Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Guitar Necks-what you didn't know.

Been away from blogging for a bit. Sorry about that. Just been extremely busy. Guess that's a good thing.

Today's blog is going to be about guitar necks. That means everything from the machine heads to the material the frets are made up of. Ready?? Okay, here we go:

The most important part of any guitar is the neck. I will repeat that. The most important part of any guitar is the neck. So let's talk about acoustic necks for a bit.

The neck is responsible for a lot of the tone the instrument produces. How does that happen?
Well, it actually starts in the headstock area of the instrument, right at and after the machine heads. (tuners)
When a guitar is strung and the strings are pulled to tension by the machines, there is a lot of tension produced, transferred though the machines and into the headstock. This is coupled with the tension produced at the nut and makes it's way down the neck where again it is coupled with the fret transfer, into the fretboard and then channelled into the dovetail block, or however your guitar neck is fastened to the instrument.

Newer acoustic guitars can also be bolt on necks, where the neck is fastened into a mortise and tenon joint by the means of two machine bolts. Inserts are installed into the neck. These align with holes in the dovetail block, usually 5/16” or 6 mm and two allen head cap screws are countersunk into the block to fasten the neck to the guitar via the neck inserts. This provides a nice tight joint and I believe to be as good as any dovetail joint on the market. The nice thing about this type of joint is that it can be easily dis-assembled so as to reset the neck, or service or change frets without the work required to steam off a dovetailed neck.

The old standard is the dovetail. Gibson, and Martin still use this means of attaching the neck to the instrument. Whereas newcomers like Josh House, Richard Paxton, and most of the Godin line of instruments as well as many others prefer to use the bolt on method.

So why the dovetail? Tradition, basically. Martin have not changed their basic guitar design in over a hundred years. For that matter, Gibson is right behind them. Even though most guitar necks, electric and acoustics are CNC milled these days, there is still a preference by the aforementioned to maintain consistency in their original design. Hence, the dovetail joint. Even the Blueridge guitars, a direct copy of a Martin dreadnaught still utilizes the dovetail. It just works!. Some would argue one over the other, to me I am more preferential to the bolt on. I don't believe there is much difference in tone. If there is any, it is negligible.

If one has ever had to try and remove a dovetailed neck on a guitar in order to do a neck reset, I believe you would agree with me, bolt on is better.
Remember, the more contact with the body, the better the tone.
So how does this change the sound of the guitar?

Well, we talked about how the sound gets to the dovetail block on the guitar. This block is part of the front of the guitar and is what the neck attaches to. Some are larger than others. Some are made of rosewood, while others are birch, maple or just plain spruce. The sound, and mechanics that are transferred into, and through this block, make their way to the sidewalls and soundboards on the instrument. It is this combination of wood, as well as the neck, that give the guitar it's distinct tone.
Remember, tone and volume are two very different entities when you are talking acoustic sound.

Volume is basically what comes out the sound hole, it is what is produced through the bridges plates being sandwiched onto the soundboard. Much like the volume knob on your stereo. You want it louder, you strum louder. Just like turning up the volume.

Tone however is a bit different. Tone encompasses all of the other things I just spoke about, the machine heads, type of neck material, type of nut material, fretboard material, (rosewood, ebony, ???) fret material and makeup. Dovetail attachment, bolt on? Dovetail block material, sidewall material, rear soundboard material, top soundboard material, type of bridge plate material, sub plate material, saddle material, bridge pin material, thickness of the soundboard. This is like the graphic equalizer on your home stereo. It's what makes the bass exactly what bass should sound like and the mid range and high end stand out and take notice as well.

When the tone is married with the volume of the instrument, it is really something beautiful.
The other thing to mention about tone is that as a guitar's tonewoods mature, it only appreciates in tone and in most cases, value as well. There were only three Martin D-45's built in 1933. The first year they were introduced to the market. Why do you think a guitar that was probably built for one hundred dollars back in 1933 would be worth in excess of $500,000.00 now. They still build the D-45. Sure, it's a rare guitar, but why do you think everyone would want to have this instrument? It's the tone!!

