The vast majority of guitar players can’t, despite how much they would want to, crank up their amp at 13 and play their hearts out. Our neighbors and housemates don’t always have too much appreciation or understanding for our particular taste of music, much less for our love of loud sounds, so most of us are forced to use headphones so as to not bother anyone around us.
The first thing a guitarist notices when they switch to playing electric guitar with headphones on is that everything sounds dramatically different. You start noticing different frequencies, your sound behaves differently across the volume range, and ultimately, your tone is absolutely and completely different.
The playing part is fairly easy, as that’s governed by our muscle memory, but the experience is so dissimilar that we often have to readjust both our fingers and our ears to these new sounds and noises that we assumed weren’t originally there.
Today we’ll talk about the ways you can improve your guitar-playing experience with headphones, so without any further ado, let’s dive in:
Playing Electric Guitar with Headphones
Normally, the ‘chain’ refers to the signal chain in guitar slang, as in ‘pedals we have onboard’. This time around, though, the chain refers to everything between your guitar, your headphones, and your amp.
Are you using your PC as a mediator along with plugins? Do you have a physical DAC or are you relying on apps? Do you use pedals or are you playing clean? These are just some of the elements that affect how your headphones will process the sound.
Furthermore, one of the biggest factors of all is what type of headphones you are using, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.
This prelude to the actual guide is meant to raise a bit of awareness that there are a lot of factors that you can influence – even a ‘wrong’ kind of budget headphones can work if your gear is great, and vice versa.
What Kind of Headphones Should You Use?
It’s much easier to buy a proper pair of studio headphones than to replace bits of your gear, download (and buy) a plethora of plugins and apps, purchase expensive soundcards, DAWs, and digital-to-analog converters.
However, studio headphones, just like every other type of cans, aren’t perfect. Each type of headphones presents a certain set of benefits while pulling a mirrored set of drawbacks.
Before we get to amps, pedals, and accessories, let’s talk a bit about what you can expect from different sets of headphones in the context of playing the guitar while wearing a pair.
Generally speaking, open-back headphones are one of the best headphone types for this particular use. They’re normally more comfortable than closed-back headphones as they allow the air to freely circulate and ultimately pass along the cups, which brings quite a few benefits to the table already.
Namely, the lowest frequencies are inaudible, but they can be ‘felt’. Whenever you’re at a concert, what you’re physically feeling when your ribs start to dance and it feels as if the blast of noise is pushing the air out of your lungs is the raw strength of the lowest frequencies. Headphones also pick up and reproduce these frequencies, although on a very different scale.
These sub-bass frequencies cause ear fatigue and physically drain you, and they don’t linger around too long if you’re using open-back headphones. This is the most notable benefit of this headphone type, as well as the reason why they’re perfect for home practice, as well as for recording.
However, open-back cans aren’t faultless. Their design allows the air to exit the cups more freely, but it also allows outside noise to enter in the same fashion. This means that these headphones aren’t necessarily great in loud environments.
Luckily though, these shortcomings are mostly felt when commuting or traveling, so unless you live near a train track, you shouldn’t have any substantial problems with ambient noise.
Another shortcoming of open-back headphones is flimsiness. Namely, the lack of encapsulated design that closed-back cans offer makes them more vulnerable to pretty much everything from moisture to physical damage.
Again, this is not a terrible flaw, and it is easily countered by proper use and maintenance. Keep them in a case with a dry piece of cloth over the cups when you’re not using them, and they’ll be as reliable as ever.
Closed-back cans aren’t the polar opposite of open-back headphones in the sense that they do share quite a bit in common.
The cups, the headband, and their soundstage may be identical if they’re made by the same brand, and the same goes for the drivers, the quality of the cable, or the Bluetooth version if they’re wireless. Obviously, the sound quality differs from brand to brand, so what’s left to the subjective judgment of every guitarist.
Now, the main difference between open and closed-back cans lies in the design of the seal surrounding the drivers in case of closed-back type, or the lack thereof in the case of open-back type.
