Updated by Bobby
Updated on September 7th, 2021
Updated the attenuator recommendations with newer models from Boss and Universal Audio.
Parent article: Best Studio Headphones
My wife and I have four kids that all go to bed around 7:30 PM. I have a basement studio that sits adjacent to their bedrooms, which means if I'm going to play electric guitar, I need to do so through headphones.
I've used headphones will all different kinds of amplifiers, including preamps, solid state combos, and even tube combos.
In this article, I'll go over my process for each one in detail.
If you want the quick fix, I'll first what I've used in each case for an easier referral.
Questions about your own setup?
I've helped a lot of people setup their amps and rigs, both with and without headphones. If you have a question about your rig and getting headphones to work into your own gear, leave it in the comments section below and I'll answer.
Basically Two Options
The gear you need to hook headphones up to your amp will depend largely on the type of amp you have and the connections it provides. Here's what I used in each scenario:
1. With a Headphone Out in your Amp
Usually headphone outs are provided on preamps, solid state amps, and multi-effects units. In this case, you only need a set of headphones and (possibly) an eighth inch to quarter inch adapter:
The back of the Line 6 Firehawk is a good example:
2. Without a Headphone Out (audio interface)
If your guitar amp does not have a headphone out, you have a few different options, though the easiest one is to run your signal into a USB audio interface. In my Mesa tube amp combo, I run a signal from the amp's speaker output into a Hughes & Kettner Red Box, which then goes into a PreSonus Audiobox interface, which can be monitored with headphones.
Do Not Plug Headphones into the Following
You've got to be careful about plugging headphones into a guitar amp. Under no circumstances should they be plugged into any of the following:
- The guitar amp input jack
- Any guitar amp speaker out
- Send/return (FX loop) jacks
- Slave out
- Line level output
If you need a refresh on basic amp inputs and outputs, this article by Fender does a good job of summarizing it.
Understanding Guitar Amps
In this section, I want to get into a little more detail about each amp type and expand on some of your options for using headphones. The first question you need to ask is rather simple and obvious:
Does the amp have a headphone output?
This will always be labeled "headphones" or "phones" and can be on the front or back of an amplifier. Most solid state amps, like the Line 6 pictured above, will have a headphone output.
Many of these will be an eighth inch jack, like this one on the top panel of a Marshall Code 50 amplifier:
Of course, this is the simplest solution.
If your amp has a dedicated headphone output, you're good to go.
Just plug your headphones in and play.
However, this feature can really only be found on solid state amps, or preamps, and is harder to implement on a tube amp setup.
If you have a tube amp or just an amplifier without a dedicated headphone output, you can still make it work. It'll just take a little more gear and setup time. I'll go over the details of how I do it, based on the quick summary I've already provided.
Hooking Up Headphones to a Guitar Amp Without a Headphone Out
At my home studio, I have an older Mesa Rectoverb combo amp, which runs off tubes at both the power and preamp level and does not have any kind of headphone output.
Since tube amps must have a speaker load connected, we can't just unplug the speaker cab.
However, I was lucky enough to have three speaker outputs on the back of the amp.
From these outputs I can connect the Hughes & Kettner Red Box DI and then run the DI to my iRig Pro DUO USB audio interface.
That interface (and most audio interfaces) support a direct monitoring connection via headphones, as pictured below:
Keep in mind, the H&K Red Box does not replace a speaker load. To solve this problem, I turn the amp down and just stashed a few egg crates and pillows in front of it.
At that point, all I could hear was the signal coming through my interface and headphones.
I used this same setup to record this Godsmack cover:
What if I want to cut off the speaker cab?
If you want to avoid the speaker cab all together, you're going to need a device called a guitar amp attenuator, which might also be called a "load box."
These devices allow you to cut out your combo speaker and - in a sense - bear the load of the tube amp's speaker requirements. From the attenuator, you can go directly into a recording device, USB interface, or PA system.
Here are a couple attenuators that will do this for you:
They're expensive, but very valuable to those that want to record through a tube amp or use headphones with their tube amp while bypassing the speaker cab.
Using headphones with a guitar amp isn't always the most straightforward venture. It takes considering what amplifier you have or which amplifier you might be buying. If you have a solid state amp or preamp, always check for the phones or headphone output.
That's the easiest solution.
If you don't have a headphone jack or you're running a tube amp, consider how important it is for you to be able to cut off the speaker cab. For those that don't mind just cutting the volume down and going straight into a DI box - like I did - you can get away with a cheaper fix like the H&K Red Box.
To completely silence the speaker cab, you'll need to spend a little extra money and go the attenuator route.
Again, if you have questions about your own setup, feel free to leave those in the comments section below and I'll be happy to help out.