Who says you need expensive amps and microphones to record guitar? Who says you need costly multi-effects units or pedalboards to capture an awesome tone?
These days, all you need is a killer VST plugin along with some impulses to achieve stellar results. In some cases, you don’t even need impulses. If that wasn’t awesome enough, you can even get some great sounding VSTs for free.
That’s what we’re going to be looking at in this guide – free guitar VST plugins that sound ultra-realistic.
Are you ready? Let’s get into this.
AmpliTube Custom Shop
“You can get every electric guitar tone you ever wanted out of one piece of gear” said no electric guitarist ever.
Sure, you could get one of Fractal Audio Systems’ Axe-FX units (which can cost several thousand dollars), or Positive Grid’s Bias FX plugin (cost varies depending on bundle), but that kind of defeats the point of “free.”
Fortunately, there are options like AmpliTube Custom Shop. This free desktop app comes with 24 pieces of gear. You’ll still need to register and authorize the software to get started, but I think you’ll agree it’s not bad all things considered.
With AmpliTube 4, you get a digital chromatic tuner, nine stomp boxes, four amps, five cabs, three mics and two rack effects. You can add more via the online Custom Shop, but of course this will cost money.
You also get eight double rig configurations with 20 chainable effects, two amps and a preset database.
It’s always hard to know what you’re getting with free plugins, but to my ears the AmpliTube 4 tones sound decent. I don’t think you’ll regret giving it a try.
Guitar Rig 5 Player
Based on Guitar Rig 5 Pro, Guitar Rig 5 Player is a free effects processors designed, of course, for guitar. You would think this would be obvious to the creators, but it isn’t.
Judging by the website, the people at Native Instruments didn’t have any idea of who they were talking to, because I’ve been playing guitar for nearly 20 years and still can’t make heads or tails of their copy.
But if I’m understanding correctly, this free plugin gives you access to a British-style tube amp, matched cabinet, and 13 effects and sound modifiers.
Fortunately, Native Instruments seems to know what they’re doing when it comes to creating plugins that sound great. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the paid version, you’re not going to have access to a ton of tones (remember – one Marshall style amp).
Could be a fun plugin to play around with.
Having experimented with quite a few free plugins myself, I am familiar with the LePou or Poulin plugins, all of which you can find on VST 4 FREE.
Since there are more than a couple to cover, I’ll break it all down for you below.
By the way, these plugins are best used in conjunction with a cabinet simulator and impulses. This is something I didn’t know when I was first getting started.
Fortunately, if you follow the above link you will also find the LeCab2 impulse loader, which should work just fine (more on that in a moment).
This is basically a classic Marshall style head. With the right impulses, it can sound decent. I find it a bit harsh and tinny though, so if that’s not to your liking, play with the settings and maybe add EQ.
This is a hybrid of two British amps. Cool idea!
An ENGL style amp, the Le456 has a great tube-like quality to it, even if it isn’t quite like playing through the real thing.
Every guitarist using VSTs should have an impulse loader, and the LeCab2 is a great option. But we will be looking at more a little later.
The LeCto is based on Mesa Boogie’s Dual Rectifier, an amp I myself used quite a bit back in the day. I find this plugin to be awesome, right in the “sweet spot” of the Rectifier, which can be hard to find.
Apparently, this one is an original creation and it features a ton of gain.
This is a Bogner style head and it sounds surprisingly authentic.
Finally, we have a Soldano style head, which offers a warm, throaty tone. It’s awesome and would be perfect for heavier genres.
STL Ignite – Emissary Plugin Bundle
This free bundle comes with the ever-popular Emissary 2.0 along with the NadIR dual Impulse Response loader.
Designed for heavy genres, the clean channel can either clean up or break up nicely depending on what you want. The lead channel, of course, offers ridiculous margins of gain and heaviness.
The tone is shapeable, however, and you can get increased high end, more warmth, or whatever else you need depending on how you tweak it.
A must-have for metalheads.
Ignite Amps has got several plugins worth checking out, including Emissary, which I felt was deserving of its own space. Their focus is on creating high-detailed simulations of tube and solid-state amps, which gives you a sense of the quality they aspire to.
Let’s look at what they’ve got to offer:
This is a zero latency, eight-channel Impulse Response convolver. If you’ve ever wanted to mix eight cabinet sounds together, you’ll love this!
