How to Plug a Guitar Into a Computer

Published Categorized as Recording

There will come a time when even the most staunchly analogue music listener, performer, and consumer will want to broach and shrink the divide between them and their recording ambitions. And, unless they are loaded with the money to deck themselves out with all of the old analogue equipment and produce entirely on tape, chances are they will need to plug guitar into computer to get started.

With a computer in almost every single house, the theoretical need to take all your gear, yourself and your band members’, to a professional and usually expensive recording studio is essentially nullified, where time and money are synergetic and the same and are always of the essence.

You can create and craft your own studio environment wherever you wish and, with the right equipment and know how, can create recordings to rival any recorded in such professional environments. The power is in your hands. This is the raw power of technology to democratise and even the playing field on full display, for you can nowadays even buy reasonably well performing technologies in this field for a reasonable price.

How To Plug A Guitar Into A Computer

Table of Contents

Plug Guitar into Computer Using an Audio Interface

We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve desperately needed to record something for whatever reason and have gone to plug our guitar directly into the computer, only to realise that it doesn’t quite fit. You will certainly do a whole host of damage if you try to plug guitar into computer without an intermediary, for the auxiliary input jacks for audio simply weren’t designed for the 3.5 mm jacks that we typically use to transmit musical information between guitar and amplifier et al.

This is by far the most popular way to plug guitar into computer, to bypass the various barriers that lurk in the liminal space between the instrument that you love and the technology that you love to use it with. And, even though we can call any intermediary between guitar or other sound producing or recording device (e.g. a microphone) and computer an interface, the conventional audio interface is the most popular for good reason!

An audio interface is in essence simply a box that acts as a conduit and transferrer of the signals from guitar to computer and computer to guitar. It’s essentially a translator that allows the guitar and computer to speak the same language where the former would otherwise be speaking in sound waves and the latter in digital data.

This means that you can plug your guitar or other instruments into it and through it, where it converts the signal to data signals for your computer to absorb and transmit however it sees fit, usually into a Digital Audio Workstation (D A W) via USB.

Any good audio interface will allow to direct signals out as well as in, so you can freely use whichever headphones or speaker unit you like to monitor sound while being directed in and when being surveyed during playback.

Which Audio Interface is Right for You?

With such a panoply of technology out there, how are we to know which is right for us? This excess of choice is nowhere more evident than in the field of music technology, which every day seems to give birth to another new and fandangled gadget with which to transmit your ideas into the techno aether.

However, with this type of technology there definitely isn’t much competition, the top two brands being iconoclasts in the music business, Focusrite and Tascam. The choice will most likely boil down to what level of guitar progression and professional usage you are at, though either will do more than serve you well, especially if you are seeking to record with microphones or anything that isn’t a guitar.

The iRig

This option to plug guitar into computer will be most suitable for those just beginning their musical journey in recording their guitar, or certainly those who are working with a smaller budget.

At such a low price point there are inevitable disadvantages that other audio interfaces aren’t laden with. With the iRig, you can only record one instrument at a time, meaning there won’t be any way for you to record jams with your band mates or friends. At such a price point there will, of course, be a detrimental effect on the fidelity of the audio recording, though this is all made up for by the fact that the iRig comes with free modelling and recording software, much like GarageBand.

However, there are many benefits to using an iRig, even for the professional touring musician. Being constantly on the move, it is often hard to place down any roots and get comfortable, to be able to record freely outside of the studio. The iRig excels in this regard, so small as to be able to fit in your pocket, and able to connect not only to your computer but also to your tablet computer and phone, providing they are made by Apple of course.

This can also be of use in using the guitar for amp modelling on the road and for playing shows with, even recording demos or song ideas on the move when you might not otherwise have access to your personal studio.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i4

This is by far one of the most popular audio interfaces, an already popular intercessory between instrument or microphone, and computer. I have long been accustomed to this particular vessel, they even used them in my school while I was studying music. At the time I had no idea about anything to do with musical recording software, and despite my ignorance I was still able to use this particular piece of technology to plug guitar into computer just fine.

It can certainly be a bit of an overload when you first take it out of the box, laden as it is with knobs and different coloured lights flickering like bulbs of anxiety. In comparison to the iRig it can thus be pretty unnerving and daunting to get started, though it really is no different in that you simply have to plug the USB into the USB port of your computer, then the opposite end into the port in your interface. BOOM! You’re connected.

This particular unit is a little pricier than the iRig certainly, though you surely only have to take one look at the vessel to see that the extra bucks are being put to good use. Not only can you plug in more than one input signal at the same time, there are far more ways of adjusting these individual inputs as they are amplified into the the computer’s Digital Audio Workstation, giving you far more flexibility. This will be a perfect addition to the inventory of a singer songwriter looking to capture the clarity and complexity of their guitar parts without sacrificing these same elements in their vocal lines.

