Connecting your guitar to a PC or laptop is an excellent way to record your playing and experiment with different effects, amp simulators, and more.
The connection offers you endless opportunities to take your guitar-playing experiences to another level. Fortunately, getting started is easier than you may think!
Below, we’ll show you different options for plugging in your guitar to a computer, including:
- Why you need this connection
- What audio interfaces to use
- How to connect electric and acoustic guitars
- Using your computer as a guitar amp
- Different options for controlling tones and effects
Are you ready to learn how to connect your guitar to a computer?
Reasons for Connecting Your Guitar to a Computer
The biggest question we come across is why would anyone want to hook up their guitar to a computer?
Well, as mentioned earlier, you can expand your possibilities.
You can hook up an electric guitar and use the computer as an amp. Or, there is the option of recording yourself as you play the guitar.
Use the connection to experiment with different things, such as plugins and effects, and see where your perfect sound lies.
Best of all, hooking up a guitar to your computer is an excellent way to practice your tunes without disturbing the household through headphones.
The other benefits of connecting the guitar to the computer also include:
- Listen back to your practice and improve on key areas
- You can record some chords and practice things such as soloing over them when you don’t have someone to back you up during recording
- The software can help add hundreds of effects to your sound through the laptop or PC
However, the connection depends on the guitar you’re using.
We’ll examine the key ways to connect your electric guitar to a computer and then move on to connecting an acoustic guitar.
You need to experiment, tweak, listen, and try again if you want to get the perfect guitar sound through the computer.
There is no one-size-fits-all way to get that perfect sound. But there are standard ways of connecting the guitar, and try them all until you get the soul-moving sound you want.
How to Connect an Electric Guitar to Your Computer
Let’s get starting on how to connect your guitar to your computer. Connecting an electronic guitar is deceptively easy, but make sure you have everything you need to get started.
What you need includes:
- An electric or acoustic guitar
- The standard guitar cable that connects to an amp
- Your computer with an open USB port
- An audio interface
- A USB cable
- DAW computer software
The connection between any guitar requires a special piece of hardware called the audio interface.
Computer Audio Interfaces for a Guitar
Even electric guitars don’t offer a way of directly plugging into a laptop or PC. You’ll need an audio interface to convert the analog electrical signal into a digital one.
The market offers us different audio interfaces.
These interfaces are plug and play, so you just hook up your guitar, vocals, and computer for easy recording. Most audio interfaces are USB soundcards that connect directly to your laptop or PC.
An interface with two mic inputs and two outputs is just fine and also supports recording vocals and guitar on separate tracks.
These units help you get thousands of tones from a single amplifier. Some units come with USB outputs that transform them into excellent guitar audio interfaces.
Stomp Boxes and Effects Pedals
You can also connect to your guitar using an FX pedal. Modern stompboxes and pedals come with built-in processing for converting analog signals to digital. The FX pedals let you make live performance quality recordings by introducing the effect you’d normally use on stage.
A guitar to computer connection is much more than practice and recording.
Some guitars have a modeling amp inside. The guitars have a dial for altering the digital sound profile the guitar is producing, depending on your play style.
You can connect a modeling guitar to a computer using the supplied adapter box and Ethernet cable. Install the associated software and you can download new profiles or create new ones.
USB Guitar Cables
You need a 1/4-inch jack to USB guitar cable. Unfortunately, you need to watch out for latency.
Latency is the delay between you playing a note and the note registering in your computer’s software. This difference can be distracting, making it impossible to play the guitar along with a metronome or drums.
How to Choose Your Interface
Audio interfaces are critical for your guitar to PC or laptop connections. But how do you choose the correct one?
Before choosing an interface, you need to know:
- The number of instruments you’ll be recording simultaneously
- Whether you’ll have vocals
- Whether you’re recording an acoustic guitar, so you will need a recording line-in or mic
- If you have DAW software
- If you want an option to play and record via a tablet or cell phone
Choose a high-quality device if you’ll be recording and selling your music or sending it out to record labels, via stream, or distributing it to the public.
