by Scott Zimmerman

This article is about how you can play your electric guitar without using a traditional amplifier. If you’re interested in seeing how you can effectively learn guitar from home, view our article here. You can also sign up for one of our online guitar courses.

Maybe you’ve inherited an electric guitar without an amplifier and would like to try it out, or you’ve bought one, but can’t afford the added expense of an amplifier, or perhaps, you don’t have room for an amplifier or using an amplifier would be too loud for your living situation: if one of these scenarios fits your situation, you might be wondering if you can play your guitar without an amp.

So, can you play an electric guitar without an amp? An electric guitar can be played without an amplifier. Home stereo systems, headphone amplifiers, digital audio interfaces, software applications, and multi-effects units provide a method to play guitar without a traditional amp.

Let’s look at 7 ways you can play your electric guitar without an amp.

#1 Play The Electric Guitar By Itself

The electric guitar will produce a sound without an amplifier. However, the sound will not be very loud, and the tone of the guitar cannot be altered. When unamplified, the electric guitar works like an acoustic instrument; the sound waves produced by the vibrating strings resonate off the wood material of the guitar.

However, unlike an acoustic guitar, with a resonating chamber consisting of essentially a wood box, the soundwaves of an electric guitar will be minimally amplified. Using the electric guitar, in this way, can be useful in situations where you want to do some technical practice; but, it is not a practical long term solution. To experience the unique tones and volume potential of an electric guitar, you will want to activate the electrical system of the guitar by using its pickups.

Let’s take a look at some options for doing this by starting with the easiest and least expensive methods and moving on to more expensive and, most importantly, options that will allow you to unlock the almost limitless tonal possibilities of the electric guitar.

#2 Home Stereo or “Boom Box”

Using an amplifier that you already have in your home is an economical way to play your electric guitar. In order to do this, you will need to purchase an inexpensive adaptor that will plug in to the ¼” guitar cable. For a home stereo, you will need a female ¼” to male RCA adaptor. This will allow you to plug your guitar cable into the input of your home stereo unit.

However, be careful not to damage your speakers by playing too loud. Alternatively, if you have a “boom box” with an input, you can use that as well. Typically, this device uses an ⅛” input; therefore, you will need a female ¼” adaptor to ⅛” male adaptor. This type of setup will produce a “clean” guitar tone.

A clean guitar tone is useful for practicing and developing your guitar technique; however, the next step will be to use a device that can alter the tone of the guitar so that you can create more tonal possibilities. e.g. overdrive, reverb, delay, etc.

#3 Guitar Headphone Amplifier

For about $50, you can make your guitar sound as if it were playing through an expensive vintage amplifier. Guitar headphone amplifiers plug directly into the input jack of your guitar; then, you can use headphones which plug into the device to hear what you are playing. Alternatively, you can run the output signal of the guitar headphone amplifier into your home stereo system.

Typically, these devices will produce one type of classic guitar tone, e.g. blues, metal, or a vintage amp sound, with the ability to slightly alter these tones in different modes. Also, many of these devices include effects such as, delay, chorus, and reverb. Some units also include the ability to input music, so that you can jam along with your favorite music. Keep in mind, these devices are small and made out of plastic; there is a potential for damage if a headphone cord gets stepped and pulled out accidentally from the unit.

Also, power supply can be an issue. Some of the devices can only be powered by batteries; whereas, some can be charged using a usb cable. However, these minor potential issues do not outweigh the value of these devices compared to their cost. Lastly, because these devices are essentially analog, there are no problems with latency. This means that the signal from the guitar pickups remains an electrical signal and is not changed into a digital signal.

When the signal is changed from analog to digital and then back to analog, slight delays can occur between the initial activation of the string and the sound that is heard. We will comment of the effects of this process in the next section, when digital guitar interfaces are discussed.

#4 Digital Guitar Interface with Smartphone or Tablet

This next option will allow you to play your guitar through your smartphone or tablet. Besides your device, you will need two things: 1) a digital guitar interface, and 2) an “app” on your device. A digital guitar interface is a device that changes the analog (electrical) signal from your guitar into a digital signal. Once the signal has become digitized, it can be processed using software. Then, the signal is returned to analog and sent through the output jack of your device to either headphones or speakers.

