Updated January 29th, 2020
There may be a number of reasons why someone would be wondering if they can play their electric guitar without an amplifier. In this article I’m going to cover many variations of this question and give you all the options I can think of to amplify an electric guitar without a guitar amplifier.
TL;DR – While you can play electric guitar without an amplifier, I don’t recommend this for beginner players. The reason being that much of the learning process is done through hearing the notes being played and the mistakes being made. Without this feedback, learning will happen much slower and bad habits are more likely to form.
For an inexpensive beginner guitar amp with a convenient headphone output, I take a look at the Fender Mustang LT25 amplifier.
For an option to connect your guitar to an iPhone or Android mobile device, tablet, or laptop, I take a look at the iRig interface.
Finally, there are some things you want to avoid when trying to amplify your guitar.
Playing Electric Guitar Without an Amp for Beginners
There are two options when buying a beginner guitar, Acoustic or Electric. The advantage that acoustic guitars have for a beginner is that they provide very clear feedback to whether notes are being fretted correctly. Throw in the additional challenge of heavier gauge strings with more overall tension, and you have a considerable challenge for a beginning player.
I personally think the challenges of an acoustic guitar are great for young players and beginners of all ages because an acoustic guitar builds finger strength, dexterity, and a sense of touch. Moving from an acoustic guitar to the lower string tension of an electric is a much easier move than from electric to acoustic.
However, I’ve known (and taught) many guitar players who started on electric guitar. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I often found that the music which got beginners excited about learning guitar in the first place was driven by the Rock tones of the electric guitar. Nothing can replace a wall of distortion coming from your own guitar, and being handed an acoustic and told to start there is a whole lot less exciting and a lot less fun for many people.
I believe strongly that these are not the petty complaints of a young player who (putting on my principal voice) need to learn the right way, like I did, back when we knew how to work hard and a good horse cost ten bucks! If a player, no matter their age, is not excited about the instrument and the music they’re playing, they won’t by playing for long.
That being said, an amplifier is a required part of an electric guitar. If you don’t have a way to amplify the signal from your guitar, you just have a hunk of wood with some metal strings. I know that the whole package can be daunting and hard on the wallet, but not having an amplifier will make learning difficult, if not impossible.
The Fender Mustang LT25 is my favorite first electric guitar amp for beginners. It has 50 different amp presets, 26 different effects, built-in tuner, and a headphone jack so you can play to your heart’s content without driving anyone else crazy. These things are awesome, and one of the most affordable practice amps on the market. I can’t recommend them enough.
Challenges of Learning How to Play Electric Guitar Without an Amp
There are a couple problems that pop up when trying to learn guitar without an amplifier.
Hearing the Mistakes: When first starting out learning to play guitar, one of the major challenges is building the dexterity and finger strength required to fret multiple strings at a time in order to play chords. At first, you feel like you’re contorting your fingers into an octopus finger puppet, lurking in the shadows of a shipwreck.
And while you are fighting the hand cramps, you’re also saying to yourself, “there’s no way this can’t be right.” And during those early days, this inner monologue is generally correct.
But the only way to know if it is right or not, if you’re progressing as a player or not, is through the sound that comes out of the guitar. When playing an electric guitar that isn’t plugged into an amp, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to hear the subtle mistakes that are being made. Maybe a finger isn’t quite in the right spot to fret the note cleanly. Maybe you’re pressing too hard, or not hard enough. If the guitar isn’t amplified these are things that you won’t be able to hear.
The danger of this is that you learn what you practice, and the law of primacy says that the first thing you learn has a larger impact than what comes later, even if it’s not correct. Relearning what you have learned incorrectly can be extremely difficult, as we all know about bad habits and their ability to stick with us long after we’ve desired them not to.
In order to know if you’re fretting notes correctly, it’s necessary for the guitar to be amplified in order to hear all of the notes (and attempted notes) clearly.
Hearing the Right Notes: On the other hand, an electric guitar must be amplified to hear the correct notes being played and the relationships between them.
While beginning players are focuses, brows furrowed, on taming the wild finger beasts asked for by their first chord diagrams, something else is going on behind the scenes. Our ears are working overtime learning how chords sound together, the relationships between notes, the difference in feeling between minor and major chords, and a wide range of other bits of data our brains learn about music.