On the subject of guitar necks, there are builders who believe a three or four piece laminated neck is as good as a solid one piece.
Well, there's a good argument. I am all for saving the planet and cutting back on waste when it comes to being more resourceful on acoustic building, but I personally believe whenever possible, choose the one piece neck. Again, it's a matter of tonal preference, and it's what your ear hears. Still, I don't believe that when you glue a bunch of pieces of would together, there could possibly be the same tonal frequencies, vibration and transfer as there can be using a one piece neck.

Most neck materials are consistent, and with acoustics the choice is usually select mahogany for the neck and headstock, and rosewood for the fretboard. Why these woods? Tone! Straight and simple. It works, and everybody uses it. Now differing builders of late offer a myriad of differing tonewoods for both neck and fretboards. Personally, I am with Martin and Gibson on this one. If it ain't broke.....
You want to be very cautious using exotic woods for fret boards. Most do not stand up and can't even come close to the old standards. I have seen in my shop, brand new instruments with fret divots and fret wear, and only on their first set of strings. And we are talking some high end instruments here. Stick to what works.
What about an ebony fretboard? Actually, I love ebony. I love the play and feel of it, and seldom do you have a problem with frets popping due to inconsistency with humidity, or dryness. Ebony is a great choice. It wears better than rosewood, requires less maintenance and works well with the frets. The only thing about ebony is, if you are a luthier like me, and you have done a lot of fret jobs, ebony is not the best wood to be working with. It is like glass, and must be treated accordingly. Hard to remove frets without 'galling' and slot damage. In most cases, frets have to be glued back into place because they simply won't hold in the slots. Ebony, not a good friend of guitar builders.

Some necks are finished with either a light wipe on polyurethane, nitro-cellulose, varnish and sometimes paint, and guessed it, affect the tone and playability. I often wondered why some builders would spend so much time building a neck, and then cover it up with paint and clear coat. What are they trying to hide?
What else affects tone? How about the truss rod? The truss rod is an important part of any guitar neck, and it also affects the tone of the instrument based on what it is made out of. Anything that transfers sound and vibration on the instrument, affects tone.
Martin did not even install a truss rod in their guitars before the mid eighties. Now why do you think that is? Well, if you don't have a truss rod, and it's a basic steel re-enforced neck, there would be more room for wood. And more tone. Martin was onto something. Problem was, they couldn't be as selective about their neck woods and the cure factor when their guitars were in such demand. They had to start using woods that were kiln dried and not air seasoned, like they were famous for this wood, though not totally dry, twisted and caused Martin to have to come up with a workable solution to a problem that Gibson was very familiar with. So Martin, like Gibson, started to install truss rods in their guitar necks, so that when a neck adjustment was required, it could be easily made, with little or no consequence to the sound of the guitar.

Now let's move onto two other important neck and tonal variables. #1, nuts. What is the best nut material out there today? Well, there are all kinds of differing materials. There is plastic, steel, brass, TusQ (man made bone) graph tech plastic, porcelain, ebony and other exotic woods, and finally 'bone'. Usually beef shin bone, but I have had great experiences with moose and deer shin bone as well.

Again, there is personal preference here. I would have to say that my favorite is still bone. I am more preferential to composites for some bridge saddles, but I have used bone there as well many times. Just a personal preference. It's easy to work with, consistent and always provides great tone, if you can get past the smell.
#2, Fret Material / size. Gibson uses a jumbo fret on their electrics and has used this same fret on some of their acoustics as well. Fret width, height, tang depth, as well as the material blend makes a big difference in the sound of your instrument. Frets are usually made up of a high grade of stainless steel at gr. 316 or better, but what matters in making them last longer and have increased tone and harmonics, is the alloys that mix with the stainless that provide consistency and long life. Carbide,(carbon) tungsten, bronze and others are just some of those additives.

Still, frets cannot be that hard that they can't wear at all. If they were, your strings would be breaking all the time because of the fret memory on them. Eventually wearing through and breaking the string. Some companies, like MusicMan use a 100% stainless fret, and when coupled with their ebony fret boards, and Ernie Ball 'Cobalt' strings, work very well together. Actually, one of the best combinations I have ever worked with.

So, I guess that will be it for this round. Next time we'll talk about electric guitar necks.
So long for now.
Remember, it's all about the tone baby!!

Brett McNaueal / Luthier
Brett's Guitar Works / Trenton, Ontario / Canada

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ask the Guitar Guy: Let's Talk Pickups!

