No amp? How to play guitar through headphones, the definitive guide
Growing up with two brothers and two sisters in the same house made my early guitar playing days quieter than normal. I remember unzipping the carrying bag slowly, taking out my red Stratocaster copy, and playing power chords imagining the sound coming from massive speakers to a crowd of screaming fans.
Back then, when I started playing, there were few to no options to play your guitar through headphones. I used to shred with no distortion; it was very boring.
New Options for Playing Your Guitar Through Headphones
Luckily for you, fellow guitar player, times have changed and it is now very easy to plug in while everybody else is asleep. Furthermore, there are a plethora of options available.
Just because I owe it to the kid I used to be, I put this post together to help others in that situation. We are indeed going deep into the subject and hopefully, light the path for you.
Ready or not, grab those headphones, because here we go!
Why would anyone want to play guitar through headphones?
Well, as my grandpa used to say, let´s start from the beginning. Why would anyone want to play guitar through headphones? The answer to that question is very broad. What we can say is that it is a matter of needing rather than wanting. Indeed, most guitar players (including me) love to hear the roar of the speaker while we play. That being said, it is time to face the truth, cranking up a tube-driven amplifier is becoming increasingly rare.
We could say that the world is more populated every day. As the population grows and there are more people to fit in the same physical space, we have to live closer together. In other words, the chances of having very close neighbors and living in a reduced space are higher than ever. That equation: “close neighbors + lack of space = quiet guitar playing” is very common nowadays, even more than one would think.
Indeed, many players dropped analog circuitry a long time ago and switched to digital technology. For example, in case you are not familiar with Kemper or Fractal, they are used to amplify guitars for stadiums and arenas all over the world. This means that not even pros working at that level are strangers to digital technology applied to guitar playing.
Finally, let´s say that technology echoed this need and there are many more solutions now than the ones I had growing up. From Bluetooth headphones to loopers, from arena-ready technology to DSP processing, it is all designed to make your guitar playing more enjoyable while remaining silent.
There has never been a better moment to be a guitar player, believe me.
Some common case scenarios
Let´s go over some common case scenarios we will cover in the article; is any of these your own? Read on as we´ll unveil the exact solution further down the page.
- Family harmony – Not disturbing other family members is one of the most common case scenarios that require guitar players to go for headphones while practicing. Whether it be brothers, sisters, significant others, children, or parents, going stealth while wailing on your favorite solos can become a must.
- Close neighbors – This is another very common scenario. If you live, for example, in an apartment building, you can´t make your best rendition of Van Halen´s Eruption at three AM or you´ll be kicked out. On the other hand, honoring Eddie´s memory on headphones can be the perfect choice to rock as much as you want and keep your house.
- Playing on the road – If you are a working musician, sometimes you need to practice and believe me that the tour bus is not the place to torment your bandmates with that riff you can´t play right. They will love your headphones even more than they love you.
- Traveling – What is better than going on a long vacation or trip with someone you love? Bringing your guitar with you! No room for a guitar amp? Don´t worry, all you need is just a pocket-sized guitar amp and a good pair of headphones and you´re ready to go in a minute.
How to practice electric guitar quietly?
Did you recognize yourself in the above examples? The list could obviously go on forever and I encourage you to leave us a comment about your very own case scenario.
Let´s take a look at the possible solutions for these troublesome moments with your instrument.
Guitar headphone amplifier
The irruption of a headphone guitar amp revolutionized the market. The ability to go from your headphone amp to your guitar effortlessly changed many people´s lives. Furthermore, the size we are talking about is an amplifier that can easily fit in the pocket of your shirt.
Besides not taking any space (it can live happily inside your gigbag or case forever), they are the cheapest option on this list. Perhaps, the most famous is the Vox amPlug which comes with simple, amp-like controls, and some added effects. This way, you can control tone, gain, and volume adding some delay, reverb, tremolo, or distortion to the signal.
How does a guitar headphone amp work? Well, the older versions like the Vox allow you to simply plug the amp to the guitar and the headphones to the amp itself. This can be the ultimate guitar headphone practice setup for only a handful of dollars.
Newer incarnations of the same idea include modern technology allowing you to plug your electric guitar into an amp using Bluetooth headphones. With a Bluetooth guitar headphone amp such as the Boss-Waza Air Wireless, you can play with no cables attached.
In addition to that, the technology developed by Boss and Waza adjusts to your head movements and mimic the sound of a real amp inside a room and how you would hear it making the whole adventure a 3-d experience.