Tascam Series 208i USB and MIDI Audio Interface

For those who are more used to the recording process, two input channels simply will not be enough to plug guitar into computer. Wanting to record four channels simultaneously is simply at odds with the two channel Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 as listed above, so you can find vessels like this which do the job, allowing you to plug guitar into computer, placing microphones all over the room in which it is being recorded to get a more full spread and spectrum of sound.

This is obviously set at a higher price point, so will be more inclined towards the keen fingers of a more adept producer, those more comfortable with their hands at the ready to tweak knobs in minute quantities that don’t seem to make an overt difference but which, to the ear of an experienced producer, make all the difference. Any audiophile will doubtless be excited about being able to plug any MIDI (Musical Interface Digital Instrument) devices directly into this interface, to hook them up to modules on the computer and record them simultaneously with the guitar, for example.

The two extra channels, both in and out, allow for the recording of many different elements simultaneously, perfect for those not simply seeking to plug guitar into computer, but to record other instruments. For example, a four channel set up would be perfect for recording a drum kit, placing a microphone each on the snare drum, the bass drum, over head, and one in the room to add a flavour of the space in which it is recorded. These are the small touches that turn your recordings from demos into professional behemoths, that have audiophiles reaching for their latest pair of ahead of the curve headphones.

TASCAM are a brand with over 60 years of experience in producing high quality audio design equipment at a reasonable price. I recently purchased an 8 track Portastudio that they will have manufactured in the late 80’s or early 90’s and, with some love and care along the way of course, it still works perfectly. If this isn’t enough to convince you of their staying power, I don’t know what will convince you of their steadfast dedication to enabling you to plug guitar into computer.

How Else Can You Plug Guitar into Computer?

Though audio interfaces are certainly the most popular and arguably one of the more simple ways to plug guitar into computer, they aren’t the only method through which to do so. In fact, there are a whole host of other methods to plug guitar into computer, many of which might even be gathering dust on your desk top!

Multi Effects Pedal

Almost all modern multi effects pedal can do precisely the same job as a regular old audio interface, acting as a conduit for the vibrational signals that your guitar collects in its pickups and transmits, converting these very signals into digital bytes, binary bits of data that can be more readily interpreted by a computer and the adjoining digital audio workstation.

Thus all modern multi effects pedals will almost certainly come with a USB port, typically found in the same vicinity as the XLR inputs and the typical input jacks, which you would otherwise use to plug guitar into the multi effects unit itself. This USB port will, when it is isn’t gathering dust not being used, allow you to connect the multi effects pedal to a computational device.

Sometimes a cable will come with the unit itself, so, if you haven’t lost that since purchasing it, I would encourage you to rummage around for it and get stuck in. Some multi effects pedals might even come with their own adjoining software! If not, there are plenty of free or otherwise very cheap digital audio workstations, not to mention how cheap it would be to purchase a USB cable to connect the USB ports of the multi effects pedal to the computer, thus using the whole unit itself to plug guitar into computer.

There are certain benefits to using an effects unit, those mainly pertaining to your being able to simultaneously use and record any guitar effects that you might otherwise be using, perfect for just jamming along to oneself or others, or playing along and improvising over backing tracks, by friends or others.

You can also just bypass the ‘wet’ signal altogether, using the multi effects pedal unit purely as an audio interface, a conduit through which signals are translated to plug guitar into computer. Every multi effects pedal unit is different, so you will certainly want to read the respective operating manual of your own piece of kit. You might need to download a specific audio driver – simply a program which allows the audio interface to correctly communicate with the computer that it is connected to – though this will be no more difficult than googling and clicking download.

Guitar Amplifier

If you are seeking to plug guitar into computer purely to use it as an amp of amp emulator, then this likely won’t be of use to you, for you are less likely to have an amp if you are seeking to use the computer’s amp, no? However, if you do have an amp it could be worth checking to see if it has a USB port on the back. This will be found usually where the power cable is, or perhaps beside the input jacks and various knobs controlling tone and volume.

Most modern amps come kitted out of the factory with a USB port that allows you to cut the gap between the tones created and the computer on which they are likely to be recorded, allowing you to simply get on and record what needs to be recorded without much extra effort. These amps will tend to be solid state, transistor amps, so if your amp is definitely a valve amp then there’s no point checking.

The real pull of learning how to plug guitar into computer via a guitar amplifier is being able to use all of your favorite tones on any recordings you might want to do, free as you are to transmit these signals to your computer with no extra steps. This allows you to jam along and, much as with the multi effects pedal unit, use all of your favorite elements about the amp in any recording you see fit, negating the need to use or even purchase a microphone to translate the signals to the computer system’s digital audio workstation.

