I’ve been very vocal about this in the past and my opinion remains the same — making faithful VSTis of guitars is bloody difficult.
You can certainly find functional virtual emulations of various guitars that can serve all sorts of creative purposes, but finding anything that makes you sit back and go ‘wow’ (although, has any software ever made you do that?) is a different story.
I’m not too sure why trumpets, flutes and absurdly obscure instruments nobody in their right mind has ever heard of make for insanely realistic VSTis, yet guitars — one of the most popular instruments in modern music — remain a far cry from these benchmarks.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: ‘this is a lot of anti-guitar VST sentiment for an article about guitar VSTis. Are you just going to spend the whole time complaining?‘
Well, if you’d just LET ME FINISH, you would know the answer is no. While I do appreciate the difficulties in simulating the intricacies of guitar playing, it’s not like other instruments with superior VST emulations don’t have similar nuances in playstyle. That, coupled with the fact that the overall quality of guitar VSTis has been steadily improving, means that there is actually plenty to praise and discuss in a positive light.
You may run into some sonic issues if you attempt to build an entire song using sample libraries in place of real guitars, especially when it comes to strumming chords or particular dynamics on an emotional solo.
However, if you choose to work hard to make the MIDI notation and articulation complex, with a specific purpose in mind, there’s no reason that a VSTi for any type of guitar (electric, acoustic, or bass) can’t be a valuable tool in your — I tried to think of another word and failed — toolbox.
The Difference Between Guitar VSTs and Amp VSTs
While this seems like a relatively obvious answer (one’s a guitar and one’s an amp!), after a quick google search you will find that not to be the case.
It is extremely easy to stumble across bundles of expensive software after scouring through the results of ‘best guitar vsts‘ without realizing that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.
As I mentioned earlier (you may have missed it, I only spent the entire introduction talking about it) the nuances of guitars are traditionally difficult to perfect for digital playing, so most producers tend to avoid virtual guitars and supplement a lack of equipment/space with a virtual amp.
The difference between an amp simulator and a virtual guitar lies in the type of VST they are — guitar VSTis are virtual instruments used for generating sound based on MIDI data provided by your DAW’s software which can be drawn manually, or played with a compatible MIDI keyboard.
By contrast, amp VSTfxs are employed to alter sound and can only be applied to a MIDI track plugin effects chain after a virtual instrument is applied (however on audio tracks, virtual amps can be placed anywhere on the signal chain to affect recordings from guitars, keyboards and even vocals).
Amp modeling is extremely popular, notoriously diverse — think any amp and pedal in existence at the behest of your mouse — and consistently delivers top-notch audio results.
So if you’re on the prowl for that one good virtual guitar that’s going to shake-up your audio recordings, be prepared to wade through a haystack of amp simulators and pedal libraries.
Some Ideas for Using Not-So-Realistic Guitar VSTis
The previous paragraph’s topic is a great segue into one of the best ways to maximize the potential from your virtual guitar — combining it with an amp.
Even if you’re just using an acoustic guitar, adding a certain model of amplification, perhaps as a Send/Return can push its sonic qualities just that bit closer to being realistic.
While painstakingly modeled VSTis will offer some flexibility with altering tonal characteristics, they are still ultimately restricted by which amp the samples were recorded with.
Blending the original amp sound (or lack thereof in the case of most acoustic VSTis) with another is a viable way to improve the viability of most guitar software in your songs.
Typically the best guitar VSTis for cinematic/symphonic composition are, you guessed it, orchestral guitars. These are often acoustic and come in a larger library or bundle with strings, horns, woodwinds and so on.
Part of the enhanced application value in orchestral guitars is that there are generally a lot of other textures and harmonies thickening the sonic sphere of the song, meaning that the guitar won’t be in the forefront of the mix and can play more of a complementary role.
Due to the fact that this software usually comes as part of a greater set of virtual instruments, the guitar tone will distinctly fit the rest of the composition.
This means even if on a solo track the guitar VST sounds a bit artificial and lifeless, when used in conjunction with a full ‘orchestra’ (yeah don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you didn’t play and record all 40 instruments in your song) it’ll be a match made in heaven.