There are many digital guitar interface products to choose from; typically, they begin at the $100 dollar price point. You will also need software in the form of an application or app.; these applications may be free or purchased.

There are many software options including amp simulators with effects and recording software. This type of system creates the potential for an almost unlimited amount of tonal choices. In addition, sound profiles of some of the most famous guitar players and the tones they created for specific songs are available for you to use.

However, because the analog signal will be processed at two points along the signal chain, i.e. within the digital interface and within the software of the app, the potential for latency or delay between the plucking of the string and the sound of the string can occur. Furthermore, due to the unstable nature of the usb interface to the smartphone or tablet, slight movements of the cable from the digital interface to the device can cause an interruption in the signal.

This can be problematic because guitar players tend to move as they play. But, these technical issues aside, the low cost and large selection of apps. makes this a great budget option.

#5 Multi-Effects Processor

A multi-effects processor combines a digital guitar interface and software application into one hardware unit. They can have foot pedals for live performance situations or they can be designed for a home studio without foot pedals. Because the digital interface and the software are designed to work together, there are no latency issues.

Also, they are inherently more stable in terms of signal output. The analog signal is digitized and processed within a closed system and sent out as an analog signal. Thus, cable instability issues and software compatibility issues between devices are eliminated. Since this is a closed system, so to speak, the hardware and software within the unit can not be changed or altered.

Each brand of multi-effects unit will have its own unique sound. It is important to do research and find out which unit is right for the type of music you will be playing, e.g. some models will produce more of a vintage or classic sound, while others will be better suited for heavier rock or metal styles. 

#6 Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

The digital audio workstation or (DAW) is ideal for someone looking to record music at a professional level. The system works similar to the digital guitar interface with device setup, but the components used are more versatile and of a higher quality, therefore, more expensive. The first component, the digital audio interface, can receive a ¼” guitar input, and many will be equipped with an XLR (microphone) input.

This will allow you to record vocals and acoustic instruments. In addition, some digital audio interfaces allow for multiple inputs at the same time, which is necessary when recording multiple instruments simultaneously. The second component is software. The software is run on a computer with a large processor, extra RAM and high speed hard drives. The DAW computer can run recording software and signal processing software such as guitar effects and amp simulators. Latency is not an issue when using a high quality digital audio interface and a computer with the proper system requirements. 

#7 Practical Applications

Let’s look at some typical situations and practical solutions for playing the electric guitar without an amplifier.

I inherited an electric guitar and I am not sure if I will pursue learning how to play it. Or, my son or daughter wants to try electric guitar, but I’m not sure he or she will stick with it.

I would suggest using your home stereo system until you decide whether you, or your child will continue playing the electric guitar.

I am interested in an inexpensive way to get classic guitar tones while playing my electric guitar.

In this case, a guitar headphone amp would work well. You can choose the type of guitar headphone amp that best suits your style of playing, e.g. clean, blues, rock, heavy.

I would like to explore the guitar tones of different guitar players, and have the ability to use a variety of tones, effects, and amplifiers without spending a lot of money. I’d also like to be able to jam with play along tracks.

An inexpensive digital audio interface ($100) along with an amp modeling app. on your smartphone or tablet is the way to go. You can also download backing tracks to play along with.

My goal is to play in a band and they have a P.A. system with monitors.

In this situation, a multi-effects pedal unit is best. You will be able to practice at home using headphones, and be able to plug into the bands P.A. system for live performing. (For best results, you will need to use a monitor so that you can hear yourself while the band is playing.)

I’d like to have access to a variety of tones, effects and amplifiers for playing at home, but I don’t want to use my phone or tablet. 

A multi-effects unit with or without foot pedals would be great for this situation.

I would like to create my own music and professionally record my guitar playing.

A digital audio workstation (DAW) will best suit this purpose. If you already have a gaming computer, you will most likely have enough processing power, RAM, and high speed hard drive access to make professional recordings. You will also need a good quality digital audio interface that will accept microphone inputs as well as instrument inputs. Make sure to get an interface that supports phantom power, so that you can use condenser microphones. Lastly, you will need to install recording software and any guitar amp or effects plugins you want to use for your guitar.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.