Choose a USB interface with multiple channels if you’re recording multiple microphones and instruments simultaneously. For simple practice, choose a model with multiple amp profiles and effects, and is easy to use. If you’re looking for a bundle-deal, have a look at the best home recording studio packages available.
However, make sure the interface has zero or low latency.
When You Don’t Have an Audio Interface
The best way to play guitar through your computer is using an audio interface, hands down. However, what do you do when you want to make the connection right now and without an interface?
You have other options. These aren’t ideal, but they will help connect the equipment to your computer in a pinch.
Using a Guitar Amp
Many guitar amp models come with a USB port, and use it to connect the device to a computer.
The method means you’re using the amp as an audio interface. Steps for making this connection are:
- Use a cable to connect your guitar to the amp
- Use a USB cable to connect the amp to your laptop or PC
- Use DAW software
The DAW software helps turn your guitar’s sound into something your computer can process. However, you can also get away with using software like Audacity for rough tracks.
The best thing about such a setup is that you can record tunes from the amp without using a mic.
Using a USB Microphone with D.I. Input
USB microphones work like any audio interface because they convert analog sound into a digital one for recording on the computer.
Most USB microphones can record the mic signal, but others also provide a D.I. input for recording basses and guitars.
Further, you don’t have to choose whether you are recording vocals or the guitar because you can record two tracks separately.
You can also run an amp simulator with a little latency.
How to Connect Your USB Microphone to the Computer
Connect one end of your USB cable to the microphone and the other to a free USB port.
Install any drivers if necessary.
Navigate to Audio Configuration and select the USB microphone as a recording device in your DAW software.
Connect the guitar to the D.I. input of the USB microphone.
Using a Multi-Effects Pedal
Some multi-effects pedal models have USB ports, which allow you to use the device as an audio interface.
You can record the effects directly as you play. However, get an audio interface for the best audio results.
How to Connect an Acoustic Guitar to Your Computer
The electric guitar is suitable for many genres, but its older cousin, the acoustic guitar, offers better versatility.
Acoustic guitars produce sound by vibrating strings above a hollow chamber. The vibrations carry through the air without electrical amplification. However, some acoustic guitars also work like their electric cousins.
When you want to connect your acoustic guitar to the computer, the method you use depends on the type of guitar you have.
Connecting an Acoustic Guitar with Internal Pickup
An acoustic guitar with a built-in pickup makes it easy to plug a cable into it. The connection lets you use any of the options we’ve already covered for electric guitars above.
We also know the acoustic guitar with an internal pickup as an electro-acoustic guitar. This guitar has a very similar build to an acoustic guitar in both physical construction and sound.
Electronic parts in the electro-acoustic guitar allow plugging the instrument into a soundboard or amplifier.
The electronic components in the electro-acoustic guitar include:
- A built-in microphone
- A piezo pickup
- A magnetic pickup
The most common pickup is the piezo, but advanced electro-acoustic guitars use multiple sensors at once.
Some guitars come with the standard guitar cable and XLR ports on the side. Other electro-acoustic guitars only have the standard cable jack.
If you don’t have an obvious jack area but have space for putting a battery, look at the end of the strap pin.
Electro-acoustic guitars with a jack offer you a wide variety of options to connect them to computers.
Establish the connection using:
- An audio interface
- The acoustic guitar amp with a USB out port
- Multi-effects pedals
- A microphone with an audio interface
Connecting an Acoustic Guitar Without a Built-in Pickup
For an acoustic guitar without a pickup, you’ll need a microphone as an audio interface to get the guitar signal into a computer.
Audio interfaces with microphone inputs are excellent options. However, make sure you get an audio interface with over one mic input so you can record the guitar with several microphones at different positions.
