In this article, it will be discussed whether or not an unplugged electric guitar will sound good.
Most people wonder if an electric guitar does sound good unplugged. That’s an expected question, since the electric guitar, as its name suggests, isn’t made for an acoustic sound. On the other hand, most players don’t have an amplifier yet or can only practice the instrument at night, making it difficult or inappropriate to be played plugged.
Do Electric Guitars Sound Good Unplugged?
No, electric guitars don’t sound well unplugged, since the instrument is made to be played with an amp. You must know that the guitar’s sound without an amp is totally different from its unplugged sound. So playing unplugged will make you acquire inappropriate technical habits.
When you play it unplugged, the instrument’s timbre loses brightness and dynamics. That means that the characteristic sound of the guitar will vanish, leaving its place to a tone without any color and volume variation.
Even if it’s a proper solution to practice without making noise, the custom of doing it will certainly change how you approach the instrument’s technique. The tendency that you’ll have playing unplugged will then be to compensate for the deficiency by putting unbalanced force on the strings.
On the other hand, you may see unplugged playing as a means of solving technical problems. Even though it seems strange, it also makes sense, since the unplugged guitar doesn’t have any effects and amplification that can be used to cover these technical problems.
Electric guitar plugged
Electric guitar unplugged
You listen to the guitar as it would sound in a live concert
The electric guitar may sound good unplugged but sound bad when you plug it after
Effects may cover technical problems
There are no effects to cover any technical problems, which forces you to develop your technique
The dynamics are just as they actually sound
The lack of dynamic/accent possibilities will make you acquire bad habits
The timbre will be just as you want it to sound
The lack of timbre color will make it frustrating to play
You can only play close to the amp
You can practice warm-up exercises while doing other things
Exaggerated pressure on the left hand will be heard and avoided
Exaggerated pressure on the left hand won’t be heard, leading to bad habits
But let’s go more in-depth about how it would sound unplugged:
How does the electric guitar sound unplugged?
The unplugged electric guitar sounds quite poor and bright. The sound is not loud, since the instrument is made to be played plugged. On the other hand, the semi-acoustic guitars, which have a more acoustically planned body, produce a stronger and heavier sound.
These semi-acoustic guitars, unlike the others, have a tone and volume closer to the acoustic ones and you can even record them without an amp. That isn’t the most recommended, since it continues to be primarily electric, but it can be done.
On the other hand, the hard rock guitars have an extremely low volume and a tone that differs more from the acoustic guitars. That is because their bodies are differently created according to their purpose.
We can say that the purely electric guitars have 4/5 times less volume than the acoustic ones. On the other hand, the semi-acoustic ones have approximately half the volume of an acoustic. The tone quality of them is equally proportional. While the electric has a different sound, the semi-acoustic is closer to the sound of an acoustic guitar.
So if you wonder if your neighbors will hear your electric guitar unplugged, don’t worry. That will never happen.
Will playing the electric guitar unplugged negatively impact your technique when plugged in?
Yes, playing the electric guitar unplugged will negatively impact your technique. Since the instrument was made to be played with an amplifier, playing it without will get your fingers used to bad habits. These include putting excessive force on the strings or even playing it too soft.
That means that you will get accustomed to a way of playing the instrument that is very different from the way you should play it. When you go back to using the amp, your technical habits will have to change drastically.
As you weren’t used to playing plugged, when you go back to it, the high volume of the notes will “scare” your ears, and that will make you subconsciously play too soft, sounding insecure and with a weird tone.
Now imagine if this change occurs only at the moment of a presentation. The dynamics, the accents of the notes, and the tone will occur differently from what you expected. That’s because you weren’t actually playing an electric guitar (amplified), but a “weird acoustic guitar” with almost no sound.
As said Fred Frith once:
[…] There is actually no such thing as an electric guitar. This [holding up his modified Gibson ES-335] is not really an instrument. I can say that this is not an electric guitar, but it doesn’t become an electric guitar until I plug it in. And also send it through whatever I want to send it to [indicating his pedalboard]. It’s only this, plus that, plus that [pointing to amplifier], which is an electric guitar.” – Fred Frith
These are some of the technical problems that you will certainly develop playing without an amp:
- Loss of dynamic/accent balance between the notes
- Weird tone, sounding “insecure” and unbalanced.
- Too much pressure playing chords on the left hand (which will sound when plugged)
Why would you want to play your electric guitar without an amplifier?
- Solve technical Problems: That’s because the unplugged guitar hasn’t any effects that will help cover your technical imperfections. The use of reverb, distortion or even amplification can serve as means to hide your poor technique. Playing it unplugged will make you more aware of your difficulties, which is the first step to solving them. That’s why some electric guitar players also practice the acoustic guitar.
- Playing At Night: It can be an excellent way to continue practicing if you have only the nighttime to do it. Neighbors and family will be grateful for that. But you need to know that there are some other possibilities to solve this problem, which will be presented further on.
- Practice warm-up exercises: You can also play it without an amp to practice warm-up exercises, which don’t require much attention to the sound. These exercises, when correctly mastered, are only for warming up before actually practicing. Since they’re entirely mechanical, playing them without plugged sound will allow you to practice even while doing other things.
What Can I Use If I Don’t Have An Amp?
If you don’t have an amp, there are plenty of possibilities available today that can serve your purposes. You can either play it using your PC/Mac (with or without headphones), using an iOS device, a headphone amp, a portable amplifier, or even use your home stereo system. But you have to know that each one of these has its costs and requisites.
