How to Amplify an Electric Guitar without an Amp

Certainly an electric guitar amp is an important thing to have. But it is also important to know how to amplify an electric guitar without an amp. Sometimes you simply have to choose between getting a really good guitar now and waiting for an amp, or spending the same money for two pieces — and compromising on the quality of both.

For those who have faced this cosmic struggle, know that you have alternative means of amplification available to you that won’t cost nearly as much as a quality amplifier. You may even have the technology right now and not even realize it.

Plugging into a home stereo or boom box

If you plug your electric guitar into the auxiliary input of your home stereo, you can get away with not buying an amp at all. All you need is a special, inexpensive adapter that you can purchase at any electronic or music store for less than $3. The adapter is just a metal or plastic-coated plug that has a female quarter-inch jack on one end and a male RCA (sometimes called phono) plug on the other. (Just tell the salesperson what you want to do, and he can supply the correct unit.) The following figure shows how the adapter and the guitar cord work together.

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Many boom boxes have inputs as well but use a 1/8" connection, so for one of these you need a female quarter-inch jack on one end and a male 1/8" stereo plug on the other. Make sure, if you buy your adapter at a place other than a music store, that the adapter’s female end is mono; that’s the end you plug your guitar cord into.

Before you go plugging anything in to a stereo or boom box, make sure that the volume control on the receiver is all the way down. This precaution prevents any sudden pop or surge in the system, which can potentially damage the speakers.

After you're plugged in, turn your guitar’s volume up full. Then slowly turn up the receiver’s volume knob until you hear sound at a comfortable listening level. You can adjust the receiver’s tone controls to better shape your sound as well.

Headphone amps

Because of the miniaturization of all things electronic, you can now get full-sounding, authentic guitar sounds from a unit the size of a disposable camera — as long as you listen to it through headphones (meaning that it has no speaker or power amp of its own). These battery-powered wonders come with belt clips for untethered practicing (great for checking your stage moves in the mirror).

Virtually all headphone amps offer a full menu of distortion, EQ, reverb, and a host of other digital effects, many of them simultaneously. So a headphone amp can usually double as a multi-effects processor, which is quite cool. Headphone amps also provide numerous presets — sounds preprogrammed by the manufacturer — plus full stereo sound (especially effective over headphones).

Headphone amps are great for playing in a moving vehicle, at the beach, in a hotel room, or in the airport lounge, and they can even output the signal to tape or disc, suitable for recording. They start at around $200 and are well worth the price if portability, privacy, and authentic tone are important for your practice routine. The Korg Pandora (shown in the following figure), Scholz Rockman, Ibanez Rock ’n’ Play, and Zoom 9000 series are just some makes and models.

The Korg Pandora PX-3, a multi-effects processor that features several types of distortion, EQ, eff
The Korg Pandora PX-3, a multi-effects processor that features several types of distortion, EQ, effects, a metronome, and many other features — all in a unit about the size of a deck of cards.
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