How to plug your guitar into your iPhone and rock out

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guitar iPhone setup
This is all you need to make some awesome noise.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Short of learning air guitar, hooking a guitar up to your iPhone is just about the easiest way to get started playing music. But it’s not just for practice, or goofing around at home. You can record and edit serious music with an iOS device, and even produce whole records.

But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves. Today, we’re just going to hook things up and rock out.

Why use an iPhone for your music?

There are a whole lot of advantages to playing your music through an iOS device, even if all you want to do is output the sound to a regular guitar amp. First, you can send your signal through several pro-level guitar amplifier simulators, as well as an almost endless selection of effects. Think of it as a way to have every classic amp and guitar pedal at hand, without filling up your basement or draining your bank account.

You can also easily record your guitar. That’s great not only for making the next hit, but for capturing a fleeting idea. You could always dig your iPhone out and jam the mic up next to your amp’s speaker, recording snippets with the Voice Recorder app. But if you make it a habit to play through your iPhone, you’ll be able to capture ideas instantly, instead of forgetting them while you fumble your phone from your pocket. The quality of the recordings will be way better too.

You’ll also gain access to a lot of neat learning tools. Yousician, for instance, listens to your racket and coaches you, as if you were playing Guitar Hero.

How to hook up a guitar to your iPhone

You can’t just run a cable from the guitar to the iPhone’s headphone socket. Instead, you need to buy an interface. The cheapest of these actually do use the iPhone’s headphone jack, but the result is usually crackly and noisy thanks to all those signals running in and out through the same wire.

You should opt for a digital interface instead — those $12 fake iRigs on Amazon might be tempting, but you will want to upgrade almost immediately, making them a big waste of $12. Instead, you need something that hooks up to the Lightning port. If you opt for one of those crappy interfaces, you can still use it with the iPhone 7 as long as you didn’t lose the headphone dongle that shipped in the box.

You'll need an interface to sit between your guitar and your iDevice. I use the Line 6 Sonic Port.
You’ll need an interface to sit between your guitar and your iDevice. I use the Line 6 Sonic Port.
Photo: Line 6

So, step one is to buy an interface. I use the Line 6 Sonic Port because it brings a bunch of useful inputs and outputs, which are of better quality than my iPad’s headphone output.

Step two is to plug everything in. The guitar gets plugged into the big hole, your external speaker or headphones get plugged into the little hole, and the Lightning cable runs to your iPhone or iPad. Some of these Lightning interfaces use the iPhone’s headphone jack as an output, which is fine as long as it has one.

Yonac's ToneStack sounds fantastic, and works on your iPad and your iPhone. It has pretty much everything you'll ever need.
Yonac’s ToneStack sounds fantastic, and works on your iPad and your iPhone. It has pretty much everything you’ll ever need.
Screenshot: Cult of Mac

Rocking out? No, not yet. You may notice that not much is happening. You’ll need an app to actually process the digital signal and send it out to the speaker. The free option is GarageBand for iOS, which features a section dedicated to amps and guitar effects. It is also a bit complex to set up, so we’ll choose a dedicated app that’s just plug and play. My favorites are Yonac’s ToneStack and Positive Grid’s BIAS FX. (Note: BIAS FX is iPad-only, and only ToneStack offers a free trial version.)

These apps are all easy to use. Just fire one up, and it will automatically detect your incoming signal, process it through any selected amplifiers and effects pedal, and send the awesome result out the other end.

That’s it! You can stop reading now and go play.

Bonus tip: Record with Music Memos

Apple’s Music Memos is like Voice Notes for your music. It launches fast, and lets you preserve quick ideas or play whole songs. You could leave it right there, and most of the time I do, letting it keep my ideas for later. But this app’s killer app is that it analyzes your playing, figures out the tempo and the chords (or melody), and automatically adds a bass line and drums.

It might sound like a gimmick, but this can provide serious inspiration. Especially as you can take the result and send it straight to GarageBand for further tweaking (more on that in a future installment).

Music Memos does a fine job using just the iPhone’s built-in mic, but it also works great with a digital interface like we’re using. This lets you play almost silently, and grab ideas without firing up a whole rig.

If youy're a musician, Music Memos might be the best app on your iPhone.
If you’re a musician, Music Memos might be the best app on your iPhone.
Screenshot: Cult of Mac

To tell Music Memos to listen to your plugged-in guitar, just tap the little guitar jack icon on the main screen, tap Channel, then pick your input. If you’re using a simple device like the Sonic Port, it’s probably already selected. If you have a device with several inputs (for a guitar and a mic together, for example), you can choose the correct one here. And make sure to turn on the Monitor option if you want Music Memos to actually pass the signal through so you can listen, instead of just swallowing it up.

What else can you do with a guitar and an iPhone?

In future how-tos, we’ll look at recording simple songs with your iPhone using Apple’s awesome Music Memos to start off a song before moving it to GarageBand, plus a roundup of alternatives to both GarageBand and Music Memos. See you then!

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