Best guitar plugins: quick links
Stepping away from the amplifier and into the studio offers guitarists the chance to expand their skills and take the next step in their musical journey. Playing, practising and performing are all well and good, but it’s while recording that artists can truly begin to put their best feet forward.
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For many - if not most - musicians, recording will involve some kind of digital audio workstation (DAW), whereby the producer can record, arrange, mix and master their tracks to perfection. One of the great things about DAW applications is the ways in which they can be expanded upon through the use of plugins. And for guitarists, there is a mouth-watering selection of such add-ons available. Let’s take a look at some of the best guitar plugins you try in 2020.
What is the best guitar plugin you need to try?
As a guitar-specific tool, IK Multimedia’s Amplitube 4 is the one to beat. While Positive Grid’s BIAS AMP 2 arguably wins out purely on sound quality, the added effects and other tools make Amplitube 4 the full package. We loved being able to call up vintage, discontinued Orange heads, then mix them with realistic Fender effects, safe in the knowledge that each model is official and approved by the brands themselves.
No amp sim is ever going to beat the real thing, but that’s not what they’re intended to do. As zero-hassle recording tools that let you tweak and fiddle to your heart’s content, amp sims have brought real-world practicality to an entire generation of players. And, in Amplitube 4, there is a clear winner of best guitar plugin for 2020.
How to choose the best guitar plugins for you
When it comes to plugins, there are thousands upon thousands of options open to you. These range from basic, free plugs that perhaps lack a little finesse, through to pro-grade tools that elevate sounds to new levels. With so much choice on offer, it can be hard to know where to begin. Allow us to help.
Usually, when looking at plugins, your chosen recording system will have the biggest impact on what’s available to you. That’s because plugins designed to be used in a DAW environment will be either based on Steinberg’s Virtual Studio Technology (VST), Avid’s Avid Audio eXtension (AAX) or Apple’s proprietary Audio Unit (AU) format.
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VSTs are different as they work multi-format - i.e. you can use them with many DAWs, including Ableton Live, Cubase, Reaper and Bitwig, and across both Mac and PC - whereas AUs will work only with Apple software, and AAXs only with Avid’s Pro Tools program. This does narrow the field slightly depending on your studio setup, but most high-profile plugins come in each of those formats.
Once you’ve established the format you need, the fun begins. It’s here that you can decide what it is you’re looking for a plugin to do. It might be that you’re looking for something to replicate the tones and effects of your usual amp and pedalboard. Or perhaps you’re trying to add a layer of professional sheen to your recordings. Or maybe you’re simply looking for tools to help you practice more effectively. Whatever you need, or whatever you can think of, there is doubtless a plugin out there to help.
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For guitarists in particular, amp sims are a superb tool. By connecting your guitar through an audio interface, you can gain access to models of full virtual amp rigs, right from the amp head through to the pedals, cabinets and microphones used in a real studio. There are a number of these applications, each with their own unique features and quirks. Many have even collaborated with the names and brands that guitarists know already, to offer official versions of coveted amps and pedals. So, if you find yourself in a situation where firing up a 100w vintage Orange amp isn’t practical, you can always load up a sim. The real beauty of amp sims lies in re-amping; because you record a dry, unprocessed signal, you can always then tweak and fine-tune your tones once the recording itself is done.
Let’s take a look at some of the best guitar plugins in 2020. Whatever your style and whatever your needs, we’ve got you covered.
These are the best guitar plugins right now...
1. IK Multimedia Amplitube 4
This amp sim is still going strong
Launch price: $149.99/£114/€135 | Formats: Mac/Windows, standalone, VST, AU, AAX
+ Branded collections
+ Vast amount of quality effects
- Not much!
As one of the veterans of the amp sim scene, IK Multimedia’s Amplitube takes some beating for guitarists. With tonnes of included amp models, cabinets, effects and even racks, there is plenty to get your teeth into here.
What makes Amplitube 4 interesting is the inclusion of the Custom Shop add-on. Here, you can find officially licensed amp models from names like Fender, Orange, Mesa Boogie and Marshall, along with pedals from the likes of Wampler, Z.VEX and Fulltone. The Custom Shop approach is to let you buy the individual models you want, too, so you can get your perfect branded rig for not a lot of cash.
With this much in the way of content, it’s hard to find fault. Throw in a basic DAW, a looper and MIDI control, and you’ve got a pretty comprehensive package.
2. Positive Grid BIAS AMP 2
This one is a tweaker's paradise
Launch price: $99/£76/€90 (standard); $199/£152/€180 (pro); $239/£182/€216 (elite) | Formats: Mac/Windows, standalone, VST, AU, AAX
+ Insane levels of detail
+ The best high gain tones from an amp sim
+ Amp Match feature is genuinely useful
- No included effects or tuner
If Positive Grid wasn’t the first to bring amp sims to DAWs, they’re certainly the ones that have made the biggest impression. Now in its second iteration, the Positive Grid BIAS AMP 2 brings more of the features and tools that guitarists love into one incredibly useful package.
The premise is that each individual component of an amp’s signal chain can be tweaked, changed or replaced. Everything, right down to the type of transformer, or the pre-amp tubes, or even how hot you run the tubes, is up for grabs. If you can’t get a good tone out of this sim, then amp sims probably aren’t for you. We particularly loved the higher gain tones. These are often a barometer of how good an amp sim is, yet here they stood out superbly in our mix.