Ask the Guitar Guy: Let's Talk Pickups!: Let's Talk Pickups. I spoke a bit about pickups in a previous blog, but barely scratched the surface on this incredible 'v...

Let's Talk Pickups!

Let's Talk Pickups.

I spoke a bit about pickups in a previous blog, but barely scratched the surface on this incredible 'vast' subject.
I always admired Fender for their pickups. The original ceramic magnet single coils used to have a sound that was very unique, and because they eventually aged and lost their tone due to the magnets 'fading', I have to say, they still actually gained a tone unlike any other.
Single coil is basically where it all started. Jazz and blues players in the late 40's and early fifties could not be heard over the orchestra, so they incorporated the use of a single coil pickup mounted as close to the neck and fretboard as possible. This gave them the real tone and sound they were looking for and still didn't compromise the dynamics of the orchestra. Though, by today's standards these pickups would have been flat, thin and all mid range, they didn't feed back like the live microphones did, and were a great solution at the time.
Leo Fender dabbled with different pickup configurations until he came up with the ceramic single coil that was used on Fender's lap steel guitars in the day. These were a full rounded single coil, that provided a nice bottom end as well as some mid characteristics, and a superb top end, unlike anything else on the market. Leo was so successful with his lap steel guitars, he basically redesigned them to become the first Telecaster guitar, though it wasn't called that then. It actually went from the Lap Steel, to the Broadcaster, to the Esquire and finally the Telecaster. Most important of all, Leo continued to use his patented Fender pickup in all of these models.
The country crowd raved about the Esquire. One pickup, with a three position tone selector. Basically a three way switch utilizing a different capacitor in each position.
Fender sold a lot of these guitars. There are still a few of them out there, but for some reason, nobody wants to part with them.
The Telecaster was a hybrid Esquire that incorporated a lipstick style DeArmond neck pickup. This made the blues and jazz players happy because they were able to get away from the twang of the Telecaster. The neck pickup just seemed to make all the difference in the world. Again, many were sold. In fact, there were a few years that demand, far outweighed supply. The Fullerton plant was not equipped for the volume of guitars ordered at that time, and one might wait a year or two before you saw your guitar.
The original Telecasters incorporated the same three way switching as the Esquire, but Fender had different switching options than what is standard on the current model Telecasters.
The Stratocaster was a completely different style of guitar than the Telecaster at the time. Originally three pickups, (single coil ceramic) the rear, or bridge pickup staggered slightly to cover all tonal variance coming off the bridge. This was a feature that Fender would again patent, based off of the success of the original lap steels, Esquires and Telecasters designs.
The Stratocaster originally featured only a three way switch, only allowing the pickups to be selected individually. There was no blending of the pickups back then. Fender later changed this to a 5 way selector. This allowed for two pickups to be selected at the same time, though never allowed all of them to be selected at one time. Still, to this day, that is not an option at Fender. I am not sure why, as I personally believe that would be a great option. In the past several years, Fender has started to use 'noiseless' pickups. These are a great bang for the buck. They incorporate a second winding in reverse polarity, still using the same magnet and poles. This 'stacked' single coil also features an Alnico 5 magnet, different pole configuration and height, and slightly smaller frame than the original pickups. This allows for more winding, therefore more tone and a fatter sound, and all of this relatively noise free.

