You’re tired of tripping over your guitar cable, but there’s nothing you can do about it: after all, guitars need to be plugged into an amp to produce sound, right?
In fact, there is another option: go wireless!
Electric guitars can be amplified with a wireless system. Wireless guitar systems exist to replace the typical guitar cable. A wireless signal can be transmitted between the guitar and amp, thereby removing the need for you to be tethered to your amp, giving you more range and freedom of movement while you play.
How exactly does a wireless system work, and how do you set it up to work for your specific guitar and amp?
Read on to find out!
How Wireless Guitar Systems Work
A guitar’s signal needs to be transmitted to the amp if sound is to be produced. Typically, this is the job of the guitar cable. But a wireless system achieves the same result via different means.
A wireless system consists of two main components: a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter plugs into the guitar’s output jack and converts the signal delivered by the pickups into a radio frequency. That frequency is picked up by the receiver, which plugs into the amp’s input jack.
Wireless systems come in analog and digital formats: each with pros and cons.
Analog systems tend to be much cheaper, making them a good choice for beginners or those who don’t play live in large venues. Analog systems do have a more limited range however, and are subject to interference by other electrical signals. This unwanted background noise increases as the distance between transmitter and receiver increases.
Digital systems are significantly more expensive, but benefit from increased range and are more resistant to electrical interference from other sources. This makes them the preferred choice for professionals who play large shows.
However, cheap digital systems can suffer from latency: a delay between the time you play a note and the time it’s heard through the amp. This can make syncing up with the rest of the band challenging, so if you want to go digital, invest in a high-quality unit.
Pros / Cons of Wireless Guitar Systems
1. More Freedom of Movement
We’ve probably all tripped over a guitar cable at some point, whether playing a gig on stage or just practicing in our own living room. While usually just a minor inconvenience, a more extreme result could see your clumsy feet pulling your amp onto its face or sending your guitar flying off its stand (maybe you should start unplugging your guitar when you’re not using it).
No guitar cable, nothing to trip over (or at least less to trip over). A wireless guitar system frees you up to move about your house (or the stage) as you’d like, without worrying about the cable getting caught up in your legs or twisting itself up like an old corded telephone.
2. Superior Range
Guitar cables max out at around 30ft, but most are quite a bit shorter than that.
There’s a reason: The longer a guitar cable is, the weaker the signal becomes as it travels from guitar to amp. It’s generally recommended that you keep your guitar cable to 20ft or less, as a longer cable sees a more rapid degradation in the signal.
Wireless systems don’t suffer from this issue. They certainly have a range in which they work best, but that range is considerably greater than a cable. For instance, even entry-level analog systems have a range of roughly 50ft, and high-quality digital systems can work at 200ft or more as long as there’s a good line of sight between transmitter and receiver.
This gives you a lot more room to move when playing. It’s how guitarists run all over the stage and interact with their fans without trailing a long cable behind them. In fact, that selfie you got with your favorite guitarist as he or she was soloing out at the end of the stage wouldn’t have been possible without a wireless guitar system!
In most cases, a wireless guitar system is going to be more expensive than a standard cable. I say in most cases, because some guitar cables cost more than $200!
But this is for the highest-quality cable your money can buy. Compare this to a professional level wireless system, which could easily set you back more than $1,000. While you can find budget wireless systems for under $100, this is still much more expensive than a guitar cable of similar quality.
2. More Complicated
A wireless guitar system requires more setup than a guitar cable, which you simply plug into both your guitar and amp and then get rocking.
You need to make sure you choose a wireless system that operates on the correct frequency for your needs in order to reduce the chance of interference from other electrical sources (which is more complicated than it seems), then make sure your transmitter and receiver are on the same channel and pairing properly.
There’s definitely a learning curve when it comes to switching to a wireless system, and if you’re not the most tech savvy person, this could lead to added frustration. You certainly don’t need a degree in electrical engineering to figure it out, but for some it may be more trouble than it’s worth.
3. Requires Batteries
A wireless guitar system requires batteries to power both the transmitter and the receiver. And batteries have a tendency to die at the most inconvenient times.
You can minimize the possibility of this by keeping spare batteries on hand or ensuring your rechargeable batteries are fully charged before a gig, but batteries are just another component that could possibly malfunction.
4. Not All Are Compatible with Active Pickups
Active pickups produce a higher output than passive pickups, making them a popular choice for those who play heavier music genres. To achieve this tone however, active pickups require battery power. This isn’t an issue for a cabled guitar connection, but the signal may interfere with a wireless guitar system’s transmitter.