This is one of the most important parts of learning to play music, or learning an instrument. We’re not learning an instrument for the sole purpose of being technically good at moving our fingers across some strings. We’re learning our instrument for the purpose of making music.
While ear training generally comes into practice much later, it’s important to allow for the mechanisms of that training to work. In this case, we have to be able to hear the output of the notes that we’re playing on the guitar clearly and with enough volume so that our ears can start that learning process.
All of this to say that an electric guitar and its amplifier are two peas in a pod. While you certainly can play the guitar without having it plugged in, it will be to the detriment of learning the instrument for younger and beginner players.
Playing the Electric Guitar Unplugged for an Intermediate or Advanced Player
If you’re an intermediate or advanced guitar player I highly doubt you’re looking up an answer to this. However if you’re a beginner you may hear mention or see other guitar players doing this. Typically it’s in the form of the guitar player sitting on the couch noodling on an electric without having it plugged into anything.
Once you’re not learning the fundamentals of the instrument anymore, practice of technical skills becomes important and can have a meaningful impact on your playing. Whether this is practicing speed, alternate picking, sweep picking, dexterity exercises, or scales, there are plenty of things you can work on where you don’t need the guitar plugged in.
I want to be clear that this applies to guitar players once they’re out of the early beginner stages. Once you’re out of that stage it is common and widely accepted to play your electric guitar not plugged into an amplifier.
Can You Play An Acoustic Electric Guitar Without An Amp?
Yes, you can play an acoustic electric guitar without an amp. When an acoustic electric guitar is not plugged in, the guitar still acts and sounds just like a standard acoustic guitar. No need to have the guitar plugged into an amp.
Remember that if you are plugging you acoustic electric guitar into an amp, the instrument cable plugged into the guitar needs to be removed as well or else the battery in the guitar’s preamp will go dead. The preamp is turned on anytime a guitar cord is present. Just make sure to unplug it when not in use and you won’t be spending your hard earned dollars on 9v batteries.
The Best Inexpensive Electric Guitar Amplifier
We recently dove into the Best Beginner Fender Electric Guitar Amp. Read that article for much more detail on a couple amps that I strongly recommend for beginners.
The main recommendation from that article is the Fender Mustang LT25. These amps are small, lightweight, full of different amps and effects to keep anyone interested, and maybe most importantly have a headphone jack.
Fender Mustang LT-25 Amplifier, Amazon
This is the perfect amp to pair with a new electric guitar. When I taught guitar lessons, if a student came to me with an electric guitar and no amp, I would point them towards a Fender Mustang. The LT25 is a newer addition that simplifies some of the controls and offers an incredible package at a surprisingly cheap price.
If the question that brought you to this article really is, “I just bought my kid an electric guitar, do I have to buy an amp too?” The answer, supported by my arguments above, is yes you do and this is the amp to buy. The price tag helps too, and this is a great practice amp that will last for many many years.
How to Plug An Electric Guitar into a Cell Phone (Android, iPhone, Tablet)
If you don’t want to plug your electric guitar into an amplifier, there are ways that you can plug into your mobile device, tablet, and computer. However, there is not an adapter that plugs directly from your guitar into your phone. In order to do this you need what’s called an interface.
The iRig Pro is the best mobile interface that I’ve seen on the market, and it will work to connect your instrument, microphone, or midi device to your iPhone, Android, tablet, or computer.
iRig Pro, mobile and computer guitar interface, Amazon
There are other audio interfaces out there designed specifically for recording purposes and are compatible almost exclusively with computers. I’ll explore these down below. The iRig is one of the only interfaces designed specifically for mobile and tablet applications.
Why can’t I just plug my guitar straight into my phone? You phone needs to see a digital audio signal of a specific voltage, and this is precisely what an interface does. The signal coming out of your guitar is an analogue sine wave. If this sine wave was strong enough, it could be sent to a speaker and the sound of your guitar would come out of it. Of course, it isn’t strong enough and that’s why we need amplifiers in the first place. Now, in order for our devices to understand and deal with this signal it first has to be converted from analogue to digital.