Let's move along to Humbuckers

When you think of this design, you would automatically think of Gibson right? Well, it's true that Gibson does use this style of pickup. They even came up with the name 'Humbucker'. Still, they were not first to use these pickups. Truth be known, like the original design of the Les Paul, this wasn't Gibson. It was Gretsch. At the Gretsch company, they were dabbling with a solid body guitar which used a two coil 'Dyna-sonic' pickup a few years before Gibson came out with the first Les Paul. Gretsch called these guitars the 'Jet' and the 'Corvette'.
The original Dyna-sonic pickup came in a choice of two, single, and twin coil. The original Gretsch designed twin coil was basically two single coils placed side by side and tied together in the pickup cavity.
What Gibson did that was different, was that they tied together the two separate single coils on the same frame, alternating their respective magnets from north-south to south-north, and wound each single coil separately.
There was a lot of 60 cycle hum prevalent in the day from things like lighting ballasts, transformers, toasters, irons, frying pans. Anything that featured a heating element. This factored in with the fact that most facilities were still using knob and tube wiring, where phase reversal was a common occurrence, and there were no grounds on amplified equipment.
So Gibson created their own spin on a pickup that would virtually eliminate this amplified noise. They called it the Patent Applied For, or PAF pickup. Not sure if they ever did get that patent finally.
Nonetheless, this pickup put Gibson on the map.
The first PAF pickups were used by wrapping enamelled wire around 4-6 poles on a magnet, then tied two wrap wires together. One to the switch, the other to ground. Problem was that in the day, Gibson, and Fender found it difficult to properly coat the wrap wire with varnish so as to isolate the wraps. Eventually, they would break down, and this, coupled with the use of ceramic magnets and the fact they would lose their magnetism, would completely change the sound of the instrument in time.
This was either a plus, or a minus, depending on what the instrument was used for. Some would claim these pickups are still desirable, though I am not sure as to why.
Today, the single coils and the PAF's are still in use, though the technology to build them has changed drastically.
The Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch original designed pickups are still being installed in their respective instruments, but they are a better all round pickup. The magnets will take many years to fade, due to the fact they are Alnico 3's and 5's. Man made magnets, far superior to the original rare earth, or ceramic pickups.
Still, one would argue, there is nothing like the sound of a 54 Telecaster or a 56 Gibson Les Paul.
Everybody has a different ear, and everybody is entitled to their own respective opinion about this.
Personally speaking....I am glad we live in the age we do. Technology is a remarkable thing.
More, next time on pickups. We'll discuss Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Lace, Fender, Gibson, and much more. We'll also talk about EMG and their 'active' line of pre-amplified pickups.
Until then. Play your best...and be your best!!

Brett McNaueal

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Electric Guitar Modifications, are you into it?

I have been away from my blog for a bit. Busy with the Christmas season and a few other things. Still, good to be back.
Today, I would like to talk a bit about modifying electric guitars.
First off, let me just say I have a deep respect for all of the current guitar manufacturers. They wouldn't be around today if they weren't trying to do something different, or stray from the norm. That being said, the Fenders and the Gibson's are still great instruments in their own right, and nothing is built today, the way it was built originally. Some are better......most are worse.
The basic design of a Fender Strat or Tele, if merged with a Gibson Les Paul might be something marketable. Precisely! That is why there are so many companies out there trying to do just that. Maintain some, or all of the characteristics of the mainstream guitars, but adding things to make them even better. Kind of like adding just the right spice to an already great dish. Kind of just makes it come alive!
That's what I do. That is my passion and I believe has given me the reputation I have secured.
Still, as a builder myself, it's important to listen to the needs of those wanting the mod in the first place, then weighing that, along with my years of experience into something that looks, feels, and sounds amazing.
My guitars may look like guitars that have been around a long time, but they definitely don't play, feel, or sound like the others. Hence the name 'Prodigy'. I wanted to seek out a name for my guitars that would indicate exactly what they are. Some of my guitars may look like Fenders, they do not play, feel, nor sound like Fenders. Some may look like others....again their dynamics,and what makes them what they are, were totally different. The best woods, the best necks and electronics. Right down to the type of fret wire I install, unlike any other. Prodigy means 'something truly remarkable'.....and I believe they are. All are individual and unique. All are Prodigies!!
So let's talk about you. What sound, feel, are you looking for? What would you like to see changed on your guitar to make it truly a personal instrument?
Here are the four most important mods you can make to see that you reach your goals.
1. Bridges
Stock may be okay, but look at something truly functional, ergonomic and appealing.
Here are just a few names to look at when you are considering a bridge mod.
Wilkinson, Gotoh, Leo Quan's Badass, Khaler, Schaller, Manmade, or Joe Barden, just to name a few. Some are great, some are better. Usually the price dictates the better. That is simply because of their options, and the time it took to build them. Most high end bridges and components are hand made.
2. Machines (tuning machines)
One of the most important items on any guitar are the machine heads. Again, you get what you pay for. Schaller, Sperzel, Gotoh, Wilkinson, Grover, Waverly are the top of the line, though Ping and Planet Waves make a good tuner as well. Personally for me, I prefer Gotoh and Schaller. The technology is better, and they truly stand behind their product.
3. Pickups and Electronics
Many are chosen.....few deliver, or stand up to their reputation.
DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, EMG, Joe Barden, TV Jones, Lace brothers, as well as Fender and Gibson are all great manufacturers in their own right, but some of their products are simply better than others. That is when your ear kicks in. Try, before you buy. One might do I do that, when I can't install them and then bring them back, if I don't like the way they sound. That is true, however, I bet you that any reputable retailer will always return you your money, as long as you're just exchanging them for something similar. Just don't cut the leads back unless you are certain they are right for you.
4. Frets
You might think they are all the same. Not true!!
The right fret, made up of the right fret material, can make a huge difference in the tone of your instrument. Too hard, not good, too soft, not good either.
Frets are made up largely of nickel alloy. It is the alloys that give the fret material the proper hardness and strength. Too soft would dull the sound, and would wear out prematurely. This also wears the strings out before their time, as they would develop a fret memory.
There is nothing wrong with changing out your frets to a larger / smaller size if preferred. What you need to maintain is fretboard and fret radius. As long as that is maintained, the rest doesn't matter. A nut can be modified to suit the fret height, as can the neck, and / or the bridge saddles.

