an amp, and what are the easiest ways to do it?
Plug your guitar into your computer (via audio interface)
If you have a home recording studio set up with an audio interface, you can plug your guitar into the audio interface, which will connect it to the computer. An audio interface is a device that converts the sound from a guitar into a digital signal that is compatible with computers.
This option, while very effective, is a bit complicated because you’ll need not only an audio interface but also software called a digital audio workstation installed that can recognize your guitar.
Digital audio workstations (DAW) such as Logic, Pro Tools, and FL Studio are premium software that many professional recording studios use. However, you can also use Garageband (if you have MacOS) or Audacity for free. Using an audio interface and a DAW is the best way to get the authentic sound of an amp without playing with the amp.
If you plan to use headphones with your audio interface, make sure you use aux input headphones, as bluetooth headphones won’t sound as good and may have a delay.
Plug your guitar into your phone
Most smartphones are also now advanced enough that you can play your guitar through them. You’ll also need an audio interface or a USB-C to quarter-inch adapter to plug your guitar into your phone. You can use apps like AmpliTube or Garageband as the DAW on your phone. Make sure to use headphones or connect your phone to a speaker when using these apps, though. Otherwise, you will not get a full spectrum of sound.
Plug into your stereo system
If you have a home stereo system, you may also be able to plug your guitar into it. Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t the best option, and the tone you get won’t be very rounded because stereo systems aren’t designed specifically for guitars. This is a good option if you are in a pinch, just make sure not to turn the volume up too loud, or you could blow out your speakers.
Most new stereo systems only have aux inputs, so you will likely need a quarter-inch to aux adapter to plug your guitar into. The good news is that these are affordable and easy to find, and the same adapter can be used to plug your guitar into your phone.
Plug headphones into a multi-effects pedal
Multi-effects pedals are digital effects units that allow guitarists to choose between a bunch of different effects on the same device. Most multi-effects pedals have 2-5 slots where you can program different effects like distortion, reverb, or modulation. Many of these effects units also have a headphones slot, so you can plug headphones directly into the multi-effects pedal and listen to yourself play without an amp. This is a huge advantage of this type of effect pedal.
Use a battery-powered micro amp
While still technically an amplifier, micro amps are much quieter and more portable. Most micro amps are battery-powered and have a maximum of 5 watts, so they don’t get very loud. I used to use the Danelectro Honeytone, which is very affordable and sounds pretty decent considering its small size. Many of these micro amps also have headphones or an aux port, so you can easily plug your guitar into the micro amp and then plug your headphones into the amp and quietly play.
Simply play without an amp
The easiest way to play your guitar without an amp is…. to just NOT use one. As I said before, your electric guitar will be pretty quiet without an amp, but if you are just practicing in your room, you’ll definitely be able to hear yourself play.
Electric guitars played without an amp sound lifeless. They have a dull tone and sound completely different from when they are plugged in. This is because the pickups are responsible for creating the tone of an electric guitar. But if you just want to practice your technical ability and don’t need to mess around with amp settings or effects, practicing without an amp is a perfectly good option.
How loud are electric guitars without an amp?
An electric guitar on its own only produces around 30-40 decibels. This is very quiet for a musical instrument, and if there are people talking at a normal level in the same room as you are playing, you may not be able to hear the guitar. If you want to play guitar unplugged and get a decent tone, your best bet is to use an acoustic guitar.
What about semi-acoustic guitars?
Semi-acoustic guitars are electric guitars that are partially hollow on the inside, allowing for better clean tones and a slightly louder acoustic sound. A semi-acoustic guitar won’t be nearly as loud as a fully acoustic guitar, and honestly, the difference in volume between the semi-acoustic guitar and the electric guitar is minuscule. A standard semi-hollow guitar may get up to 45 decibels max. However, fully hollow electric guitars are much louder than semi-hollow or solid-body guitars. These may get up to 60 decibels, which isn’t as loud as an acoustic guitar but loud enough to comfortably play without an amp.
The main issue with fully hollow-body guitars is that they produce a lot of feedback when plugged in, which is why the solid-body guitar was invented in the 1950s.
For comparison, standard acoustic guitars are around 80 decibels, which you can easily hear outside or in a room full of people talking.
In conclusion, amps are the best way to get the most out of your electric guitar, but there are other options. While you may need to purchase some equipment or download software, you can definitely play an electric guitar without an amp.
Have more questions about playing your guitar unplugged? Feel free to reach out. I am always happy to help!