The ProF.E.T. is a high gain distortion preamp/stomp-box. It’s awesome for heavier genres. I can’t find anything wrong with it.
The three-channel NRR-1 tube amp was based on an ’88 boutique preamp. Again, it’s for heavier genres but it sounds ridiculous!
The Anvil is yet another emulation of a three-channel tube preamp. The clean channel isn’t just an afterthought and it sounds legitimately good. You get awesome saturation on the rhythm channel and the lead channel gives you that extra push.
The TPA-1 is a class AB tube power amplifier. It basically emulates what a rackmount power amp is supposed to do.
TSB-1 Tyrant Screamer
This is Ignite Amp’s recreation of the classic Tube Screamer pedal, with a few extras. The plugin sounds great to my ears.
The TS-999 SubScreamer is another overdrive pedal inspired by the classic Tube Screamer. Again, I can’t find fault with the plugin. It sounds awesome!
TSE Audio has numerous plugins you might be interested in, so I’m not going to waste any space here. Let’s survey the goods!
The TSE X50 is designed to emulate Eddie Van Halen’s 5150, which I’ve always found to be a highly versatile amp. It will respond to your exact guitar and technique, as well as how you dial in your tone.
So, this plugin isn’t just great for metal – you can use it for rock too. I can’t say that for a lot of other plugins that are out there.
With the free version, you won’t have access to the pedal board (which includes a NoiseGate, TSE808, R47, Phaser, Pandora’s Box and SDM-2), dual IR loader, FX rack or support and updates.
So, basically you just get the amp head unless you upgrade. And, the demo version of the plugin has the occasional silence and doesn’t give you the option of saving your settings either.
Still, if you’re curious, you could take this baby for a test drive.
You would assume the X30 is another American amp clone, but that’s not the case. Rather, it emulates a German high gain preamp. And, it honestly sounds great.
I find this plugin to be highly flexible, and unlike some amps, it sounds good even at low gain settings.
Pair it with your favorite impulse responses for best results.
A plugin that emulates the ever-popular Tube Screamer. I’m sure, at this point, it hardly needs an introduction.
So, the rest comes down to tone. The TSE 808 works well, and it can even give you a decent amount of gain boost if that’s what you want. It’s worth toying around with!
The R47 is an emulation of the classic RAT distortion pedal, loved and leveraged by the likes of Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Blur, Extreme, Metallica and many others.
The R47 will instantly add an edge to your tone, making it great for leads. Play with the Filter knob to dial in other highly usable tones.
Audified ampLion Free
A light version of ampLion Pro, ampLion Free is a Dual Rectifier style valve amp. You get access to the five-channel amp, two guitar cabinets with mic positioning, intelligent metronome, sophisticated audio player, advanced recorder, standalone application and plug-in module (VST/AU/AAX).
So, how does this thing sound?
Well, that depends on how you use it. You can use it to record a track from scratch, beef up a prerecorded track and even re-amping.
But overall, I’ve been impressed with everything people have been able to achieve with this plugin. And, you certainly can’t argue with the price! Give it a try.
Blue Cat’s Free Amp
Blue Cat’s Free Amp comes with three amp models – “classic clean”, “classic drive” and “modern drive.” Using their plugin, you can get everything from warm, vintage tones to modern, high gain metal tones. Each amp comes with great sounding presets, so you aren’t left all on your lonesome to figure it out.
I would say they’ve made a valiant effort here, but the tones on their own don’t sound entirely authentic to my ears. Within a full mix, however, they seem to work great, so these amps are good where it counts.
You can use it with your favorite impulse responses too, so that means you can get just about any tones you want using the right configuration.
Mercuriall Tube Amp Ultra 530
The Mercuriall Tube Amp Ultra 530 emulates the popular ENGL E530 preamp. Characteristically, it has a meaty, warm and throaty tone metalheads will love. And, given those parameters, it’s still a versatile amp, giving you the ability to shape your deadly tone exactly how you want it.
There is more customization here than you might expect, with settings for gain, EQ, volume, contour, presence, mix, depth and speed for chorus effects and a great deal more.
Although you can get the plugin for free, the free version comes with occasional silence. Plus, you can’t save your plugin settings, and everything resets every 20 minutes.
So, I can’t see this being ideal for longer recording sessions but if you just want to give this a trial run, I think it’s worth it.