The sealed capsule around the driver completely eliminates any and all ambient noises while keeping the sounds coming from the source locked inside the cups. This grants a more immersive, and to some extent more powerful listening experience, although it can be argued whether this is great for guitar playing or not.
The first argument that goes against it being beneficial is the fact that you’ll hear ‘everything’ coming at you at the same time. Normally, certain frequencies would be ‘filtered out’ in the case of open-back cans, but this time around, you’ll get close and personal with your tone in its full bloom.
This can feel a bit overwhelming at times, even when you get accustomed to it. However, the positive side to this is that you’ll get a bit of extra headroom in the volume department. Using closed-back headphones often eliminates the need for a dedicated headphone amplifier, as you’ll already have plenty of loud noises to tackle.
Additionally, the negation of ambient sounds makes it great for both jamming and recording. You won’t hear a thing outside of your own playing, which can only be frustrating if you haven’t practiced enough.
Now, the main problem with closed-back headphones is the aforementioned ear fatigue. Wearing closed-back cans will tire you out before you know it, mainly because they’re supposed to completely surround your ears, which can cause quite a bit of stress both to the interior and to the exterior of your ears.
Sadly, there’s no way around this problem. That’s why closed-back headphones are perfect for up to 1-hour practice sessions, or even shorter during hotter seasons. Regardless, the benefits they offer far outweigh the little shortcomings that they pull along for the ride.
Wireless In-Ear Monitors
IEMs (in-ear monitors) are essentially smaller, down-scaled versions of closed-back headphones in the form of earbuds. They’re famously used by guitarists during live performances as they offer a variety of benefits while presenting but a handful of easily manageable drawbacks.
While they’re ideally used on stage, there’s merit to using them to practice or record your guitar at home too.
All IEM models are designed to completely negate any and all feedback, as well as handling both extremes in terms of the frequency range. Better-quality models are outfitted with built-in filters that cut unfavorable frequencies reactively to the volume output, making them an excellent choice for beginners who would otherwise have to tweak these parameters manually.
The main similarity between IEMs and closed-back headphones is excellent ambient noise reduction. However, in-ear monitors are much easier to wear as they cause substantially less ear fatigue – if any at all.
They’re typically supplied with advanced and intuitive volume controls and exceptionally versatile DAC chips. However, the majority of benefits these earphones offer can only be achieved in a live setting, such as wireless convenience, more flexible movement, cable management, and such.
One of the biggest drawbacks of IEMs is affordability. Namely, their remarkable functionalities and versatility call for a hefty price tag, so the chances are that you’ll be able to easily find a more suitable set of headphones in the same price range.
Both open and closed-back headphones can be considered ‘studio’ headphones to some extent, but the type we’re referring to is a set of cans that features a neutral sonic signature. Headphones that in no way influence the frequencies they pick up on are called ‘neutral’ while others can be ‘bass heavy’, ‘chirpy’, and so on.
This type of headphones isn’t necessarily perfect for playing guitar with headphones, but it’s excellent for recording it.
Setting the Soundstage
You can alter the frequencies your guitar ‘writes’ on the source (amp, PC, laptop) in several ways. The first and most obvious one is by directly tweaking the tone knobs on your guitar (or guitar simulator if you’re using the PC) while alternatives mainly rely on stompboxes, effect pedals, and apps. Since this part is largely subjective, let’s focus on the actual parameters:
The inaudible frequency range that we perceive as vibrations should be the least of your concerns. Even if your amp has a graphic EQ, the chances are that you won’t be able to influence this frequency range in any way. Given that they can’t be heard, these frequencies shouldn’t bother your ears.
Everything between 60 and 250 Hertz is the bass frequency. Tweaking this knob will either augment or cut the barely audible tones.
The range between 250 Hertz and 6 Kilohertz is comprised of lower midrange, midrange, and upper midrange. This is the most sensitive, as well as most reactive frequency range that should be minorly tweaked to add or remove certain elements in your guitar tone.
The loudest noises can be located in the range above 6 kHz. Essentially, if your tone starts to scream and hiss, and if you’re completely sure that there’s no feedback or jitter in the background, you should try cutting the highs a notch. Even though this frequency range isn’t as sensitive as bass or mids, it can still cause a bit of difficulty.