As a Texture/Atmosphere
Though acoustic guitars can provide an interesting instrumentation layer in your composition, this is mostly targeted towards electric guitar VSTis.
In conjunction with a nice reverb, saturation or some analog-modelled EQ effects, this software can be a soldier for any number of varying composition styles.
Full-bar chords in the background of a pop, rock or indie song present a unique tone to your track that is differentiated to a pad which would typically be used.
Heavily effected (DELAYS! TAPES! YES!) single, lengthily held notes can be a breathtaking addition to your ambient, metal or post-rock works, bringing a fresh element to the song’s atmosphere that would otherwise be lost if you don’t have a guitar (or the means to play it).
Specific VSTis for Specific Applications
In the world of guitar software, there exists numerous different styles of instrument models you can choose from.
It stands to reason that those virtual instruments designed for a certain purpose are going to perform it better than an ‘all-rounder’ when it comes to sound design and the samples each product uses.
For example, you wouldn’t use an acoustic ‘strummer’ guitar for a classical, fingerpicking folk piece, but it might work perfectly as a backing instrument in an alt rock song.
A death metal song probably won’t find much use out of a laidback, jazzy sunburst, but a dream pop outfit might. And, it should go without saying. Use a bass VSTi to best replicate the sound of a …
Articulate and Process
If you buy a relatively expensive guitar VSTi, open it up, crank up the volume, play something ridiculous like Fur Elise on a midi keyboard, spout some onomatopoeia like ‘blergh’ or ‘eugh’ in disgust, close it and complain about how crap the program sounded, you’re really not giving yourself or the software a fighting chance.
I’ve harped on about how difficult it is to truly replicate the intrinsic ways a session, professional and even amateur guitarist would play the guitar, so it makes sense that if you don’t try to address this while experimenting with a plugin, it’s going to sound as realistic a parrot doing voiceovers for the next blockbuster movie — nothing but a cheap imitation of the smooth, deep voice of Trailer Guy.
However, once you put the effort into learning keyswitches, different articulations, rhythms and programming settings on any given sample library, you will notice that many of the more developed virtual guitars begin to resemble something not too dissimilar from the real thing.
Those tiny little musical flavors that can often go unnoticed until they’re gone are vital to faithfully reproducing a guitar sound.
That slight scraping sound as you switch chord fingering, that slide from fret-to-fret, the accidental ring and bleed of a note into the next — these are the kinds of important details you’re missing out on by not dedicating yourself to learning the intricacies of many guitar-modeled VSTis.
Ultimately, you will be hard-pressed to find software that emulates the expression and playing method of a real guitar as well as recording an actual guitarist.
While this is a concept that indeed applies to pretty much every instrument in existence, it’s a common for producers to opine that VST guitars really struggle in this area of realism. This is true to an extent, but some new sampling software and plugins are edging ever closer to hitting the sweet spot.
If you had an indie/alternative song comprising a real drumkit, bass, vocals and acoustic guitars, it would be blaringly obvious if you just added a virtual electric guitar to the mix willy-nilly.
But perhaps a lo-fi song with a bitcrusher applied to each track, or a solo piece with nothing but acoustic guitar software, or a club banger that deliberately brings out the unnatural makeup of many virtual guitars might work perfectly.
I have heard fantastic renditions of flamenco songs on virtual guitars. Some dudes record Norwegian Folk Metal using sampled instruments.
For those that are lazy or bad at guitar (I unabashedly raise my hand at both suggestions) it can just be easier to record demos or guitar riffs to test how they sound via a MIDI keyboard than having to setup, practice and play with a mic, amp and guitar.
While their sound may not be as faithful to the real deal as other VSTis, the use of virtual guitars is only limited by your creativity and imagination. In the wild, wild world of music composition, for better, and quite often, for worse: anything goes.
Best Electric Guitar VSTs
Impact Shreddage 3 Series
The Shreddage 3 line of electric guitar VSTis are a sublime choice for the budding rock guitarist that, well, can’t play guitar.
While a little on the expensive side if you were to collect every available guitar (and bass) in the Shreddage 3 product range, the diversity in samples allows you to creatively hone in on the style you’re after and ensure you’re not wasting your time on an unsuitable program.