The interface also takes the guitar (or other instrument) input and turns it into the correct voltage needed to pass the signal along. This occurs in what is called a preamp.
In order to plug your guitar into your phone or tablet, an interface like the iRig Pro is required.
All you have to do is plug your guitar into the iRig Pro and then plug that into your device. It runs off of battery, or wall power, and includes a 3.5mm headphone jack. You plug your headphones into the iRig and not your phone. If you have the new iPhone headphones that use the Lightning jack, you’ll either need to buy a pair of headphones with a 3.5mm jack or pickup an adapter like this one.
The iRig Pro is an awesome way to play your electric guitar without an amplifier, and is especially great if you’re traveling and can’t lug an amp around. This is perfect for hotel practice, or sitting on the couch.
The iRig Pro comes with the Amplitude software which allows you to select different amps, effects, and microphones to get the exact sound you’re going for. There is not a sound that isn’t in this thing, and they’re always making updates to it, so the number of different sounds and combinations are nearly limitless.
This also provides a way to record your guitar into your iPhone, Android, tablet or computer. Whether you need a mobile, easy to pack around, recording solution, or you’re using this as a practice tool, the iRig is an awesome solution to playing your guitar without an amplifier.
Though it can work with any headphones, cheap headphones like the ones that came with your phone are not going to sound that great. I would suggest buying a nice pair of over the ear headphones for hours of comfortable playing and studio quality sound. My personal favorites, the ones I’m using at this very moment, listening to the Oscar Peterson Trio playing Georgia on my Mind are the Sony MDR 7506 Profession headphones. I discuss these headphones in greater detail in The Best Simple Recording Setup.
The Cheapest Way to Amplify an Electric Guitar: The Headphone Amplifier
By far the cheapest way to amplify a guitar is with a small headphone amplifier. These headphone amps plug directly into your guitar’s output jack and have a 3.5mm headphone jack to plug your headphones into. This can be a great option if you’re looking for a cheap and simple solution to playing your electric guitar without an amplifier.
Check out the Vox AC30 headphone amp. This is my favorite of these style headphone amps.
VOX AC30 Headphone Amp, Amazon
This is a pretty standard little amp that gives you a good clean tone and can provide a little bit of distortion if you want it. There are a bunch of other headphone amps on the market specifically voiced for higher distortion. I’d stay away from those as the distortion on them is typically pretty bad and will just make your guitar and playing sound awful.
While these aren’t the best sounding amplifier out there, they work pretty well and are by far the cheapest and most simple solution to playing your electric guitar without an amplifier. Give it a shot and see if you like it.
Other Ways to Play Your Electric Guitar Without an Amplifier
The original guitar amplifiers started out as being PA systems for small clubs. This was a massive improvement over acoustic instruments that weren’t loud enough to be heard at times. Early systems however lacked the sonic depth that we see today and were typically pretty harsh in the mid and upper frequencies.
If you have access to a PA system, most mixing boards will take unbalanced high impedance instrument inputs like that coming from your electric guitar. While this is an option, the preamp of a mixing board isn’t really designed to voice an electric guitar, and will end up sounding sterile and harsh. While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with plugging your guitar into a PA, it isn’t ideal and won’t give you the sound you want.
A guitar amplifier has a certain amount of natural compression and mid boost that makes a guitar sound great. A mixer is not designed to mimic that, and therefore will sound hollow.
You will not do any damage to a PA system by plugging a guitar into it, but you’ll have better luck with one of the options listed above. Plus, who wants to mess around with a massive, heavy PA system when there are much smaller and easier options available.
The iRig Pro that I mentioned earlier is an example of an audio interface. However, that one is designed specifically for recording and playing with a mobile device and works great in that capacity.
If you start going down the rabbit hole of home recording, you’ll soon find yourself in a pit of audio interfaces. These are how you take instrument signals, mic inputs, and anything else you want to record and runs it through a preamp and analogue to digital converter before sending it along to your computer. My personal favorite interface is the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8, though smaller ones with single or double outputs are available.
For more information on my favorite simple home recording setup where I go into more detail on the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8, check out my article: The Best Simple Recording Setup.
These devices come with recording software called DAWs or Digital Audio Workstations. Within these DAWs are effects and amp emulators that can take your instrument inputs and make them sound however you want.