Nick Crow Lab
Nick Crow Lab offers several free plugins that are worth highlighting here, so I will get into each. These are all great to have for rockers and those into heavier genres.
The TubeDriver, not surprisingly, is a tube amplifier emulator plugin. It has controls for Pre EQ, Bias, Drive, Volume, Boost, Bypass, Mono, Phase, HP Freq, LP Freq, Dry/Wet, Oversample, 16x On Render, as well as Off and On switches.
As you can imagine, this rackmount style unit can add that much-loved tube sound to your signal chain. If you want to use it as is for some light crunch, you certainly can!
Nick Crow 8505 Lead
At this point, I shouldn’t need to tell you what amp this is supposed to be emulating. So, the only thing I need to comment on is how it sounds.
Overall, I think it’s relatively true to the original tone of the amp, with a strong emphasis on the warmth. Use it with your favorite impulses for best results. I think it sounds great.
Nick Crow 7170 Lead
This is obviously another variation on the Eddie Van Halen 5150 style head. As with the 8505, with some tweaking, you can get this thing to sound great and as brutal as you want it to sound.
Yet another tube preamp emulation plugin via Nick Crow. The Wagner Sharp honestly sounds a lot like the 7170 to my ears (maybe with some slight throatiness), but why not experiment for yourself and see which you like best? I think they’re all good in their own way.
Fretted Synth Free Amp 3
A somewhat bizarre entry on this list (go and check out video demos if you want to know what I mean), Free Amp 3 might be worth a look if you’d like to experiment with something different.
This plugin comes with a built-in guitar synth (Guitsyn), seven amp types, seven EQs with compression controls, six speakers with bypass and adjustable mics, separate MIDI volume control, Hot Sync and Tap Tempo for tremolo and delay.
You also get three modulators (tremolo, triangle and square), two compressors (pre and post), wah, drive pedal (seven overdrive types), chorus with filter, flanger, phase shifter, delay and reverb and 128 factory presets.
Basically, if you’re looking for a full-on effects suite, you may have found one.
SimulAnalog Guitar Suite
The SimulAnalog Guitar Suite is essentially like it sounds. It’s a suite of effects and amp VSTs emulating various familiar stomp boxes and amp heads.
- Boss DS-1
- Boss SD-1
- Tube Screamer
- Oberheim PS-1
- Univox Univibe
- Fender Twin 1969 amp
- Marshall JCM900 amp
The plugin suite doesn’t come with a user interface, but you can still adjust each setting.
The distortion sounds authentic to my ears, and by that, I mean about as good as Boss pedals sound. Don’t get me wrong – Boss pedals can sound great with the right combination of amps and effects, but their raw sound is somewhat lackluster.
The PS-1 and Univibe are highly usable and sound great. The Fender Twin doesn’t sound like anything special but the JCM900 sounds like it could be great for heavier genres.
Play around with the effects ordering, impulse responses and EQ to achieve desired tones.
Shattered Glass Audio ACE
Everyone loves a vintage tweed amp, right? Well, based on all the plugins geared towards metalheads, you wouldn’t think so. Fortunately, you can still find plugins like the ACE 50s 5W tweed amp head.
As with the original Peavey Classic 50, the volume on this baby goes to 12 (take that, Spinal Tap!). In addition to controls for input, volume, feedback and output, the amp also comes with oversampling options, A and B modes, cab emulation on/off and stereo on/off.
Although it can’t quite compare with the original, I honestly think this thing sounds great. If you need some classic tones, it might be worth adding to your arsenal.
Ample Guitar M Lite
If you’re in need of an acoustic guitar simulator, then this plugin is certainly worth a look.
Capturing the ideal acoustic guitar sound can be a real challenge, since you typically need to use a sensitive mic, like a small diaphragm condenser (or a series of sensitive mics, including a room mic) just to capture the true, honest tone of the instrument.
Then, some producers will even record the plugged-in sound of the guitar, if available. All this, of course, needs to be done in an acoustically treated environment, unless you don’t mind noise bleed.
No, you don’t necessarily need to do all this to get the best sound possible, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
With the use of a plugin like the Ample Guitar M Lite, however, you can bypass a lot of the setup process, which includes mic selection, placement, setup and so on (and, even after it’s been tracked, you’ve still got editing, panning, EQ, compression, reverb, etc.).
