5 Best Guitar Plugins
A few of our hand-picked favorite selections and how to begin creating the perfect guitar tone quickly in your DAW.
OCTOBER 17TH, 2021
By the end of this article, you should have a good idea of which guitar VSTs to reach for no matter what style you’re creating. Let’s take a look at 5 of the most useful guitar plugins and sample libraries you’ll find, helping you create convincing guitar parts faster and more professionally (especially if you’re not a guitarist yourself)!
1. Virtual Guitarist IRON 2 by UJAM
If you want maximum flexibility when creating heavy, grungy rock or metal, this is your ticket. Aside from IRON 2’s brand new set of post-instrument FX presets to add even more creative flair and realism, there’s no easier way to create the perfect electric guitar part every time with as few notes and control changes as possible. Individual rhythmic strumming and chunking patterns are loaded into specific MIDI notes so you don’t have to do any manual work — plus, you maintain creative control with IRON 2’s MIDI Drag & Drop feature, allowing you to drop phrases into your DAW and manipulate the timing exactly the way you like.
If you prefer to get super granular and achieve true realism, you can also switch into ‘Instrument’ mode and control the individual up- and downstrokes, plus muted and half-muted chord hits. You have everything you need to get as close to a real electric guitar as possible, especially if you’re in the mood for some angsty, crunchy goodness perfect for classic rock all the way up to present-day metal. Plus, if you ever decide you want to add your own effects instead of IRON 2’s built-in presets, you can switch to the uncolored, direct-in sound of the raw guitar and manipulate it as you see fit. No other electric guitar sample library offers this level of flexibility and customization, and with a very quick learning curve, you’ll be releasing record-quality tracks in no time!
If you want to see more specifics on exactly what you get with IRON 2 (especially versus the original IRON plugin), check out our article, Why to Upgrade to IRON 2.
2. SESSION GUITARIST: PICKED ACOUSTIC by Native Instruments
This is an incredibly dynamic guitar sample library from Native Instruments that runs in their free Kontakt Player. If you have a melody you want to play legato, particularly with fancy ornaments, PICKED ACOUSTIC can net you incredibly realistic results very quickly. Plus, you have control over three separate microphone setups you can use to alter its tone color and place it exactly how you like in the stereo field.
In a similar manner to UJAM’s guitar plugins (though this one doesn’t have MIDI Drag & Drop, of course), PICKED ACOUSTIC allows you to choose a pre-constructed rhythm you can play by entering a single MIDI note, so all you have to think about is what chord changes you’d like to enter. They seem to consist of live-recorded phrases, making everything hyper-realistic since this approach avoids the inherent challenge of constructing guitar phrases through MIDI alone; the trade-off is less flexibility of course, as you can’t adjust the rhythm yourself. Native Instruments makes this issue mostly irrelevant by offering nearly 200 different picking and strumming patterns, so you may never even run into limitations this way!
3. DSK Guitars
Many of DSK’s guitar plugins are free at the time of writing, including their Acoustic, Steel, Nylon, Electrik and Dynamic instruments. These instruments are very simple and have very few controls, and their sound is very basic with no fancy ornamentation or depth. If you’re going for realism, obviously these aren’t a great choice — but they’re fantastic when you want a uniquely digital or retro sound, and you won’t be bogged down by unnecessary controls.
For example, say you’re into retro video game soundtracks; these guitars will instantly give you a JRPG-optimized sound the moment you start plugging in notes. They’re not in that awkward halfway point where you have some flexibility with the sound, just enough to sound like a knockoff of a real instrument. These make no effort to hide the fact that they’re not realistic, which immediately makes them a better candidate than most plugins any time you’re not looking for that.
However, that’s exactly what makes them great for laying with synths, mimicking old game console soundcards, creating glitchy acoustic effects, and a ton of other creative uses that will come to you with a little experimentation. Once you appreciate the freedom these limitations can give you, you’ll keep finding excuses to return to DSK’s guitar plugins. There’s nothing wrong with embracing technical limitations from time to time!
4. Ministry of Rock 2 by EastWest
While IRON 2 is fantastic for achieving a range of rock and metal sounds with as much precision as possible, EastWest’s Ministry of Rock 2 is an excellent complement if you want to obtain the sound of a variety of classic electric guitars (plus bass and drums). You get access to master guitarist performances on Les Pauls, Schecters, Telecasters and far more than we can go into here. If you have a specific guitar tone in mind (especially if you know your guitars well!), this collection is a great way to get it when you don’t own these specific makes and models of guitars.
Each guitar has single or lead notes recorded separately from rhythm and chords, giving you a practical range of melodic and chordal possibilities on a variety of classic instruments organized across multiple keyswitches. EastWest also does a great job of presenting tons of mod wheel possibilities across their range of sample libraries, and Ministry of Rock 2 is no different — on some guitars, you can use the mod wheel to freely switch between muted chunks and melody notes, opening up a range of performance options you won’t find elsewhere.
Say you were to combine this with IRON 2 — you could allow IRON 2 to do the heavy lifting and then bring in Ministry of Rock 2 for heavy accents and deep layering on as many chord hits as you feel adds to the overall sound of your song. Just be sure not to layer too heavily; the magic lies in choosing these moments carefully, selecting powerful moments you can dial up just a little. This selective layering can make the difference between a good track and a great one, and it helps to have multiple options in your arsenal to get the job done.
5. Virtual Guitarist AMBER by UJAM
If you want to instantly create an acoustic strummed background for any track, AMBER is perhaps the best way to get there! Simply control the chord progression in your right keyboard hand while switching between different phrases in your left hand to seamlessly construct a rhythm barely distinguishable from a live musician. Everything is centered around helping you create the perfect acoustic backing as quickly as possible.
You can also control the strumming hand position, add top end shimmer, weave in fret noises and modify the tuning and doubling as you see fit. You’re not stuck hitting a single key and hearing one loop endlessly, thanks to AMBER’s combination of common and style phrases which you can switch between at will. This means that even with a single chord, you can extend it out over many measures (possibly even multiple minutes) without your guitar becoming boring! In fact, you could even choose to set up all your rhythm changes on a single chord and then choose your chord progressions afterward in MIDI, cutting down on your production time by simplifying the entire process even more.
There’s also a section, ‘Tone’, devoted entirely to shaping AMBER into different colors — this is perfect for adapting it to different styles and genres quickly, which gives you the ability to make dramatic changes to an entire song if necessary, while you only need to make a couple of tiny tweaks to the plugin’s UI to get a perfect sound in context with the new sound you’ve pivoted to. Add in delay, chorus, a little reverb and adjust the source between mic, pickup and a mix of the two, and you’re good to go!
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to use a plugin you understand inside out and can use to get the exact sound you want. However, it’s much easier if it’s current and nuanced ... otherwise, you’ll likely have to put in a lot of work and add more effects to make it sing! If you stick with one of the options we’ve detailed here, you should be able to create quite realistic and exciting guitar parts for nearly any song — allowing you to shape your sounds exactly the way you want, faster than ever.
Once you commit to using a guitar plugin, do yourself the service of learning it inside and out; each one has its own unique characteristics and UI, so in a way, it’s like you’re learning a new instrument that’s similar to ones you’ve played in the past. Once your instrument becomes second nature to you, then it’s time to start branching out ... but the mastery you gain from.
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.
We develop software solutions that enable people to create, consume and interact with music.