As you can see, there are lots of options here for your modification project. Keep a budget in mind, and also remember your personal mod may not be exactly what someone else wants, or likes. So you may find it harder to re-sell the instrument.
Also, hundreds of dollars of modification, may not necessarily be re-couped should one decide to sell the instrument at a later date. Like I mentioned earlier....mods are a personal thing.
Now, all this being said, if you are uncertain about performing any mod yourself, take it to someone who has the know how, and experience to get the job done properly.
Most accessory manufacturers will only extend their warrantee when the mod was performed by someone who retains the above credentials. You might pay a bit more for this, but believe me it's worth it to have that peace of mind. I would even encourage those who want to learn to come in and watch me do the work. Heaven knows we could use a new generation of luthiers and guitar gurus. Us old guys are growing weary.
That's all for now folks. Hope you all have great 2014. God Bless!!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Today`s Topic: Guitar Finishes

Everybody expects that when they purchase an instrument they should look great, but how do they do that?
Years ago, custom finishes were never heard of. Like Ford Motor Company President Henry Ford was quoted, “people can order cars in any color they would like, as long as it's black”.
Guitars were much like that. Not much choice in color or finishes.
Today things are much different. Not only because of desire by folks purchasing these instruments, but also because there were, and still are some brilliant minds experimenting with, and implementing their findings into mass manufacture.
Even straight laced, unwavering companies like Gibson have begun using new ideas for guitar finishes and wood combinations. Yes, you can still purchase a 'Black Beauty' that is pretty well the same guitar as it was since it's original inception, but though it looks the same, the finish is very different. I personally believe better than the original. Why?
Well, like so many other companies, Gibson has found when you combine what already was working with what is cutting edge technology, you tend to get something truly remarkable.
The old Gibson guitars were famous for crazing, especially in the back of the instrument. Though that sounds like a bad thing, it really wasn't. It really made the guitar more desirable. The new ones won't do that, only because technology has changed.
Fender, on the other hand, featured finishes that were straight up paint and lacquer. Fender colors in the 50's and 60's were pretty provocative for the times. Their guitars were the standard sunburst and the vintage and polar white, but they also featured a powder blue, surf green, candy apple red and a tri-color sunburst. Though their instruments were straight up lacquer, Fender finishes, like Gibson, only tended to look better as they aged. The antique white guitars that were painted in the 50's, are a beautiful honey hue now. Like they have been in smoke filled bars for years, when really, it's just normal fading of the paint. Again, something very desirable for collectors today.
Still, what Fender was using was the same basic paint an auto body shop would use to paint a car with. They didn't use a clear coat, so the paint would 'off gas' and eventually lighten in color and it's overall look.
Today, with the advent of nitro-cellulose, epoxy based finishes and improved lacquers, guitars can be painted in a multitude of colors and clear coats, and these finishes will outlast original finishes as they are unlikely to fade, craze, check or crack. Your Gibson 'Black Beauty', if purchased today, will probably look the same in 50 years from now, if maintained and looked after.
A new finish used by companies like Paul Reed Smith, Carvin and more recently, even Gibson, doesn't require painting the guitar at all.