- PC/Mac: for that, you must buy an audio interface. Although it is still a cost, it’s usually cheaper than an amp and can be used to record your playing. That’s because it isn’t possible to connect the guitar to the computer with a reasonable quality without using an interface. To record it, you will connect your guitar to the audio interface and the interface to the computer. Then, you will need to download/buy a DAW software, like Reaper or Pro Tools, and an amp simulator, like Amplitude. Having done that, you’ll simply play and, if you want, record the instrument there. If you have a good speaker system, the experience of playing will be even better. That’s because you’ll be able to download your favorite “amp” and play it as if it was a real one.
- iOS or Android device: if you want to use an iPad/iPhone or a Samsung (for example), you’ll need a way to plug your guitar in. The easiest way to do that is using an iRig, which you can easily buy on Amazon. Once it’s connected, you can either play it using a speaker or headphones, and the experience will be fantastic! Using the iRig HD 2, you’ll even have access to the full version of Amplitude, which will allow you to choose between numerous types of amp simulators.
- Headphone amp: using a headphone amp, you will be able to hear your guitar as it sounds, but you’re the only one that will listen to your playing. That’s because the sound will be transmitted to the headphones, as its name suggests. That signifies that you’ll have at your disposal a variety of timbres and effects, but you will only hear that. A good example of a headphone amp is the Valeton Rushead Max, which allows you to use chorus, flanger, tremolo, and other effects. It’s an excellent choice if you want to practice with a variety of timbres without having to pay too much.
- Portable amplifier: that may also be an excellent choice since you’ll have the sound of the electric guitar as it would sound life, but at a low volume. In other words, you’ll be perfectly capable of practicing any music without necessarily having to use headphones, but the sound won’t be loud.
- Your home stereo system: in terms of quality, that isn’t the best choice, but it may be the best you can do in the present. That’s because you’ll use something that you have at your disposal without buying anything else. Using the stereo system, you can have a way better sound than you would have without an amp, but it’s way distant from the sound of a real amp. You’ll only have to buy an adapter to use it, which is very affordable.
What not to use as an Amplifier?
Some beginners try to use alternative ways to amplify the sound since they don’t have an amp. Others are already musicians but temporarily lack an amp, which makes them desperate. Although some of these alternative ways are correct, there are also inappropriate solutions, which are:
- Trying to connect the guitar directly to the computer (without an adapter): Even though connecting the guitar directly to the computer is possible, doing so you might risk damaging your computer and your guitar. Apart from that, the sound you get is terrible and far distant from what you really expect from an amplifier.
- Using amplifiers for other instruments: this can be an attractive solution at first sight if you have another amp at home. But you must know that plugging your guitar into an amplifier of another instrument will probably damage it severely since the electrical charge involved in the process depends on the instrument.
Which amplifier is better to buy?
Knowing the importance of an amplifier, you may ask which one is better. We can say that four well-known brands always produce high-level amps: Fender, Marshall, Orange, and Boss. Down below, it will be recommended some specific models, so you can choose better which one to buy:
- Orange Micro Terror: Costing approximately $149 and having 20 watts, this amp is an excellent choice for those who want to play at home. It is compact and cheaper than most amps, but it isn’t the best choice to show your talent at greater concerts, since it isn’t too loud.
- Fender Hot Rod Blues Junior IV: Costing approximately $599, this amp is an excellent choice for those who like the classic guitar tones. Even though it’s ideal for playing blues and classic rock, it isn’t the best one if you want to explore more modern sonorities. It can also perfectly be used at home since it’s compact.
- Positive Grid Spark guitar Amp: Costing $269, this amp has an excellent cost-benefit. It is not only a versatile amp, but it’s also Bluetooth compatible for streaming music and can have its tones increased by the Spark App. It’s also an excellent choice for those who want to practice at home.
- Boss Katana 100Mkll: Costing $359, this amp is versatile, disposing of a wide range of sounds. Since it has 50 Watts, one can use it to play at home and concerts with a band. It seems like an excellent choice!
In this article, you’ve learned that not only the sound of an unplugged guitar gets weaker and poorer, but your own technique can be harmed by practicing the instrument without an amp. Even though the negative sides are numerous, there’re also some reasons to play the electric guitar unplugged.
You can play it unplugged to not make noise, don’t get deluded that your technique is excellent when it’s just the amp effects acting, or even play warm-up exercises while doing other things (like watching TV).
You’ve also learned that there are differences between electric guitars. They can be either completely electric or semi-acoustic. The last ones have more volume, and the tone is also closer to an acoustic guitar, which allows them to be recorded even without an amp.
If you don’t have an amp or the money to buy one, you have also to know some alternative ways to play the guitar with a real guitar sound. You can use a portable guitar amp, a headphone amp, your iOS/Android device, your Mac/PC, or even the stereo system of your home. All of them will help you approach the sound of a real amp, at different levels and prices.
You’ve also learned that using an inappropriate device, like other instrument’s amps to serve as a guitar amplifier will severely damage it, and can even damage your guitar. You’ve also seen some options of excellent amps to buy.
I hope it was helpful and hope to see you next time!
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Luiz Hauck is a composer, guitarist and music teacher based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Being in the final phase of the bachelor’s degree in musical composition, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, his artistic work concerns mainly concert music, which is his main interest.