Electric guitars have strings just like acoustic guitars, and if you pick or strum the strings they will vibrate and make noise.
The body and neck will resonate with the strings and will amplify the sound to a degree. So yes, you can play electric guitar without electricity.
But What Happens When You Play Without Electricity?
Obviously when playing without electrical amplification you will not get the same sound qualities and will only hear the acoustics of the physical instrument itself.
This can be either good or bad depending on what you want to hear, and what this might do to the development of your technique.
Does An Electric Guitar Work Without Electricity?
Although an electric guitar makes sound like any other guitar, it is designed to be electrically amplified. You can play an electric guitar without an amp, but it won’t be very loud like an acoustic guitar would be, and you won’t get the most out of playing it.
Let’s take a look at different types of pickup, and which ones need power from a battery to work. We will also look at a few different types of electric guitar and how playable they are without electricity and an amp.
Finally, we will discuss whether playing an electric guitar without an amp is bad for your playing and improvement – an important factor to consider!
Do Passive Pickups Need Electricity?
Most electric guitars contain passive pickups which do not require any power to operate. These pickups work on the principle of inducing an electric current in a coil of wire from a fluctuating magnetic field in the center of the coil.
When the guitar string vibrates across the pole of a magnet it causes magnetic flux (a variable magnetic field).
Image Source: howstuffworks.com
So you will get a very small amount of electricity flowing in the coil of wire wrapped around the magnets of a pickup, up to approximately 130mV for a single passive pickup.
Do Active Pickups Need Electricity?
A guitar with an active pickup installed is different to a passive pickup, since they contain an electronic circuit that needs a power source to operate.
Even with a powered amp available, you will need a power source like a 9v battery to power these pickups.
We won’t delve into pickup comparisons here, as that is a large topic for another entire discussion.
How Loud Is An Unplugged Electric Guitar?
In a few tests we conducted we found an Electric guitar played acoustically (without electrical amplification) produces an average of around 60db at one meter from the guitar.
This is plenty loud enough to hear the sound, and still loud enough to disturb others in the same house late at night. You can of course play quieter using techniques such as fingerstyle playing or using a thin nylon pick.
To give you a comparison, 60db is about the sound volume of a sewing machine or coffee percolator, and also normal speaking volume.
Playing Unplugged With Other Musicians
While you may be able to sit around noodling on your electric guitar late at night without plugging it in, there is no way it will be loud enough to play with other musicians.
If there is any background noise you will find that the unpowered volume of an electric guitar is too low, and the sound will become drowned-out by the surrounding noise.
Even basic hand-drums are quite loud and it will be impossible to play along without electricity powering your rig.
Hollow Bodied Electric Guitars: Loud Enough Without Electricity?
There are exceptions (of course!) such as a hollow-bodied electric guitar.
Whilst not designed as a full acoustic guitar, this style of guitar will produce a much greater sound volume without electrical amplification than a solid-bodied electric guitar.
- An example of guitar models of this type are the Taylor T5, Gretch 2420T Streamliner, or the Gibson ES-335.
If you want the flexibility of having an electric guitar that produces a decent volume without needing electricity and amplification, then this style of guitar may suit you well.
Do You Need To Power A Silent Guitar?
There is one other option that produces slightly more sound than a solid body electric, and that surprisingly is known as a ‘Silent Guitar’.
I personally play often with a Yamaha silent guitar, and these are designed for traveling.
When playing without electrical amplification they produce an average of close to 70db of sound volume within 2 feet.
These guitars generally have active pickup circuitry built in with a pre-amp and basic sound effects.
So you need an electrical source such as a battery or power adapter to play these guitars through amplification.
Does An Electric Acoustic Guitar Work Without Electricity?
Not all electric guitars are designed primarily for amplification. There are many acoustic guitars with in-built pickups and pre-amp circuits.
You could argue that this style of guitar is also electric, but clearly they produce a great sound without any electrical help.
The main aim of a pickup in an electric acoustic guitar is to amplify the natural sound of the instrument, not so much to change the sound.
Essentially these guitars are a full acoustic with a pickup added on, so they will still sound great without amplification.
However if you are looking to practice quietly at night while others sleep, then an acoustic electric won’t be the answer.
You can still tune an unplugged electric guitar, as they can be heard in a quiet environment. Electronic clip-on tuners, and mobile phone tuning apps can be a good way to tune more accurately and don’t require external power.
Will Playing Electric Guitar Without Amplification Hurt Your Technique?
This is probably the largest area of contention among guitarists, and there are many opinions on both sides of the argument with valid points.
Some guitarists such as Tomo Fujita (John Mayer’s teacher) say that you should always practice electric guitar with an amp, let’s not argue with his logic!
If you only play electric guitar without amplification, then you can’t learn to gauge how hard to pick or strum the strings, as you don’t have good sound feedback.
If you are learning guitar and constantly practice without an amp plugged in, then you won’t develop a good feel for creating dynamics.
Using your ears to carefully listen to the sound you are producing is extremely important when honing your skills, and without electrical amplification you can’t judge what sound you will produce when amplified.
Without the extra volume of amplification you will also find it hard or near-impossible to learn techniques such as hammer-on’s, pull-off’s, pinch harmonics, and tapping.
Electrical Amplification & Sound Effects
Since electric guitars are designed primarily for amps they don’t have an amazing sound unplugged, and you will find even a little reverb will make your playing sound so much better.
If you want to learn different styles of guitar playing such as metal guitar, then you will find it difficult to translate the acoustic sound of an unplugged guitar into what you will hear with sound effects.
Assessing Instrument Playability While Unplugged
If you’re looking to determine if a certain electric guitar has good tone and sustain, then playing without amplification can help you determine the tonal quality of the raw guitar.
Another time that playing unplugged is useful is when assessing problems with the guitar such as buzzing or rattling.
When luthiers repair electric guitars and do setup work on the neck and body you can bet they will check them by plucking strings and carefully listening, all without amplification.
This way they can hear subtle problems with the guitar that may be hidden when played through a powered amp.
Can You Play An Electric Guitar Through Headphones?
If you’re looking to play your guitar through headphones then you will need some more hardware, as you can’t normally plug headphones into an electric guitar.
Even with an adapter to fit the guitar jack socket, passive pickups don’t produce enough electricity to power a set of headphones.
Using headphones means you will need a power source for amplification. Here’s a list of options:
- An amp with a headphone socket.
- A computer with and audio interface device & software.
- A headphone amplifier that plugs directly into the guitar.
- An iRig guitar interface, for connecting to an iPhone.
- An Amplifier Head with headphone output.
- A guitar multi-effects unit with headphone output.
The exception to this would be the Silent Guitar mentioned earlier. These have headphone sockets and a pre-amp built in, but obviously require power to operate (anyone seen that 9v battery?).
In A Nutshell…
So we’ve determined that it is entirely possible to play electric guitar without electricity, and this may be suitable occasionally in some circumstances.
Overall though, playing this way can be very limiting depending on your current playing skills, and may hinder your progress.
If you want to play music with other musicians, want to play musical styles that demand sound effects, or just want to enjoy your own sound more – then electricity is a must when playing electric guitar.