The BIAS AMP 2 doesn’t include any effects other than a basic reverb – they come in a separate package. However, this is balanced by the inclusion of an Amp Match feature, which we loved. Essentially, you give it an amp sound, either from your playing or from a recorded track, and using its multitude of variables the sim will attempt to match it, usually to a decent level. Well worth checking out.
3. zplane deCoda
Helping you through science
Launch price: $54/£41/€49 | Formats: Mac/Windows, standalone
+ Intuitive workflow
+ Encourages practice
- Hard to find fault
While not technically a plugin, zplane’s deCoda application definitely warrants a mention. This unique piece of software takes a piece of recorded music, ‘decodes’ it and presents you with accurate chords, structure and tempos to help you practice. From there, you can slow songs down, making them easier to practice, as well as export MIDI to a DAW.
What really caught our attention, however, was the ‘focus’ mode, whereby you select parts of the EQ spectrum via a visual display, and the software filters them out. You can, for example, isolate a single guitar line in a crowded mix to help you learn it, before inverting the filter (to remove that part) so that you can play along with the recording. Witchcraft? Perhaps, but it’s certainly useful.
4. Native Instruments Komplete 12
Everything you could ever need
Launch price: $199 - $1,599/£152 - £1,220/€180 - €1,450 | Formats: Mac/Windows, standalone, VST, AU, AAX
+ So. Much. Content.
+ Great guitar-specific tools
- Can get pricey for the top bundle
If recording guitars is just part of what you do, or if you’re looking to record full arrangements with lots of different sounds, Native Instruments' Komplete 12 could solve a lot of problems for you. Not only does it contain plugins covering pretty much every instrument you’ve ever heard of - and plenty you haven’t - everything is compiled in such a user-friendly way that Komplete never feels overwhelming.
There’s lots in here for guitarists, including NI’s very own Guitar Rig amp sim, used by Deftones’ Steph Carpenter among others. If you have a basic DAW and a copy of Komplete, you may feasibly never need anything else to record full, fresh, exciting tracks.
5. Eventide Blackhole
Otherworldly reverbs from Eventide
Launch price: $220/£168/€200 | Formats: Mac/Windows, VST, AU, AAX
+ Elite quality ‘verbs
+ NKS integration is a nice touch
- Quality this good costs money
Guitarists may be familiar with Eventide, which has produced a number of high-end effects pedals covering modulators, delays and other such fun. But it is with their famous Blackhole reverb that we've found ourselves the most creatively inspired. The official Eventide Blackhole plugin, thankfully, loses none of the hardware version’s epic, extraordinary quality; it just does it all in handy software format.
If you’re into your ‘verbs, then this is one that has to be on your bucket list. The Blackhole takes reverb as a thing, and then pulls and melds it in a hundred different directions, yet manages to retain musicality and clarity throughout. The best effects are those that inspire you to write great music, and Blackhole is certainly one that has this effect. Magical stuff indeed.
6. Plugin Boutique Scaler
Turning ideas into theory
Launch price: $49/£39.95/€49 | Formats: Mac/Windows, VST, AU, AAX
+ A gentle nudge for theory novices
+ Nice user interface
- Too easy to rely on it?
Not every guitarist has an innate understanding of musical theory. Many players have little more than a rough idea of where they want a song to go, or in which key they want to write, yet feel constricted by their lack of understanding. If this sounds like you, we can wholeheartedly recommend checking out Scaler, from Plugin Boutique. By using Scaler, you effectively outsource the music theory side of songwriting and concentrate on finding the chords, melodies and progressions that you have in your head.
It functions as a MIDI plugin, so you can incorporate it directly within your DAW, and features drag-and-drop MIDI functionality, which means you can construct entire segments within minutes. Sure, there’s no substitute for actual theoretical knowledge, but as a helping hand you could do a lot worse than investigate Scaler.
7. Waves CLA Guitars
Scaled-down amp sim with a big name
Launch price: $99/£76/€91 | Formats: Mac/Windows, VST, AU, AAX
+ Quick and simple to use
+ Everything you need, nothing you don’t
- Tweakers might find it limiting
With a name like Chris Lord-Alge behind it, the CLA Guitars plugin from Waves Audio was bound to come with a certain level of quality. As a pared-down amp sim, this delivers a relatively small selection of guitar-specific tones, but what is there sounds fantastic.
You get three ‘channels’ - clean, crunch and heavy - and a small selection of effects, so there isn’t much in the way of experimentation on offer. But if it’s a quick and easy way to achieve a high-quality guitar sound you’re after, this could be your guy.
8. Illformed Glitch 2
An audio curveball
Launch price: $49/£38/€45 | Formats: Mac/Windows, VST, AU
+ Intuitive workflow and interface
- Pretty unique in what it does
- Easy to fall down the rabbit hole!
We’ll end the list with something a bit off the wall. As guitarists, we’re more than familiar with effects and what they can do to our sounds. Now imagine a plugin that allows you to combine tiny instances of multiple effects on top of each other via a sequencer, with the intention of truly mangling a piece of audio.
While a plugin like Glitch 2, by Illformed, might be better suited to the worlds of electronic music, we found in our play tests that it gave us something different to anything else out there. The outcome of what the plugin does could be manually achieved, sure, but as a quick tool to create a bit of controlled randomness, Glitch 2 is in a league of its own.