Have you seen all the gear professional guitarists use?
The pedals alone can cost many thousands of dollars.
But do you really need all that stuff yourself?
What do you need to play an electric guitar, if you just want a bare bones setup?
The most basic setup you need in order to play your guitar consists of 3 things.
But you will probably need a few more, depending on what you want to do with your guitar.
Keep reading to learn the absolute minimum equipment you need to play the electric guitar, along with additional equipment you will want for various situations, like practicing at home only, playing gigs, recording, etc.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Do You Need To Play An Electric Guitar?
- 2 What You Need To Play Electric Guitar: Final Thoughts
What Do You Need To Play An Electric Guitar?
There are only three things you absolutely need to get a good sound from an electric guitar: the guitar itself, an amplifier, and a guitar cable to connect the two. But there are dozens of other accessories that can make the experience simpler and more convenient.
For example, most guitarists use a guitar pick to improve the sound of certain techniques (power chords and palm-muting, for example). Guitarists playing live shows almost always have a guitar strap to keep their instrument at the right height, but it is possible to play from a seated position without one.
We will go over the most common accessories below. You will see that there are some you can easily go without, while others are not absolutely necessary, but they are something you will almost certainly want. Like a guitar pick.
But all you need are the three things mentioned above. You do really need an amp, because you need to plug an electric guitar into a guitar amp to produce an electrified sound.
Sure you can play the electric guitar without an amp, but strumming the strings without amplification produces a thin sound. If you do not want to get an amp, you should get an acoustic guitar, not an electric.
Electric guitars only sound good and make sense with an amp. When you make your electric guitar sound acoustic, it sounds weak, because it does not have a resonant chamber like an actual acoustic guitar.
Personally, I actually began my journey in music as a bass player. It was the singer in my first band that lent me his guitar. Since I already owned a bass amp and a power cable, I could practice my “new” electric guitar at home, but it certainly wasn’t a gig-ready setup.
That begs another question: how do you want to play an electric guitar? Do you want to practice your skills in your bedroom, jam with your friends, or rock out on a stage?
The rig you get should reflect your aspirations (and budget, of course). Once you dive down this rabbit hole, you will quickly see that you will constantly need new pieces of equipment, whether it be fresh pedals, a new tuner, multiple straps to accommodate different situations, and so on.
Either way, it makes sense to divide the answer to the question “What do you need to play the electric guitar?” into several smaller groups based on common reasons you might buy a guitar, so let’s start from the top with the most basic setup.
The “Bare Bones” Rig: Guitar, Cable, Pick, And Amp
The main difference between an electric and an acoustic guitar is that you can take the former in various directions by tweaking the tone control knobs.
Add a bit of gain, and you probably won’t need distortion. Crank the volume all the way to 13, and you’ll have an overdriven tone without a single pedal in the chain.
That being said, it’s impossible to play an electric guitar if you don’t have an amp and a cable to link it to your guitar. I mean, you can play it, but there is no point. It does not sound anywhere near as good as an acoustic guitar without amplification.
Guitar cables come in various sizes, and the shorter, the better. Longer cables can sometimes adversely impact the consistency of the tone, not to mention that they’re more expensive.
As for the amp, I strongly advise against buying the cheapest one you can find. Budget guitar amps aren’t only tonally horrible, they rarely work well (and ‘well’ is relative) for more than a year or so.
Try saving up some money and buy a used amp if need be. Just make sure it’s a functional amplifier from at least a somewhat reputable brand (Vox, Orange, Blackstar, or even better, Marshall, Fender, or Roland). This article covers the best guitar amps for beginners.
The amp also allows you to play your guitar over a set of headphones. You can not connect headphones directly to a guitar, but you can connect them to most modern amps. In fact, you can see the headphone jack on the far right of the Blackstar Fly amp in the photo above.