Metal musicians will feel right at home with the Hydra, an 8-string behemoth that is suitable for face-melting riffs, expressive solos and rhythmic sections that are best described as being ‘insane’.
The multi-pick-up Stratus provides a more well-rounded option for rock, alternative and chorded rhythm sections, while the Archtop takes a step away from the whole ‘shredding business’ for a jazzy, bluesy, hollow-body replica.
These are only some of the multiple sample libraries on offer from Impact Soundworks.
Each of Shreddage 3’s entries into the electric guitar VST game comes with a swath of features such as: expansive articulations, a strumming engine and plenty of pedal effects.
Native Instruments Electric Sunburst
Every guitarist and older musician fan knows about the sunburst Les Paul — it is an iconic guitar and remains ever-popular today.
Native Instrument’s emulation of this stellar instrument does as much justice to the beautiful, rich character of the sunburst as current technology allows.
It is by far one of the most realistic virtual guitars on the market today and is versatile enough to convincingly play rhythm sections, lead doodles or anything in between.
The deluxe pack comes alongside 237 guitar playing patterns, including riffs, reverse scores, arpeggios and others that do a good job of capturing the nuances of recording a real guitar.
Beyond the in-depth articulation options, Electric Sunburst is also super malleable tonality-wise — giving its user as much power as they could wish for from a virtual guitar.
- Ample Sound Ample Guitar
- Evolution Rock Standard
- Vir2 Instruments Electri6ity
Best Acoustic Guitar VSTs
Native Instruments Session Guitarist — Strummed Acoustic
This is Native Instruments’ second entry in this list and it’s something you should get used to — NI are simply top-tier when it comes to good-sounding virtual guitars.
I mentioned earlier in the piece that it would be a good idea to split your guitar VSTis based on necessity to maximize their output to sound as realistic as possible, so if you need a backing guitar to strum some chords, you need look no further than the appropriately named Strummed Acoustic.
Like everything else in the NI line, this program has numerous settings that can be altered, leaving the user (aka me) cackling like a mad scientist while turning knob after knob and creating something interesting with every decision.
Double-tracking and on-board effects modeled off either a 1934 Martin or the 12-string Guild F-412 leaves you with a high-quality and adaptable sound.
Most importantly for a rhythmic guitar, Strummed Acoustic comes equipped with serious firepower — over 150 strumming patterns that can be customized to suit your own diabolical needs.
ARIA Sounds Nylon Guitar
ARIA’s entry into the acoustic guitar market isn’t quite as complex or in-depth as some of the other, more expensive rivals — but that isn’t to say it is lacking.
Each note contains up to nine variations, giving this program the sense of realism required to emulate a classical guitar, which can be quite complex in both playstyle and the songs it plays.
Articulation exists for simple switching between fingerpicking and strumming which is an undervalued concept: you can actually play the Nylon Guitar on a MIDI keyboard without wanting to break various items within your studio. It’s actually a fun virtual guitar to play!
What a time to be alive.
Yet, above all of its features, samples and great price point sits the important element of all:
it just sounds good. I don’t have a whole lot more to say — ARIA’s classical guitar is one of the best for finger-picking or acoustic-based recordings and would make for a great, diverse-sounding addition to your swiss-army-knife of VSTis.
- MusicLab Real Guitar
- Vir 2 Acou6tics
- Ilya Efimov Acoustic Guitar Plugin
- Indiginus Renaxxance | Renegade
Best Bass Guitar VSTs
iK Multimedia MODO BASS
What is unique about this entry relative to nearly everything else I’m going to mention is that MODO isn’t derived from samples — it is an entirely modeled (i.e. synthetic) library of bass tones that through tireless programming and coding manages to sound just as powerful as the real thing.
As I’ve touched upon before, the advantage of modeled VSTis is that they are flexible. I don’t just mean flexible, I mean flexible. Like an Olympic-grade gymnast flexible.
The amount of options to alter tonality, amp settings, playstyle or dynamics are enough to leave Geddy Lee giggling on the floor in a fit of delight.
The coolest part about this software is the mission statement — MODO intends to be a revolutionary technology where sound is ‘generated by recreating the physical properties of a real instrument’.
