You do not need an amp for an electric guitar. An amplifier is a traditional method of listening to a guitar’s output and is considered the best choice for sound quality. Many guitarists are not aware that amp alternatives exist, particularly for concert performances. Still, other options are available for practicing, recording, and performing.
These options include hollow body and semi-hollow body electric guitars, audio interfaces, software plugins, modeling effects, headphone amps, and smartphone apps.
Some people prefer the sound of an amp, while others enjoy the freedom that comes from not having one.
Additional reasons to not use an amp include avoiding the expense, a desire for reduced volume, increased portability, and increased sound manipulation capabilities. One drawback of not using an amp is losing the natural warmth and distortion that comes from the tubes in a quality amplifier.
Hollow Body and Semi-Hollow Body Electric Guitars
Hollow body and semi-hollow body electric guitars are generally plugged into an amplifier but also sound great acoustic. The hollow space in the guitar combined with F-holes in the body creates a unique resonating sound when played without an amp. Many guitarists use this type of electric guitar for practicing at home, in the studio, and on stage.
The semi-acoustic tone is ideal for jazz, blues, and folk. The sound conveys a certain warmth that you can’t get with an unplugged solid-body electric guitar. An acoustic guitar is louder but does not have the same unique sound.
Some examples of hollow body electric guitars are:
- Gibson ES-335
- Epiphone Emperor Swingster
- Gretsch Streamliner
- Eastman Romeo LA
Examples of semi-hollow body electric guitars include:
- Fender Deluxe Telecaster Thinline
- PRS SE 22
- Ibanez JSM20
- Guild Starfire I Jet90
Plugging your guitar into an audio interface will let you play into your computer and use recording software to capture the output. This option is an excellent way to get started if you want to record yourself or if you’re just starting and don’t have an amp.
An audio interface converts your guitar’s signal into a digital signal. You can connect your electric guitar to an interface and play it through software like GarageBand, Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, or another DAW (digital audio workstation).
You can manipulate the tone of your guitar by adjusting the settings in the software, and you can add effects to your recordings. An amp is not required to hear yourself or record yourself playing because you can use headphones or computer monitors instead. You can use the DAW to adjust EQ settings instead of using the controls on an amp.
Some examples of audio interfaces include:
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo
- Focusrite Scarlett 18i8
- PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
- Behringer U-PHORIA
- Steinberg UR12
- MOTU M4
VSTs (virtual studio technologies) are software plugins you can install on your computer to simulate instruments and effects. Professional musicians and recording studios use VSTs, but they are just as useful for the bedroom musician.
Thousands of these plugins are available, many for free. VSTs can emulate synthesizers and guitar amps. The technology is at the point where the unique characteristics of individual amps can be replicated mostly successfully with software. Some VSTs that emulate guitar amps are Native Instruments Guitar Rig, Waves Amplitude, and Softube Tonelab SE.
You can play through effects pedals before connecting your guitar to an audio interface, but you will have more options if you use VSTs to manipulate your sound. Add multiple effects to your guitar tracks, and choose plugins modeled after a specific year of an amp model. This technology continues to improve.
Modeling effects eliminate the need for an amp by electronically simulating various amplifiers, cabinets, and effects. These effects are all conveniently available in one unit, so you can get many different tones without connecting more devices.
These effects provide enough power for practicing and recording and can even simulate an amp for a live performance. The effects boost the guitar signal and can run straight to a PA system or mixer. Guitarists who use modeling effects say they can save money by not having to purchase separate pedals, amps, and cabinets. They can also take their processor with them when they travel.
These multi-effects units also can store presets, which you can use on stage. You can create different tones for each song and even save custom effects. With this level of preparation, you won’t miss adjusting the settings on an amp.
Examples of modeling effects units are:
- Boss ME-80
- HeadRush MX5
- Line 6 Helix
- ZOOM G1X FOUR
- NUX MG100
Headphone amps are popular amp alternatives that allow you to practice anywhere without disturbing anyone. These small devices have a jack that plugs directly into your guitar and either miniature speakers or earbuds.
Many headphone amps have basic built-in effects, so you can add reverb and chorus without needing any other equipment. You can produce full, rich tones with little-to-no feedback.
The technology is impressive on these tiny tools. Some newer models contain sensors that gauge movement and adjust spatial orientation accordingly. Stream from your phone to the headphone amp to play along with a backing track.
Headphone amps are great for practicing in your bedroom without waking up your neighbors. These amps have surprisingly clear tones and are an excellent option for people who don’t have access to a standard amplifier.
You can play headphone amps without any cables. The amp plugs into the guitar and wireless headphones connect via Bluetooth. Some headphone amps come paired with an app that will provide different effects via smartphone.
These are practical options for people who want to practice anywhere they go. They are portable and easy for people who can’t lug around a full-size amp everywhere. These small amps run on rechargeable batteries, so you don’t need to worry about finding replacements.
Popular headphone amps include:
- VOX AP2AC AC30
- Valeton Rushead Max
- Blackstar Amplug2 Fly
- LEKATO Guitar Headphone Amp.
Apps can turn your phone into a headphone amp. Using an app instead of a separate device is convenient for people on the go. If you’re at school, in your room practicing by yourself, or out with friends and want to play some songs without waking anyone up, using amp sim apps is a great option.
You can purchase a digital adapter that connects your phone’s headphone jack to a guitar cable. Some popular digital adapters are:
- TC Helicon Go Guitar Pro
- Thingamagig Guitar Link
- IK Multimedia iRig 2
These apps can provide the same tones as traditional amps. The apps have a wide range of sounds and effects to choose from, so you can find the perfect tone for your song. Some apps are free, and some cost a few dollars.
Many guitarists believe a traditional amplifier is the only way to produce great sounds with an electric guitar, which is no longer the case. Amp alternatives exist in the simplicity of hollow-body guitars and the latest gyroscope-equipped headphone amps. Your priorities and budget are the only limits to your complete creative expression.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.