Sometimes there’s nothing like a cranked-up electric guitar! The volume gets deep into your soul and makes your body want to move in all different kinds of ways. It even…
[hard stop – needle scratching off a vinyl record – all of that stuff (you get the point here)]
…wait a sec. You don’t play the electric guitar. In fact, you don’t even own one. Your claim to fame is a tried and true acoustic guitar. But the acoustics aren’t as ‘cool’ as electrics are… let’s face it – you can’t put them through an amp or anything.
Here’s the good news: you sure can! However, using a pickup on an acoustic guitar can be somewhat different from an electric. Not only that, but there are several different types available, each with its own set of pros and cons. So what is the right choice for you to make?
Fear not – we’re here to help! Let’s take a look at some of the different ways that acoustic guitar pickups can help you be heard to the masses…
The most straightforward approach to amplifying your acoustic guitar is using a ‘soundhole pickup.’ As the name implies, these types of pickups are units that drop into the soundhole of your acoustic.
“I’ve played every instrument you could possibly think of for 10 minutes. So I’m mediocre at everything. I can play drums, guitar, piano, violin, saxophone, clarinet, flute… Just not well.” Kat Dennings
Getting the pickup installed is the easy part. The challenge for any DIY’er maybe with getting the thing wired correctly! Some require drilling a hole in the side of the guitar so you can mount an input jack. Others are perhaps a little more user-friendly and utilize a modified strap button with an input jack already integrated into it. Either way, you may find yourself having to break out the power drill…which may not be for the faint of heart when working on your prized acoustic. If just the idea of doing so makes you break a sweat, you may want to get the job done by a professional.
One common concern you may hear about soundhole pickups is the sound quality. For the most part, they are constructed the same as a traditional electric guitar pickup (a coil wrapped around a magnet). That’s all well and good, but that can make your acoustic guitar sound like…well…an electric one! It’ll work to get your volume up, but you may not get the rich sound that a good acoustic can provide on its own.
On top of that, EQ options for soundhole pickups can be reasonably limited. Most do not have any multi-band EQ, so your tonal flexibility may not be as good as it can be with some of the other options we will be looking at.
Don’t get us wrong – there are several fine soundhole pickups on the market that can be great choices. It’s just that, in our experience, you may find a different option to be more to your preference.
The most common type of acoustic guitar pickup that you will come across is called a ‘piezo‘ pickup. Piezo configurations separate from traditional pickups in that they use a completely different kind of technology.
A piezo pickup works by using tiny elements that exhibit what’s called the ‘piezoelectric’ effect. What happens here is that the piezo element creates a slight electric charge when it is exposed to the vibrations created by a guitar string. This charge is then translated to a signal and sent to the output jack.
Typical piezo pickup configurations are mounted under the bridge saddle, as it is the perfect spot for vibration transfer to occur. Another benefit of this mounting scheme is that you never actually see the pickup itself; that alone may make it a better choice than a more extensive unit mounted in the middle of the soundhole.
Most piezo units tend to have much more sophisticated controls electronics (called ‘preamps’) that give you a much more comprehensive range of options over a soundhole pickup. These preamps usually come pre-installed in the upper bout, granting easy access to all of its functions. Some necessary preamps may only offer a single volume and tone knob. In contrast, others have features such as built-in chromatic tuners, multi-band EQ setups, and phase switches to help minimize feedback (if you’ve ever had an acoustic start howling at you when you’re playing a gig, you’ll realize what a God-send that is).
While most aspects of an excellent piezo pickup system are positive, there are a few downsides. Piezo setups tend to have a distinct high-to-mid frequency ‘quack’ tone that may be a bit too unnatural for their preference to some guitarists. To help combat this, some units utilize a small microphone that lives inside your guitar’s body itself; in this case, some preamps have a blending control that gives you the piezo’s snappiness along with the lower end warmth of the mic.
Additionally, most preamps of this type are powered by a single 9V battery. It can be a bit of an inconvenience to keep your battery fresh, but in our eyes, the benefits of this type of acoustic pickup system far outweigh having to spend a few dollars on a battery now and then.
Yet another choice for amplifying your acoustic guitar is the soundboard transducer. These units use a non-destructive adhesive and are placed directly on the soundboard itself. They work similarly as a piezo bridge pickup, but the overall sound is different since the soundboard’s vibrations are coming.
These transducers are typically the least invasive way to amplify your guitar, as many units feature a self-contained output jack that can mount to your guitar without any tools or modifications. That being said, they also tend to have the least to offer in the way of any additional features (such as those found on most piezo preamp units). Yes, they are quick and easy, but maybe the least flexible in terms of how they sound overall.
Finding the best pickup option to use with your acoustic guitar all boils down to your specific needs.
A good quality piezo set up with a good preamp would be our recommendation for the best choice for those players who want a better-amplified tone and control with a broader range of features. If you are looking for a down and dirty way to get a little volume without any significant modifications to your guitar, a soundboard transducer may fit the bill. Lurking somewhere in between these two options is the soundhole pickup.
One important takeaway: by far, the most common choice is a piezo pickup configuration, as it is what you’ll find as standard equipment, which is factory installed on the vast majority of acoustic/electric guitars that you will come across. The other solutions tend to be used more with existing instruments that did not come with any pickup options, to begin with.
Regardless of which option you choose, using an acoustic pickup gives you the ability to make your acoustic heard at much higher volume levels than playing it by itself – and that’s an essential thing to have when playing in a live environment.
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