Waves Bass Slapper
The Bass Slapper isn’t the most obvious of choices — but in terms of offering a unique sound and delivering on that promise, Waves’ popular plugin is hard to beat.
We all know the sound of the Slap Bass (80s synthpop sends its warmest regards) and rightly or wrongly, it is a sound that is oft-ignored in productions nowadays. Waves intended to fill that market gap, and in so doing created a versatile, high-quality virtual instrument that has application far beyond the generic idea of the right time to slap and thump a bass.
Using high-fidelity samples from a 5-stringer, Bass Slapper includes the sounds of thumbing, strings popping, pull-offs, mutes, slides and pretty much anything else a bassist could want to emulate realism.
Significantly, this plugin comes paired with a series of stompboxes (essentially pedals) which allow for on-board tonality changes that can totally alter the sound to marry whatever style/genre your current project is in.
- NI Rickenbacker
- Toontrack EZBass
- Spectrasonics Trillian
Best Orchestral/Ambient Guitar VSTs
I did make a note of how guitar programs are actually super popular and relevant to experimental/less-traditional genres of music and thought it best to put my money where my mouth is and prove it. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being a liar now, would I?!
Heavyocity Scoring Guitars 2
Coming in with over 380 sonic presets, including: pads, drones, rhythmic pedals, pulses and phrases, Heavocity’s virtual instrument is directly geared towards experimentation with a guitar’s traditional sound and applying it to a wide range of potential musical styles — though it is particularly aimed at film composers.
This program is perfect for crafting intense, edgy sonic spaces and in-depth sound design, which can serve as company for your next great post-rock song, or just be general ambience for a game or film score.
Heavocity didn’t hold back when recording the samples for this VSTi — considering how mangled the resultant guitar sounds are it would’ve been pretty easy to just pick up a $150-dollar garbage electric from a company that no longer exists and call it a day.
Pulling out all the plays in their playbook, the Scoring Guitars 2 programmers did the exact opposite and employed the services of Strats, Gibson 335’s and more, ensuring quality.
Spitfire Ambient Guitars
Sure, it’s a bit pricey, but there’s a reason for that — this pack is often used by professional composers and sound designers for film, television and game, meaning that its price point is more than justified.
Coming with a whopping 50GB worth of samples (equating to over 600 varying sounds), Spitfire’s collaboration with acclaimed producer Leo Abrahams is a behemoth.
Using a Gibson 355 (sound familiar?), a Danelectro Hornet and a Trussart guitar, Spitfire created one of the most diverse sets of guitar-based sounds that money can buy.
If you need resonances to create a sprawling intro for your next ambient pop song, or a wall of distortion for added texture in your brazen rip-off of every shoegaze song ever, look no further than the appropriately named Ambient Guitars.
What’s particularly cool about this pack is that it comes bundled with a dedicated Kontakt player — meaning there are no hidden fees or incompatibilities with this sample-based library as opposed to many others.
- 8dio Emotional Guitar
I must admit, I may have been a little harsh on guitar VSTis throughout this article — but it’s okay, we’ve made up now. I wouldn’t say we’re great friends, but we’re certainly closer than just being acquaintances.
Personally, I would always reach for my actual guitar and shoddy instrument-work, often requiring 50+ frustrating takes, over using a VST to emulate this process, no matter how much simpler it may make my life. That is my particular feeling though — and my style of music isn’t very forgiving to virtual guitars.
Many of those in the diverse genre space that the PianoDreamers audience occupies may find such software to be perfectly suited to their own recordings. The only way to know for sure is to try it out.
Hopefully, I’ve been through enough of the ways one can creatively or functionally use a virtual guitar in this piece that it leaves you inspired to try it out.
Not everyone is privileged enough to own a guitar, play a couple of chords on it, or have the necessary microphones and interfaces to record it, and these VSTis can make for a more than acceptable substitute.
There are numerous instances where a programmed guitar can simulate a real instrument and we’ve seen the quality of their imitations rise pretty drastically in the past few years.
I will baselessly, yet contradictorily confidently, predict that within 5 years we will have guitar VSTs that will be indistinguishable from the real thing.
If (when) I’m wrong, feel free to drop me a line in 2025.