There are many wireless systems specifically designed to integrate with a guitar that has active pickups…but unless you knew you would need to factor this into your purchase decision, there’s a good chance you’d run into a compatibility issue when trying to connect your wireless system.
But now that you know, you can shop with confidence!
How to Set Up a Wireless Guitar System
1. Determine Your Wireless System Needs
Before you purchase a wireless guitar system, you need to identify what you want it to do.
As mentioned above, wireless systems are available in analog or digital, with a wide range of price points in each category. They can also operate at a number of frequencies. The system you choose and the frequency you run it on will be heavily dependent on the size of the venue you play (whether a stadium or your own living room) and its location.
That’s right: depending on the location where you play, you may need to run your wireless system on specific frequencies. This will change from country to country, but could also change within a country as well.
There’s also the issue of licensing. Since you’re sharing space over the airways with millions of other people, depending on frequency and location, you may need to pay an annual licensing fee in order to reserve a spot for your sound to be transmitted. There are free options that may be available to you though, so do your research before committing to a wireless system.
2. Install Batteries
To reiterate, wireless guitar systems need batteries…so make sure they’re installed before you try and set up your system! Rechargeable batteries are a great option here as well: it will save you money in the long run if you play a lot.
3. Connect Wireless System Components
To connect a wireless system, plug the transmitter into your guitar’s output jack, and then plug the receiver into your amp’s input jack, just as you would a guitar cable. Then, power on both components.
If your system requires manual pairing, you’ll need to select the channel you wish to broadcast over on both the transmitter and receiver, ensuring they’re operating on the same channel. For devices with automatic pairing, the devices will sync themselves on the same channel when turned on.
At this point, as soon as you turn on your amp you’re ready to play.
4. Maintain Clear Line of Sight Between Transmitter and Receiver
Unlike a guitar cable, a wireless system requires there be a clear line of sight between the transmitter on your guitar and the receiver on your amp. Move out of this line of sight, and the signal could be impeded, especially by other electrical equipment that may be on stage.
Even if you’re practicing at home, putting a wall between the transmitter and receiver could block the signal, so always make sure you stay within your amp’s “sight” when playing.
5. Stay Within Your System’s Maximum Range
Wireless guitar systems allow more freedom to move about while playing, but as with any wireless electronic system, the closer the transmitter is to the receiver, the better signal quality you’ll get.
Even the highest quality wireless systems have a maximum range at which they’ll operate, so stay within this range to ensure your sound quality doesn’t suffer.
Do Electric Guitars Have to Be Plugged In? (Or Can You Skip the Amp?)
What if you don’t want to use a guitar cable or a wireless system? Can you still play your guitar without any connection to an amp?
Well, you certainly can play an electric guitar without plugging it into anything, but the sound you can coax out of it will differ depending on the type of guitar you have. And if it’s a typical solid-body guitar, you’ll likely get very low volume and it may even be hard to hear your instrument unless you’re playing in a very quiet room.
Most electric guitars have a solid body, meaning they’re crafted out of a single block of wood without any relief cuts or hollow areas you’d find on an acoustic guitar. While electric guitars are much louder than acoustics with the help of an amp, without it, they’re relatively useless.
The open body of an acoustic guitar is where sound resonates within the instrument when the strings are strummed. Since a solid body electric lacks any resonant space, the sound will be inaudible for anyone a short distance away.
Hollow and semi-hollow body electric guitars are able to be played without an amp with far better results. Since they have some open space within their bodies, they resonate much better and produce louder sound. However, they’re still nowhere near as loud as an acoustic guitar.
Can Electric Guitars Be Played Without Electricity?
Though an electric guitar needs to be connected to an amp to produce an audible sound, the amp doesn’t necessarily need to be plugged in to transmit that sound.
Battery powered amps exist for those who still want to play when there isn’t access to an electrical outlet. While these amps tend to be quite small and are designed for travel, they can still get pretty loud considering their size.
If you’re looking for an amp for your small space or want a backup for road trips or in case the power goes out, consider a battery powered amp.
Examples of Battery Powered Amps
Can Electric Guitars Be Played With Headphones Only?
If you want to play amplified but don’t want anyone else to hear it, playing with headphones is a valid option.
As long as your amp has a Headphone / Line In connection, you can play with the sound going right to your headphones. Typically, this input jack requires a ¼ inch connector, but if your headphones don’t have this, you can buy an adapter.