If you’re learning the electric guitar, you’ve probably noticed that unless you plug it into an amplifier or use an alternative, such as a computer, the notes are audible but very faint.
And if you like music with distortion or other effects, playing unplugged not only sounds lower in volume but also very different.
Should you practice with the amp or unplugged?
The simple answer is that you should do both. You should practice unplugged at times and with the amp turned on at others.
And if you play with distortion, you should alternate between practicing with a clean sound and practicing with distortion (or other effects like overdrive or fuzz).
When should you practice with an amp vs without.
The obvious reason why you may want to practice the guitar without an amplifier is that you want to be quiet and not wake the neighbors.
However there are other reasons why you benefit from spending a portion of your practice time unplugged.
On the other hand, if you practice without an amplifier all of your time you will develop weaknesses that only show up when you practice with one.
Which part of your practice time should be plugged, and which part shouldn’t, depends mostly on the goals you set up for the practice session (unless you’re practicing without an amp in order to be quiet, which is determined by the situation around you rather than your guitar playing needs).
To get the most out of your practice time, every time you pick up the guitar to practice, you should have a specific goal in mind, no matter how small.
When you do this, you literally improve with each practice session.
The following are some examples of micro-goals:
- Increase the speed of a guitar lick by 3 beats per minute.
- Play a familiar scale while removing unwanted string noise..
- Learn a new scale.
- Use a familiar chord in a new chord progression.
- Learn a new chord.
- Improve the synchronization between your hands.
- Stand up and practice a piece of music that you can easily play while sitting down.
- Playing 5 consecutive full string bends, reaching the target note perfectly each time.
- Play a guitar riff you already know and remove excessive tension in your body.
- Learn a new piece of music.
- Play a piece of music you know with a metronome.
- Improve your phrasing by applying dynamic accents to licks and riffs you know.
When you have a micro-goal in mind, whether you use an amp or not and whether you use distortion or not, should be determined on the basis of what best achieves that goal.
Let’s get specific with some of the examples of micro-goals provided above.
Increase the speed of a guitar lick
If you want to increase the speed of a guitar lick, spending part of your practice time unplugged can be very beneficial.
The faint sound of the notes forces you to pick the strings harder with your right hand which not only improves your picking articulation skills, but makes the lick feel easier when you play it with an amp.
And the easier something feels to play, the faster you can play it.
Reduce unwanted string noise
If you play the electric guitar with distortion the strings you’re not playing make an unwanted sound that lowers the quality of your guitar licks, riffs and solos.
In some genres of music, like punk and grunge, guitarists may at times deliberately leave strings buzzing to get a particular effect, but unless you’re looking for that your music will sound better if the only sound coming out of the guitar is the note (or group of notes – chords) that you’re playing.
Now, if you only practice the guitar without an amplifier, this problem will not surface, so you won’t think it needs to be taken care of.
If you practice with the amp clean, this problem will barely surface either.
Thus, if the style of music you play involves the use of distortion, you should spend part of your practice time with the distortion on so that you can detect and fix these unwanted noises with left or right hand muting.
Better still, if your goal is to work on cleaning your music from these unwanted noises, you should practice the guitar with maximum gain and a loud volume.
In the same way that practicing unplugged improves your picking hand’s attack by making the situation more difficult, practicing at a loud volume makes it harder to control the unwanted noises, and you’ll find it easier to do so when you practice at your normal volume.
Learning a new scale or chord
When learning a new scale or chord, it makes no difference whether you practice with an amp or unplugged.
When you learn a new pattern on the guitar, regardless of the sound you hear, you will develop the necessary muscle memory.
Playing music you already know with a metronome
After you learn a new piece of music, you should try playing it with a metronome to check if you can play it on time.
My preferred setting when practicing with a metronome is a clean amp at a low volume but any setting will help you reach your goal.
Since string bending technique involves a lot of input from your ear to determine whether you hit the targeted note or not, it’s a good idea to practice it without an amp, with an amp, as well as with distortion and other effects.
This enables you to focus on different things when using different settings, training your ear all along.
For instance playing unplugged forces you to pay close attention to hear the notes, while playing with distortion forces you to mute the adjacent strings to the one you’re bending.
Goal oriented guitar practice
While I hope this article answers the question of whether or not you should practice the electric guitar with an amplifier, the most important takeaway you should get from it is the importance of setting goals and making decisions about your practicing sessions based on them.
This can be applied to other guitar practicing decisions such as whether to use a metronome, to practice the guitar standing up, which type of pick to use, whether you should learn music theory and how much, and other things that determine how you will spend the time you allocate for learning the instrument.
You may consider giving a donation, by which you will be helping a songwriter achieve his dreams. Each contribution, no matter how small, will make a difference.