If you already have an amplifier like this, then why wait! All you need to do is purchase the appropriate USB cable and you are good to go, free to transmit your audio signals from guitar through cable to amp through cable to computer through computer to headphones or speakers, round and round and back to sounding like sound again.

RELATED: Can you use an acoustic guitar with an electric amp?

Final Tones

So, there you have it, the various and multi coloured methods with which to splatter guitar paints at your digital canvas!

Remember, not every option is necessarily going to be perfectly suited to every person reading this. So choose intelligently, think about what you are wanting from this process of learning how to plug guitar into computer.

For example, if you are looking simply to connect the guitar with the computer so that you might use it to put the guitar through amp models and emulations, or otherwise to transmit the sounds that you like from a certain unit or piece of technology, then using this amp or multi effects pedal unit, providing it is equipped with a USB port, is likely your best option.

If, however, you are seeking a more varied piece of equipment, one that will allow you to record not just your electric or electro acoustic guitar into the computer, then acquiring an actual audio interface is likely your best option.

For though an amplifier and multi effects pedal unit can very much act as an audio interface in their own right, they lack the essential ability to act as a conduit between audio signals as recorded by a microphone and the computer that they are being transmitted to.

An audio interface, on the other hand, allows you to send any signals you so wish through it, providing they are musical. They are far more adaptable to different musical contexts and scenarios, and are specifically designed to act as intermediaries between instrument / sound and computer, unlike the amp and multi effects pedal unit.

FAQs How to Plug Guitar into Computer

Can you plug a guitar into a computer without an interface?

Yes, absolutely. You will need some sort of intermediary device, for the 3.5mm cable that typically connects a guitar to an amplifier is simply too large to otherwise insert into a computer’s too small headphone jack. However, this intermediary doesn’t have to be an audio interface, though whatever you do use for the job will work in pretty much the same way. A multi effects pedal unit, for example, or an amplifier, will be doing almost the exact same job of translating signals as an audio interface specifically designed for said job.

Can you play guitar through audio interface?

Certainly, in fact it is encouraged! You can perfectly record guitar through an audio interface, a feat it is designed to do. Since an audio interface is, in fact, designed to translate any audio signals into data, it is perfect for doing so with a guitar and its various nuances of tone. Thus an audio interface is perfect whether you want to plug guitar into computer simply to record or perhaps to use a digital audio workstation to run the guitar signals through amp and pedals emulators.

Can you plug a guitar directly into PC?

Sadly not, certainly not without some sort of technological intercessory. The 3.5mm cable that is typically used to transmit audio signals from the guitar and its pickups to an amplifier is simply too large to fit into the minute hole that an auxiliary headphone jack provides. You are liable to do some serious damage if you intend to try to insert the cable regardless of this advice. You will need, as previously stated, a technological intermediary, something to convert these specific audio signals into the kinds of data that a computer can read, speak in, and understand. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an audio interface either, though anything you do end up using for the job will likely perform just about the same function as one.

Can I plug my acoustic guitar into my computer?

If your acoustic guitar is fitted with an electric system within, then this will prove no more difficult than simply plugging it into a technological intermediary as you would an electric guitar. This electric system can come in many, many forms, whether that of a pickup or of a contact microphone adhesively stuck inside the body of the guitar. If the guitar is without this, however, it is no bother, though you will need a microphone and a microphone stand to capture the sound as transmitted by the guitar into the microphone, through which the signals travel via cable into the technological intermediary, be that an audio interface, a multi effects pedal unit, an amplifier etc.

Can I plug my guitar directly into my computer without an interface?

Sadly not, certainly not without some sort of technological intercessory. The 3.5mm cable that is typically used to transmit audio signals from the guitar and its pickups to an amplifier is simply too large to fit into the minute hole that an auxiliary headphone jack provides. You are liable to do some serious damage if you intend to try to insert the cable regardless of this advice. You will need, as previously stated, a technological intermediary, something to convert these specific audio signals into the kinds of data that a computer can read, speak in, and understand. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an audio interface either, though anything you do end up using for the job will likely perform just about the same function as one.

How do I use my computer as a guitar amp?

In much the same way as you would a normal amp, just with a few extra steps that shouldn’t prove too difficult at all. By using a technological intermediary, be that an audio interface, multi effects pedal unit etc, you can plug the guitar into the computer and use a digital audio work station that supports amp and audio emulation. Once you have fully connected your guitar to the computer, then it shouldn’t be more difficult than a few clicks to get you where you need to be. Each computer and their respective digital audio work station will be different, however, so you will want to consult the respective manual of each. If you have, for whatever reason, lost said manual then never fear! The internet is absolutely full of guidance, like this article right here, more specific to your needs!

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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