Finally, you can also jam over music from another source using Bluetooth. You can play along with your favorite artists using 50 effects and all of Boss Amp Modeling power.
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Amplifiers with a headphone out
There are many ways to play your guitar through headphones. The one that resembles real life the most is going straight from your guitar amp to headphones. This way you can play as you normally do but on stealth mode. A great plus in this sense is that, if you use pedals, you can just leave the whole chain plugged in and hear them through your headphones.
What do you need to pull this one-off? Simply a guitar amp with headphones output where to hook up your cans. Not all amplifiers have this kind of output; it is becoming increasingly popular, though, because of the space issue we spoke about above.
You should read the owner`s manual on your amplifier and find out where is the output to play your electric guitar to headphones. Bear in mind that most amps use a regular 1/4” input for the headphones and you might need an adapter. There´s nothing to worry about, they usually are very cheap and easy to purchase.
Finally, always check that the headphones input disconnects the speaker, otherwise it will annoy neighbors and close family all the same.
Guitar Amps With Headphone Out
Effects processors & loopers
Getting a pair of good headphones for electric guitar is a great choice if you play through effects processors or loopers. These units usually have a headphone input and, in the case of the effects processor, might even feature an amp simulator.
Search for the headphones input on the back, where all the connections are made. They usually feature 1/8” jacks so you will very likely not need an adapter for your headphones. What I do recommend is to get either a coil-wire pair of headphones or a Bluetooth adapter, otherwise, you´ll be bending over to play because of the cable.
Tablet and smartphone adapters
Who said the only way to play on the road is getting headphone guitar amplifiers? You can hear your amplified guitar through headphones using a simple gadget most of us carry in our pockets: our smartphone.
In case you are not familiar with them, there are adapters such as the iRig and iRig 2 that allow you to plug directly into your phone or tablet. What do these adapters do? Very simple, they translate your guitar´s analog info into binary information that can be read by your phone or tablet.
Furthermore, once you set up your tablet or smartphone with the adapter, you can download a DAW and start creating music on the spot. Plug your guitar in, open your favorite emulation software, and play the night away silently.
Here are some great free iOS apps to use with your iRig:
- Garage Band – The ultimate one-stop software to create and record music. If you are not familiar with it already, there are literally a million tutorials on YouTube about it.
- Bias Amp 2 – This free app grants you access to 36 different amp simulations ranging from classic to modern and everything in between. Hours of fun are guaranteed.
- JamUp – This is basically a multi-amp, multi-effects processor that is free of charge and very complete. Explore its virtually endless possibilities and, once you get bored, you can expand it to new models for a few dollars.
Audio interface and a computer
Do you own a computer? What if you could plug the guitar into headphones without the need for a guitar amp? Well, this solution opens up a whole new universe for your guitar playing. But wait, what do I need an audio interface if I have my computer?
The audio interface works as a translator and turns your guitar´s analog info into binary data (zeros and ones) so your computer can read and modify it. Moreover, an audio interface performs this task twice because after modifying the audio signal, it has to go back to your headphones. As you might know, speakers read and reproduce only analog data, so it has to be converted again. All this might seem too complicated but, in most cases, there is no latency.
A great thing about playing your guitar through an audio interface rather than through a guitar amp and headphones is that you can use the computer to make recordings with a simple program called DAW. This is to say that getting an audio interface for your computer might open the door to a whole new way of playing, recording, producing, and much more.
If you are willing to take your guitar playing to the next level and want to get into the magic world of music production, instead of getting guitar amps with headphones jacks, invest in software and hardware.
Let´s talk software & hardware, what do you need?
Speaking about software and hardware, what is it exactly that you need to get started?
- Hardware-wise, you need an audio interface, a computer, and a cable to connect them. Audio interfaces come in a plethora of prices and specifications; you can start small with a simple, cheap one or go all-in at once and purchase a state-of-the-art unit. Both will serve your purpose.
- Software-wise, what you need is some kind of guitar-playing software such as Amplitube, Bias FX 2, or GuitarRig, among many, many others. Once you´ve been playing with one of these, you can get a DAW such as Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and Ableton among many others to record your songs and add more layers.
The strange case of the Yamaha silent
Hey, what about playing acoustic guitar with headphones? This is a difficult topic because acoustic guitars are noisy instruments when compared with their electric counterparts. It is difficult to play to your late-night inspiration momentum on an acoustic and not wake up the entire house or building.