While this certainly is an option for playing your electric guitar without an amp, this is really some serious overkill. This is like planting a carrot with an excavator. This option goes a bit counter to the spirit of the question which is attempting to find easy, mobile solutions that don’t tie you down to your amp. However, if you are interested in recording, and don’t mind being tied to your computer, this can be a fun way to experiment with sounds and effects.
Because these options are typically geared towards recording, the software isn’t typically designed with guitar players in mind. The AmpliTube software that comes with the iRig Pro is, and makes picking different amps, models, and effects an easy and visual process.
Turns out that IK Multimedia who makes the iRig also writes the AmpliTube software and they offer a free version of it on their website. The free version is considerably paired down, but at least allows you to get a good idea of its capabilities before purchasing. I had a ton of fun playing with the different models and effects with my Tele plugged into my Scarlett 18i8.
How do I Connect My Guitar to a Bluetooth Speaker?
Ok, say you have a bluetooth speaker like the Bose Home Speaker, and you want your electric guitar sound to come out of it.
First you’ll need a preamp of some type to output a line level input into your speaker via an adapter cable (⅛” male to ⅛” male for example). However, if you want to connect via bluetooth to the speaker than you’re going to need an interface to your mobile device or computer which will in turn connect to the speaker.
The easiest option to achieve this is probably the iRig, which interfaces between your guitar and the device running AmpliTube. While iRig doesn’t allow iOS to route audio to its speakers, it can be routed to a bluetooth connection. So with your phone (tablet, or computer) connected both to your guitar and a bluetooth speaker, you can achieve this setup.
How NOT to Amplify Your Guitar if You Don’t Have an Amplifier
I know it’s tempting to just plug your guitar into anything and everything to see if it will turn into a wall of guitar sound, but please show some restraint here. Here are some methods to avoid when trying to amplify your guitar.
Plugging directly into a hifi stereo system
Hi-fi home stereo receivers and amplifiers are designed to take line level outputs from devices like record players, cassette decks, CD players, or TV, DVD, BlueRay players etc. and amplify those sounds accordingly.
I want to be clear here. With a little finessing and a couple pieces of gear, you can absolutely get away with plugging an electric into a stereo system. However, hi-fi systems are designed and EQ’d so much differently than guitar amps that it’ll never sound like it’s supposed to.
Because these preamps are not designed for the high impedance signal from your instrument you’re going to want to have a modelling unit which can provide a line out to the stereo. Check out the Line 6 POD for an inexpensive option, or a Line 6 Helix for a real fancy one.
These units will at least prep your signal to sound a little bit like a guitar is supposed to sound. However, the voicing and frequency response of hi-fi speakers are considerably different than a guitar amp and will not ever give you the sound you’re looking for.
There is an obvious caveat to this which are advanced studio setups that mic a guitar amp into preamps, eq’s and compressors before pulling those into a DAW with studio monitors. These setups are the pinnacle of audio reproduction and exist at a very sophisticated level. There is much more going on there than a guitar plugged into your parent’s Panasonic.
Plugging directly into a computer
Audio inputs on computers are simply not intended for guitars to be plugged into them. Impedance mismatches, input voltages, and preamp EQing are so different from a guitar amp that the resulting sound will struggle to be appropriate for guitar let alone for a beginning guitar player.
If you are wanting to plug into your computer, make sure to pick up an iRig Pro or other audio interface to do it with the correct gear.
So you have an electric guitar, and want to play it without an amplifier. If you’re just starting out as a beginner guitar player be careful of developing bad habits because you can’t hear all of the sounds coming out of the electric guitar. The cheapest option is a headphone amp that runs on a AA battery. The next best option is an inexpensive beginner amp, I highly recommend the Fender Mustang LT25.
If you want to connect your guitar to your mobile device or tablet, the iRig is an awesome option, which can be used along with AmpliTube to dial in the exact sound you want from a huge range of modelled amps, effects, and mics.
Lastly you can plug directly into an audio interface and then manipulate the input tone through a modeling software in the DAW on your computer. While this is a more complicated option that tethers you to a computer, it can be a great way to dip your toes into the world of home recording.