Alternatively, you can purchase a microphone and plug it into the computer directly.
However, plugging the microphone into your computer’s mic input is not advisable as the preamp on the standard computer soundcard is not great.
Instead, consider a unit such as the iRig Mic Studio. The unit is a microphone with USB output for connecting to a computer or handheld device. Use the device to record your ideas while on the road or at home.
Connecting the iRig Mic Studio to the computer is like connecting an audio interface. You can plug headphones directly into the microphone and the unit works with any DAW software.
This iRig Mic Studio is an excellent go-to option whenever you want to capture ideas on your acoustic gear, record gear parts, and for voice recordings for streaming.
How to Use Your Computer as a Guitar Amp
Now that we’ve seen the different ways to play guitar through a computer, let’s examine how to use the computer as an amp.
A PC-based guitar amp excels in several areas, including:
- Free or paid amp sim (simulation software) is cheaper than purchasing a regular guitar amp
- Headphone use is a great way not to annoy your spouse, kids, or neighbors
- Amp sims are great for the home studio and are way easier to use than guitar amps
- A laptop, guitar, and audio interface are more portable than carrying a guitar amp, letting you set up easy rehearsals anywhere
- The laptop and audio interface combination is an excellent alternative to the regular amp when space is limited during a show
This is what you need to make this connection:
- An adapter that connects to your computer directly
- Amp simulation software for modeling guitar amps and effects
Using your laptop or PC means you’re not using an audio interface to play on the computer because you have an adapter.
The software works by emulating the tones and sounds you normally hear on standalone guitar amps.
Some standalone software programs to consider include:
- Ableton Live 11
- Bias Elite
- Amplitube 4
- Helix Native
Make sure you go through each item, read some reviews, and determine which software is best for your setup. Some programs bring you more effects and features than others, so do research and compare them. There are some great free guitar VST plugins to consider if you don’t want to spend a dime. Note that some of the freebies are limited versions, without some of the premium features of paid plugins.
Make sure you turn your audio interface’s volume down and other active output devices, such as a Hi-Fi amplifier or speaker. This step will help prevent the unpleasant pop sound as you plug devices in.
Here’s how to connect your PC or laptop as a guitar amp.
1. Connect the Audio Interface to the Computer
This connection is via USB or a thunderbolt.
Make sure you have the correct USB connector and cable, because there are several types. Use a free USB port on the computer and connect the other end to the interface.
2. Install and Configure Your Amp Sim
The installation process depends on the amp sim you’re using. Simply double-tap the “.exe” file to launch the installer and follow the on-screen prompts.
Next, tweak the settings inside the amp sim to correspond with your audio interface. The main settings include:
- The input your amp sim will use
- Outputs the software uses
- The audio driver
- Buffer size for the audio driver
3. Connect Your Output Device to the Audio Interface Output
Plug in a pair of headphones, powered monitor speakers, or Hi-Fi system amplifier into the headphone socket using a standard jack-plug.
Make sure you’re using the right cables. Common cables include:
4. Connect Guitar to Audio Interface Input
Use the interface input you chose while configuring the amp sim in step 2 above.
A standard 1/4-inch jack cable should connect the guitar to your audio interface, just like you’d connect your instrument to an amplifier.
5. Set Interface Levels
Set the optimum signal level from the guitar into the interface. Setting it too low will cause a weak sound and lots of background noise, while setting it too high will create unpleasant distortion.
An indicator on the interface will show when the input signal is clipping. We need the input sound to be loud, but also don’t want the audio to clip.
6. Turn Volume
Gradually crank up the output volume on your audio interface until it reaches a level you’re comfortable with.
You may need to adjust the volume on your separate amplifier or power speakers too.
7. Set Amp Sim Input Level
Use the slider or dial on your amp sim to control the volume input level and gain. It’s best to adjust the volume while playing the guitar.
8. Choose or Create Sound in Your Amp Simulator
You should have a working guitar amplifier on your PC or laptop now!