For this reason, and for those who love the sound of brass and nylon strings, Yamaha created the Yamaha Silent, a curious, one-of-a-kind instrument that serves exactly that purpose.
I happen to be the lucky owner of one of these and it is difficult to express just how amazing it sounds when paired with a good pair of guitar headphones. Furthermore, it features a detachable body and a specially-made gigbag for easy transportation.
If you love playing acoustics and don´t want to be cornered by their size and volume, give this guitar a try. Here´s a video of guitar God, metal legend Andreas Kisser (Sepultura) rocking a nylon-stringed Silent for practice and studio purposes.
What are the best guitar amp headphones?
Is there such a category as headphones for electric guitars? Well, we can say that some of the biggest names in guitar history have started manufacturing their own headphones. Are they tuned to better hear the mids or are they just like regular, high-end studio headphones?
I´ve tested several of them including Vox, Marshall, and others. The conclusion that I get to is always the same when it comes to best guitar headphones: they need to be comfy and closed-back.
The headphones you choose need to be comfy because you will very likely have them on for long periods. If the rubber on the sides is not soft and spongy enough, you´ll suffer them. Besides being comfy, they need to be closed-back headphones so others won´t hear you and you will not hear others (that´s the whole point here, right?)
My personal favorites are the Audio Technica M50x, but you can find many similar models within that budget that will work wonders with your guitar tones.
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|Audio-Technica ATH-M50X Studio Headphones Bundle with Knox Gear Wooden Stand and Protective Case (3 Items)||Check Pricing|
|Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Closed-Back Professional Monitor Headphones - 90° Swiveling Earcups (White) + Headphone Case + 1/4 inch TRS Extension Cable + Cloth – Deluxe Headphone Bundle||Check Pricing|
How to play guitar through headphones FAQs
We spoke about guitar headphone amplifiers and just about any other existing method on Earth to play your guitar through headphones. Nevertheless, we know there are always loose ends. Here are our FAQs so you don´t have to evacuate your doubts anywhere but here.
Can I plug my headphones into my guitar?
The answer to this question is no. The signal that guitars generate is too low to drive speakers or headphones. Even if you loaded it with a gleaming set of active pickups, they need an amplifier for the magic to happen. It can be analog or digital, but you need to amplify the signal.
Can I play acoustic guitar with headphones?
Yes, most headphone amplifiers come in the shape of a plug with controls, so you can plug it into any guitar. The catch is that acoustic guitars aren´t silent and hence, you might disturb others. A great solution to this problem is to go for the Yamaha Silent mentioned above.
Can I plug my guitar into my Bluetooth headphones?
Yes, as we covered above, with the Boss Waza Air technology there are no cords involved and all you get is pure tone on your ears. On the other hand, you can´t just pair your headphones with your guitar because the instrument doesn´t have that capacity.
In summary, the answer is yes, provided that your Bluetooth headphones feature an amp to boost the guitar´s signal such as the Boss Waza Air.
Can I play guitar and music through my headphones?
Yes, you can add a backing track to your playing in most case scenarios. For example, multi-effects processors, loopers, and some guitar amps have a line-in input. This means that you can plug in a music source and play on top of it. If the same unit that has an input for music features a headphone jack, you can get that magic cocktail sounding amazing on your cans.
Can you plug headphones into a guitar amp?
Some guitar amps do feature a headphone jack that will also disconnect the speaker. This way, you can play like you always do, but sound will only come out through the headphones. Bear in mind that not all amplifiers feature this option and that the older the amp, the more unlikely it becomes.
We´ve talked about the best guitar headphone amp, how to play your electric guitar without an amp and how to play guitar and music through headphones. By now, I’m confident that you have a good idea about what you need and where to get it. Thus, all I need is to add a little insight that I got after decades of playing before finishing this piece.
In my experience, inspiration can come at any time. I´ve had some of my best epiphany-like inspiration moments when I wasn´t supposed to, late at night, when the rest of the world sleeps. Hence, I had to learn to imagine the tone I wanted for my guitar and try to memorize it so I could record it the next day.
Technology has changed the world in so many ways that lucky guitar players and composers can just play the night away without disturbing anyone. What I mean by this is that things weren´t always so easy, don´t take it for granted and make the most out of every moment.
There has never been a better moment to be a musician, appreciate, embrace, and use technology in your favor. Who knows? You might be on the verge of changing the world with your music.
Don´t let volume restrictions stop you, play your guitar through headphones and make amazing music at any time anywhere.