Consider the Pickup: How to Amplify Your Acoustic
Learn how acoustic pickups can influence your sound.
By Hilary Brown
A well-built acoustic guitar is the embodiment of great natural tone. Meticulously selected wood combinations, strategically placed bracing and innovative bridge design all play a part in creating that great tone, to which you want to remain as true as possible when choosing a pickup to amplify it. Truly, informed acoustic pickup selection can make the difference between stifling your acoustic guitar’s amplified sound and glorifying it.
Acoustic guitars can be tricky to amplify. Many modern instruments are equipped with onboard pickup/preamp systems, so the job is practically done for us. But for acoustic guitars that don’t already have onboard electronics, many different pickups are easily available and affordable. No one type is perfect for every acoustic situation, but with some basic knowledge you can find one just right for you.
Several considerations come into play here. Do you prefer finger-style or flatpicking? Does it matter to you if the pickup is visible? Should it be easily removable or a permanent addition to the guitar? Do you just want a basic pickup or a more elaborate system with tone controls and other features? What size is your guitar? What kind of gigs do you do (what’s ideal for coffeehouses might not be for larger venues)? Consider questions like these when shopping around, and ask sales personnel about them.
Keep in mind that the cable on any pickup will typically run out of the soundhole and across the soundboard unless the pickup is installed internally. Running the cable internally through an endpin jack on the lower bout of the instrument will avoid interference with playing. Another helpful feature is a fixed volume control for quick level adjustments, especially on low-output pickups.
Acoustic pickups generally fall into four categories: soundhole pickups, under-saddle pickups, soundboard transducers and internal microphones. There are also hybrid systems that use two or more of these pickup types along with versatile tone-shaping features.
Here’s a quick guide:
Soundhole pickups became popular in the 1960s and remain so today because they’re so affordable and require no permanent installation. This simple pickup type is wedged into the soundhole directly under the strings, and, like an electric guitar pickup, is built with magnets that convert string vibration energy into electrical signals. Soundhole pickups consequently produce a warm, full and distinctly electric-sounding amplified acoustic tone.
Under-saddle pickups accentuate the brighter nuances of acoustic instruments by sensing string vibration from the bridge saddle. Great for finger-style, classical and small-body guitars, they’re made with thin strips of sensory material placed directly under the bridge saddle. These passive (or piezoelectronic) pickups use six piezo crystals that produce a small voltage when the strings vibrate. Revered for their inconspicuous appearance, notable attack and minimal feedback, under-saddle pickups are best used when pairing with a preamp in order to boost EQ and volume.
Soundboard transducers work best when attached to the top or underside of a soundboard behind the bridge. These smaller passive pickups are applied using an adhesive such as double-sided tape, putty or a fabric fastener, so they’re great for quick and easy installation and removal. Subtle in tone and less expensive than under-saddle pickups, soundboard transducers are ideal for low-volume settings and smaller venues. You can easily get greater volume and resonance by pairing one with a preamp.
Internal microphones are an excellent pickup type. Placed inside the guitar body, they sense vibration from a greater area of the instrument (rather than just at the soundhole or at the bridge) more so than more traditional acoustic pickup types, delivering greater frequency range, enhanced midrange and more natural tone. Internal microphones tend to be more sensitive than other acoustic pickup types, and feedback can be an issue with them (although they’re usually easily adjustable to deal with feedback). Internal microphones can also be more expensive than other pickup types, especially with the cost of a preamp and professional installation. For those willing to make the investment, however, they can be a very worthwhile choice.