You might be thinking you don’t need guitar picks at all, and you are right. sort of. You can play fingerstyle or you can use alternatives to guitar picks. What can I use as a guitar pick? Anything from coins to bottle caps to pens and more. But none are as good as a pick and picks are cheap, so I’d just get some.
The “Band Guitarist” Rig: Strap, Tuner, Case, Capo
If you’ve decided to either join a band or form a new one, you may want to add a couple of guitar accessories to your rig. To be perfectly clear, it is possible to make do even without a strap, a tuner, and a carrying case, but your life will be much simpler if you have them.
Let’s begin with the strap. Your band will eventually want to start playing gigs. As a guitar player, you’re not exactly supposed to be seated on a bar stool during your show.
It also helps build a stronger team energy while practicing in a rehearsal studio, if you are on your feet and (perhaps) jumping around. Without a guitar strap, you can’t play standing up.
Most guitarists can tune a guitar by ear, but maybe not when they are first starting out. And good luck tuning your guitar while your drummer is blasting their kit and the singer is warming up their voice. Tuners are rarely over $10, so get a clip-on tuner and keep it in your bag.
Speaking of the bag, you could theoretically carry your guitar in your hands, but what if it rains? What if you accidentally drop it in a puddle, or the strings you haven’t clipped poke someone’s eye out? To eliminate these worries, just get a gig bag. Your guitar wasn’t cheap, right? Protect it.
A guitar capo is a remarkably useful accessory that removes the need to have a second guitar whenever you play a song in a different tuning. You could re-tune if you have a tuner, but your audience probably wouldn’t be too thrilled waiting for you. And capos are also not expensive.
The “Professional” Rig: A Heap Of Pedals
Aside from raw talent, skills polished to perfection, and an abundance of experience, what separates professional guitarists from your average weekend warriors is a host of pedals they use to fine-tune their tone.
Again, it is possible to alter the tone of any guitar by being extremely patient with its onboard control knobs and the amp’s settings. However, guitar distortion as a pedal effect is incomparably more expressive than the muddy tone you get by simply oversaturating your sound with as much gain as you can.
Some amps feature inbuilt effects, such as delay, pitch-shifter, or tremolo. In fact, my first Peavey 30w had a good selection of integrated effects. But nothing beats the real deal. If you want a unique sound, you need several guitar pedals.
The majority of professional guitar players own dozens, if not hundreds, of unique guitar pedals. And they carefully place them in their pedalboard so that the desired combination works in perfect harmony.
Even though hauling a bunch of pedals may require you to bring a large backpack to your shows, with them, you will be able to get through any gig, even if you’re using an amp with which you are not entirely familiar.
The “Recording Artist” Rig: Multiple Guitars & All Of The Above
At some point in time, most guitarists feel that they’re not expressing their innermost feelings by covering songs from other people. That’s when you decide to write original songs. In order to ensure that others can enjoy those songs, you will want to get into a recording studio.
You can write, play, and record on even the most basic of guitar rigs, but the songs you record will be permanently etched in history (or your desired recording format, to be more precise).
If you want them to sound their best, it is best to have at least a few different guitars and as many effect pedals as you can, so that you can chase an expanded spectrum of tones.
What You Need To Play Electric Guitar: Final Thoughts
You can play your electric guitar with no additional equipment, but it makes no sense. It won’t sound good and if you don’t want an amp, why bother buying an electric guitar at all? Acoustic guitars are cheaper.
That means you need an amplifier and a guitar cable to connect your guitar to the amplifier. That is the bare minimum. But you will probably want some guitar picks, too.
If you have those four things, you are set. Of course, most will also want a strap, a tuner, a capo, and some kind of bag or case. If you look at the beginner guitars on Amazon, they usually come in kits that includes all of these things.
These guitars are not good (this article lists the best electric guitars, including several for beginners), which is why they come with all of the additional equipment, but the list of equipment gives you an idea of what most beginners need to get started. Tha said, the kits rarely include an amp (and never a good one).