What these folks are doing is 'dyeing' or lightly staining the finish of woods like maple, swamp ash, alder, koa, and a myriad of others. What this does is colors the wood, but also allows the beauty of the wood's grain to show through. They might do a straight up color, or a 'fade' finish, where the color goes from lighter in the center of the instrument, to darker on the outer edges of the instrument. This allows the builders to cover the fact the 'face' wood laminate of the instrument. The body might be mahogany, but the top is spalted maple. However, when blended properly, one would find it very hard to see where one wood is melded into the other. After this finish is applied to the instrument, it is clear coated, either by using an incredibly hard finish like nitro-cellulose, which dries very clear, almost 'water like' finish, or a straight up lacquer, which has been improved by technological advancements in quality, and ease of application. Other components, like ultra violet protection and blending with differing polymers, makes this a relatively hard finish as well.
Personally I have used  something similar to PRS on my own guitars. Two of them are hand stained using a blue stain on a swamp ash back and flamed maple top and on another model I used a red sunburst finish, and on the third a straight up sunburst on swamp ash. All three of these are nitro cellulose clear coated. On my walnut bodies that I received from my friend Keith Brommerich in California, I used 7 hand applied coats of tung oil, and on the other walnut body, two coats of hand applied polyurethane. Both of the walnut grains came alive with these finishes. Now these finishes are not as tough as the nitro cellulose models, but with an all natural, solid wood guitar, I believe it's more important to show the beauty and richness of the wood and it's grain. Had they been coated with a high gloss finish, I don't personally believe I would have achieved the look that I was looking for here.
If you are considering refinishing your instrument, there are so many options these days. One only has to go to the internet to see the options and finishes that are available. Keep in mind though, unless you have the proper tools, and you have a facility where you can do the 'prep' work, you might want to leave this to a professional. Also, keep in mind as well, that anytime you are sanding, priming, painting or clear coating an instrument, always use proper safety equipment. Use a proper OSHA mask, or a respirator. And always use safety glasses. Your health and safety is worth more than any guitar on the planet. Don't take short cuts.
Please be prepared to read, in depth instruction manuals on the subject of guitar finishing, or refinishing.
I personally recommend Guitar Finishing Step-By-Step (first and second editions) available from Stewart MacDonald, by Don MacRostie and Dan Erlewine
Don and Dan are probably the most experienced luthiers in the industry. They both have a wealth of knowledge, not just in guitar finishes, but everything you need to know about building and repairing instruments.
Though I barely scratched the surface on guitar finishes, I hope this gives you a better understanding of just what finish might be on your guitar, and why.

Thank you for reading!

Brett McNaueal

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ask the Guitar Guy: ACOUSTIC Pick Ups...What you really need to know.

Ask the Guitar Guy: ACOUSTIC Pick Ups...What you really need to know.: Today we are going to talk about acoustic guitar pickups, what's good, and maybe not so great. Years ago, when people like Les Paul a...

ACOUSTIC Pick Ups...What you really need to know.

Today we are going to talk about acoustic guitar pickups, what's good, and maybe not so great.

Years ago, when people like Les Paul and Leo Fender and DeArmond first started to develop different types of pickups for their own guitars and for the companies they were representing, it was common practice to install a magnetic pickup into either the sound hole on an acoustic, or like John Lennon's J-160 and J-45 Gibson guitar, permanently fixed up against the fretboard at the sound hole.
These seemed to work okay for that period of time, but the problem was that a magnetic pickup only picked up the sound of the string and amplified that. It gave the guitar a more 'electric' sound than what it should sound like acoustically.