Okay, but is it really that good? Well, this plugin offers a good amount of sparkle and shine. Basically, you can only tell it’s not a real acoustic guitar as its sound dissipates. Strumming also sounds a tad artificial, but not bad at all.
I’m sure purists will still prefer to play and record their own acoustic guitar parts rather than drawing them in, but in a pinch, this is still a good plugin to have. It also has built-in effects.
DSK Music has several virtual instruments that might interest those who don’t play guitar but still need guitar in their music and are comfortable drawing it in.
DSK doesn’t necessarily have the most realistic sounding plugins, but they are good for novelty. Let’s look at what they’ve got to offer.
DSK Dynamic Guitars
First up is DSK Dynamic Guitars, which is oddly titled. But maybe that’s okay, because the plugin itself is also weird.
You get controls for Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Reverb and Level. You can choose from three instrument types – Acoustic Guitar, Nylon Guitar and Steel Guitar. Each do have a very different sound.
I wouldn’t say it’s the most authentic sounding plugin in the world, as it sounds a slight bit like a piano, but overall, it’s not bad, and could probably fool some ears within the context of a fuller mix.
DSK Guitars Acoustic
DSK Guitars Acoustic is a simplistic acoustic guitar plugin. Your only controls are Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release and Level, which can be used to produce some interesting sounds.
The sound is plucky and sounds closer to a harpsicord than guitar, but if you’re just looking to have some fun, it’s not a bad plugin by any means.
DSK Guitars Steel
Like DSK Guitars Acoustic, this plugin only features ADSR and Level controls. It also doesn’t have an authentic tone and is closer to a harpsicord. If it’s supposed to be emulating a dobro, I don’t hear it at all, so I’m not entirely sure what they were going for.
DSK Electrik GuitarZ
DSK Electrik GuitarZ comes with 12 electric guitar models, five band equalizer, four effects (flanger, delay, distortion and chorus), MIDI automation, velocity response, as well as ADSR, Level, Portamento and Fine controls.
The tones are closer to what you might hear on an old synth. I don’t think you could fool any ears into thinking that this is real electric guitar. But again, you can have some fun with it.
How Do I Use/Install Guitar VST Plugins?
First, you’ll want to go ahead and download the plugins you’re thinking about using (usually at the provider’s site or a free VST plugin site).
Now, to take advantage of them, you will require a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). If you already have one, perfect. If not, then you might want to put a little bit of money towards Tracktion or REAPER. They are solid DAWs for the money.
The exact installation process for VSTs will vary. But basically, you shouldn’t need to install the plugin on your machine (unless the plugin prompts you to). After downloading the plugin, open the ZIP file and save it somewhere you’ll remember.
Then, locate the plugins settings on your DAW. Tell your DAW where to find the plugins and have it perform a scan. Once this is done, the plugins should be installed and ready to use within your DAW. Specify which tracks you want to use which plugins with.
X Plugin Sounds Awful – What Did I Do Wrong?
Throughout this guide, you may have noticed my mention of “impulse responses”. When I first heard that term, I had no idea what it meant.
Impulse responses basically duplicate the sound of a speaker cabinet. This concept should make sense if you’ve ever seen guitarists with stacks rather than combo amps.
A stack is made up of a head and a cabinet, sometimes two cabinets.
This gives guitarists the opportunity to mix and match their favorite heads with their favorite cabinets. This has come to mean less and less in an age of ultra-realistic emulation.
Anyway, while some preamp or amp head emulators sound good all on their own, it never hurts to pick up an impulse response convolver (basically an amp cabinet, where you can load from any impulse response you have available) like NadIR.
So, once you’ve got your head/preamp, cabinet emulator/impulse response loader along with your favorite impulse responses, you’re good to go.
By the way, you can also find impulse responses online for free.
Best FREE Guitar VST Plugins, Final Thoughts
Guitar VSTs are insanely fun to play with. You can add a lot of tones to your arsenal simply by downloading the plugins on this list. Of course, they should be complemented by awesome impulse responses, even if some can be used without.
There’s nothing wrong with most free plugins, and you can usually get a lot of mileage out of them. Of course, it will likely mean downloading and installing individual plugins, mixing and matching, and keeping tabs on when and how to use each.
If you want an all-in-one tone builder, then you’ll probably want to pay for a solid VST like BIAS FX, but if you don’t mind fiddling and playing around, or if you don’t have much money, then it can’t hurt to download and play around with a few free plugins.