As I’m sure we can all agree…
The acoustic guitar sounds best when played and heard…
Because once amplification comes into play…
All those little sonic nuances that balanced just perfectly on their own…
Can easily get twisted and distorted to the point where the original sound is practically unrecognizable.
But the unfortunate reality is…if you ever want your playing to be heard by more than a dozen people at once…
Acoustic guitars DO need amplification, and if you’re reading this, I assume it’s a problem you currently have.
And so…whether it’s for live-performing or in the recording studio…
For today’s post, I’ll help you find exactly what you’re looking for, as we discuss the 4 different designs of acoustic guitar pickups, and compare the pros and cons of each one.
NOTE: For an in-depth tutorial on electric guitar pickups, check out this post instead.
Ready? Let’s begin.
First though, a quick clarification…
Acoustic vs Electric Sound Quality
When players first start messing with acoustic pickups, they’re often surprised to find that the acoustic sound, and electric sound of the guitar can sometimes be almost entirely unrelated.
For example, with certain new guitars that come with pre-built electronics…
You might find that they sound great when amped-up, but terrible when played acoustically.
And the reverse can be true as well.
A beautiful vintage guitar might have an amazing acoustic tone, yet sound awful with a certain pickup.
Which is why:
- the RIGHT pickup
- for the RIGHT guitar
- in the RIGHT setting
…are all essential in achieving good sound.
So up next, let’s start with the first category of pickups…
1. Magnetic Soundhole Pickups
These days, the most popular means of acoustic guitar amplification is magnetic soundhole pickups.
In the same way that electric guitar pickups work…
Soundhole pickups operate by creating a magnetic field to sense string vibrations…
And translating those vibrations into a voltage.
And no surprise…the tone of these pickups can be quite similar to a clean electric guitar, as almost all the sound is derived from the strings, and almost none from the body.
Which sounds kinda bad in a way…but could be good also, if that’s what you actually want.
A major advantage of this design is that can easily installed and uninstalled, with no drilling or other modifications to the guitar itself.
While certain cheaper models may be somewhat prone to feedback on-stage…
The good ones, which I’m about to show you, are more than suitable for live-performances and can be well-suited for mid-large sized venues.
Check them out:
- Seymour Duncan Woody – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fishman Pro Neo D01 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Dean Markley SC-1 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan Woody HC – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fishman Rare Earth – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fishman Pro Neo D02 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
- Dean Markley Pro Mag – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
2. Undersaddle Pickups
Using an entirely different method of “hearing” sound…
Undersaddle pickups run on “piezo-electric” technology…
Which uses a strip of crystals placed under the bridge of the guitar to sense pressure created by the vibrating strings.
Just like with magnetic soundhole pickups, undersaddle pickups “hear” ONLY the strings, and none of the body.
However since in this case, vibrations are caught at the end of the strings rather than the middle, undersaddle pickups have a brighter, thinner sound, with a stronger attack.
Compared to magnetic pickups, these “piezo-type” pickups generate a comparatively small voltage, so they also require a preamp to boost the original signal.
One potential problem though is that they have an excessively large dynamic range, where:
- 2x pressure = 4x volume
- 1/2 pressure = 1/4 volume
To compensate, the paired preamps often use a compressor to even-out the levels. Although this compression can be quite audible at times.
Two other downsides worth noting are:
- Professional installation required – although modifications are minimal.
- Cheaper models commonly suffer from an annoying artifact known as “piezo quack”.
However, the MAJOR UPSIDE is that they’re the MOST resistant to feedback of all designs…making them ideal for loud performances with multiple competing instruments.
Here are the top models I recommend:
- Fishman Matrix Infinity – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fishman Saddle – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- LR Baggs Element – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
3. Soundboard Transducer Pickups
Commonly known as either “contact pickups” or “bottle caps”…
Soundboard Transducer pickups are the other type piezo-based design…
Which is somewhat similar to undersaddle pickups…
Except with more flexibility…as they can be mounted under the bridge, inside or outside the body, and really ANYWHERE you like…
Simply by attaching the sensor with a temporary adhesive that can be easily removed without damage to the finish…no installation or modifications required.
The biggest advantage of this design is that it pickups up BOTH vibrations from the strings AND body of the guitar, preserving much the natural acoustic balance.
This is a MUST-HAVE for anyone incorporating percussive techniques into their playing.
And while this can sometimes result in bass-heavy sound, it can be easily fixed with EQ.
The biggest downside is that it is quite sensitive to feedback, and can be difficult to use in louder settings with multiple instruments.
Here are the top models I recommend:
- Dean Markley Artist Transducer – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fishman SBT-E – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- DiMarzio Acoustic Model – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF)
4. Microphone Pickups
Essentially a high-quality miniature microphone that mounts inside the body of your guitar…
In terms of sound at least, microphone pickups are the best option by far…
Because they have the widest frequency range, and are great at preserving the natural tonal balance of the instrument.
But they’re also the most problematic as well.
First off, they can be quite expensive, both in the cost of the pickup itself, AND the cost of the professional installation that will most likely be required.
Second, since they are most sensitive, that also means they are most prone to feedback…
And are usually only appropriate for use in solo acts, and small quiet venues.
Here are the two best ones I recommend:
- LR Baggs Lyric – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan SA6 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
5. Blended Systems
As you can see from what we’ve covered so far…
Each style of acoustic pickup has its own pros and cons, right?
One might sound better, but be more prone to feedback, and another might do the exact opposite.
So wouldn’t it be great if you could choose more than just one?
Well actually, you can. Many of the more expensive models are “blended” systems that combine a high-quality microphone with one of the other 3 options.
The two inputs are then either combined into a single output, or given a separate output for each source.
Here are two of the top models to check out:
- LR Baggs Anthem – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fishman Ellipse – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
Now that we’ve covered all the options, here’s one final thought I’d like to conclude with…
Acoustic Pickups in the Studio
Even if you bought them primarily for live performing…
If you’re like most musicians today…
And you have some version of a half-assed studio setup in your house…
You’re might be wondering whether acoustic pickups can be used for recording or not.
Well they CAN, and in some cases, they even have advantages.
While they won’t have the potential to capture that same “full” sound you could get…
The reality is that most home studio owners don’t have a proper setup for these techniques anyway.
And even for those who do…unless executed properly, the recording can still turn out pretty bad.
With acoustic pickups though, everything is simple. You just plug in and record.
And if you’re one of those players who likes to move around a lot, it’s okay, because the pickup moves with you.
While the end result won’t ever compare to a “true” studio recording…in dense arrangements with competing instruments…
You really don’t want the full sonic spectrum of the acoustic guitar anyway. So it doesn’t even matter.
So that concludes this post. Hope it helped you…’til next time.