You can start playing your guitar right away or follow specific amp sim instructions on how to create your sound.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)
Software and hardware are critical in the guitar to computer setup in equal measure.
Now that you know the hardware in the setup, let’s look at the software powering the system.
GarageBand is a free app for every Mac, but is actually a powerful piece of software. The DAW software is compatible with an extensive selection of amps, mainstream interfaces, and pedals.
The app also comes with a set of free amp models, plugins, and stompbox effects.
An amp designer feature allows you to emulate a famous amp and change it to your preferences. There is an option to choose between different virtual microphones and speaker cabinets.
Pedalboard plugins in GarageBand help you apply many effects and customize them further.
Ableton Live is a popular DAW software. If you’re just getting started in the music world, consider downloading the Ableton Live Intro.
The software brings you over 1,500 sounds, basic amp effects, connectivity to third-party plugins, and multi-track recording.
Plugins and Amp Simulators
Most units that connect to your computer come with accompanying free software. Some software work as a standalone, while others work as part of DAW software.
Here are some of the most popular amp sims and plugins on the market.
Helix Native Plugin
This Line 6 interface program comes with many amp models and virtual FX.
The appearance can be a little intimidating to newcomers because they use sliders instead of knobs.
Amplitube 4 Plugin
Amplitube 4 software comes with IK Multimedia iRig series devices. The software has many pedal and amp simulations usable on mobile devices and computers.
Amplitude’s virtual interface mimics a real amp, offering you a familiar view that’s easy to operate.
Bias Elite Combo App
Bias Elite is an excellent Positive Gride software. You can use it on its own or as a plugin inside your favorite DAW.
The app offers plenty of accurate simulations of the world’s most famous pedals and amplifiers, makes them easy to recognize, and the virtual representations look like the actual units.
You have the option of purchasing a bundle package that comes with the app and FX Modeling programs. The download also offers 18 rack processors, modeled guitars, 100 effects, and 100 amplifiers.
You should have hardware that lets you hear the sonic differences clearly in your setup.
When connecting your guitar to a computer, invest in a few more extra pieces of hardware for the best quality sound output.
The set of computer speakers and other ordinary speakers will not do a good job representing your recording’s true sound profile.
However, you don’t need to spend much on the studio monitors. Some units are compact enough to fit in small spaces but offer a full range response with no failure.
The units also have a headphone out jack for when you want to keep the noise to a minimum.
Regular headphones will probably cause sound to bleed into your space while recording. This is not a major issue when working with a direct line-in connection. But it’s noticeable when you’re using the microphone for recording.
Regular headphones ensure a pleasant audio experience across multiple genres, while studio headphones are set up for sonic neutrality.
This means you’ll experience no sound coloration, a critical factor that helps reveal tonal flaws and give you an accurate representation of the recording.
Controlling the Effects and Tones
In a typical guitar and amp setup, you can change between amp channels or effects using foot controllers and stompboxes.
You can get the same control when running your rig through a computer using MIDI foot controllers.
The MIDI foot controller connects to the PC or laptop. You can set the controller to control whatever you want in the DAW software.
Examples of what you can control using a MIDI foot controller include:
- Turn individual effects on and off
- Change any effect preset dynamically
- Trigger other plugins or samples
- Change amp presets or tones
- Use the pedal to trigger volume, whammy, or wah effects
- Set the footswitch to start and stop recording and playback
Controlling each aspect of your effects and tone with your feet makes for a better playing experience for your guitar and computer setup. Plus, you can do most things conventional guitar rigs cannot do.
Now you know how to connect your guitar to a computer. There are many affordable options for playing the guitar through your computer. The options above will work for you, whether you want a fast way to practice or create a space for building and shaping your tones.
Amp Modeling Software is changing the game by offering you an effective outlet for your imagination and creativity. Explore the options above, and the world of guitar tones is in your hands.