Now that you’re certain that you have the right kind of headphones if you’re still not completely satisfied with the sound, there are other ways to improve your headphone guitar-playing experience.
If we assume that you’re using cheap earbuds to practice your guitar, there’s a possibility that they aren’t supplied with a volume slider, to begin with. Luckily, every guitar amp features a master volume knob, so you can increase the volume this way. The same goes for high-impedance headphones that are well-renowned for being quieter than their low-impedance counterparts.
The problem here is that you’ll introduce a hefty amount of distortion to your tone, and this doesn’t in any way relate to your tone’s actual distortion acquired through cranking up the gain and bass frequencies.
The louder you go, the muddier your tone will get, and there’s only so much you can do to keep it at least remotely stable. The best way to counter this issue is to use a headphone amplifier on top of your guitar amplifier, which serves as a source for your headphones.
Now, you may think that using a headphone amp through a guitar amp may present a series of different problems, but the simple truth is that this is a completely safe, drawback-free way of increasing the volume capabilities of your headphones.
Simply put, being able to configure the loudness of your guitar directly on the headphones will afford you more headroom to configure the frequency parameters via tone control knobs. This further means that you’ll be able to fine-tune the various aspects of your amp with more flexibility, which makes tone searching substantially easier.
Audio Quality Issues
The moment you upgrade to a better-quality headphone set you will start noticing that your guitar tone will sound significantly better. The reason for this is quite simple – better headphones are outfitted with better DAC chips.
On top of that, if you’ve also chosen a proper type of headphones (studio for recording, open-back for practicing, closed-back for jamming), you’ll hit a jackpot. However, there are still ways to go beyond and search for an even better tone.
Your new headphones will invariably handle the frequencies your guitar makes better, but the small DAC chips we’ve talked about a minute ago can’t tackle the entire audible range of tones.
Going back to the designs of different headphone types, some would capture the sound within the cups, others would ‘filter it’ in a sense; this means that these are two extremes where you’ll experience either a condensed, volatile frequency range or broad, unbalanced one.
The proper way to address this issue is by using a dedicated digital-to-analog converter unit. The differences between DAC chips and actual units are vast, starting with the amount of distortion and noise they introduce to the signal, over consistent performance, to sound quality.
DAC chips, no matter how well-designed they are, aren’t necessarily great at expanding and influencing the frequencies they read. They can be phenomenal at reading and writing audio files, but dedicated DAC units are simply faster and more accurate.
Diving into more details, the things that separate mediocre DAC units from high-quality ones are better sampling rates and effective distortion removal features, such as reinforced shielding, better construction, and such.
Buying even a cheap DAC can make a significant impact on the tone your headphones pick up. Of course, if you can invest a few hundred dollars, by all means, shoot for boutique models – they’re better-rounded and can prove to be invaluable tools for recording, as well as for practicing.
Lag is one of the most typical problems that players who aren’t using a proper soundcard face. While using headphones and your guitar gear for practicing at home doesn’t require such a feature, recording is virtually impossible without a soundcard, or even better – an audio interface.
In fact, most beginners don’t even think about recording themselves, regardless of the fact that this is one of the best and fastest ways to improve, due to the complexity of setting up a recording rig.
If you want to record your guitar, you may want to consider buying a dedicated recording soundcard or a DAW (digital audio workstation).
Decent quality digital-analog workstations and recording soundcards are already outfitted with great digital-to-analog converters and built-in amplifiers, not to mention that you’ll normally receive quite a few gratis plugins and access to a variety of recording apps as complementary features.
The headphones you should use for recording need to be suitable for critical listening. That means that cheap earbuds are the worst option at your disposal while open-back studio cans are your best.
All things considered, you’ll swat not two, but several flies with one stroke by purchasing a quality DAW/recording soundcard. You won’t need to invest too much in better headphones, as you’ll already benefit from a superb-quality DAC/amp combo that’s already a part of the aforementioned hardware.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.