Barcus Berry was the first company to realize that an acoustic instrument should be amplified to sound like it does acoustically. So they invented the Barcus Berry 'transducer' pickup. What was different about this pickup was that it didn't amplify just the string sound, but also the vibration of the sound board, and that gave the instrument a more 'real' sound than it's earlier counterpart.
Now this pickup was widely used in the industry for live performance on upright basses, violins, mandolins, resonators and banjos.
The Barcus Berry,although it was a great answer for these other instruments, was not a favourite of guitar players. Why? Well, among other issues, the biggest issue was feedback.
In order to get the acoustic up to speed with the volume of the other instruments, the pickup would howl, and cause strings on the acoustic to vibrate, even when you weren't playing them.
The other reasons these guys never became a popular choice for acoustic players was that, in order to get the instrument to sound half decent, one would have to mount the pickup close to the bridge. It was always in the way of players, and when it was mounted internally, well, that is where a lot of those sensitivity issues would arise.
Also the cord they gave you with the pickup was never really long enough to get you to any amplifier, and it always dangled from the guitar. So this became just some of the reasons they never caught on for acoustic players.
Most acoustic artists just decided to go back to the microphone, and would try to get it as close to the instrument as they could, so that their instruments could be heard along with the others in the band.
Innovation continued for quite a few years, until the Japanese designed a pick up that would work, and would do that, rather trouble free.
What was this new-found gem? The piezo pickup.
Piezo is basically an electrical charge that accumulates in certain solid materials. It really wasn't something new, it was originally designed by two French physicists in the latter part of the 19th century.
What makes the piezo pickup better than their electromagnetic cousins is that they pickup, not just the string's sound, but also it's vibration. So, on an acoustic guitar, they emulate through an amplifier, what is audibly a sound that is very close to what the human ear hears acoustically.
Now, some companies use these exclusively on their acoustics. Some choose to use these, along with a live internal microphone to blend the sound that goes to the amplifier.
Both have their benefits and their short-comings.
There are also different ways you can mount this pickup to your guitar. Under the saddle, under the bridge plate, or a combination of both of these, as well as a combination of fixed places on the underside of the sound board.
All of this would not be possible without the use of an on board pre-amplifier, that buffers the signal between the guitar and the amplifier. This small pre-amp features basic tone and volume controls, as well as anti feedback and notch-filtering, graphic equalization and much more.

These usually operate on a 9 volt battery that is attached somewhere on the guitar. Though they basically operate on m/v (mini volts) the voltage and current this larger battery provides this pre-amplifier will work for extended periods, trouble free.
Companies like Takamine, (who by the way developed this technology) chose to mount their electronics on their guitars initially on the sidewall of the instrument. This usually meant there was this large device mounted on the sidewall of the instrument, which really didn't ever look that appealing. Newer design has electronics mounted so that you would not even know the guitar was an electric / acoustic instrument. Non-obtrusive and rather attractive. These are the kind I like to see installed.

Who make the best, and what should you stay away from.

There are many now to choose from. If you are looking at electrifying your acoustic, here are a few of my favourites, and why.

#1 – L.R. Baggs - (Anthem, Element or I-Beam)

James Taylor uses this system. Need I say more?
L.R. Baggs are a relatively easy install, even for the rank amateur. They are what I feel to be the best in the industry today. Companies like Larivee, Olsen, Boucher and Martin would probably agree, as this is what they use exclusively on their instruments.

#2 – MiSi – (Align, Cutless)

I am a big fan of these pickups. They are not unlike a lot of others as far as their install goes, but these pickups feature 'battery less' technology. You basically never have to change the battery in these units.
MiSi utilizes a stored capacitor, which is charged by means of a stereo cable / charge transformer. You simply charge the guitar through the end pin adapter for about two minutes, and you can play your guitar, without a re-charge for several hours. MiSi pickup technology is state of the art.

#3 – K&K – (Definity System)

Nice product. Relatively easy install. Will work on most acoustic instruments. An incredible true tone experience!!

#4 – Fishman – (Expression, Matrix, AG Series, Ellipse, Prefix, others)

Fishman is a good product as well, andthey have been at this for many years. In fact, the original Takamine technology was developed by Fishman. They are probably the best marketed, and widely known transducer pickup on the planet today. That being said, this doesn't make them the best.
I believe their 'Expression' system is one of the best in the industry today. This system is used on the higher end Taylor guitars. It is a beautiful, well designed system for acoustic instruments. However, this is where they fall short. The other items in their catalog do not measure up to their Expression system. I believe Fishman falls short in tone and reproducing the ultimate acoustic tone that L.R Baggs seems to be able to do, without having to break the bank. Another reason why the old adage 'bigger isn't always better' should be thought about here. 

Fishman needs to start playing 'catch up' with some of these other companies, or they will just fade away into obscurity.
Remember, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, EMG, Lindy Fralin, TV Jones, and so many others wouldn't be around today if Gibson and Fender were still making good pickups.
Hope this helps in your search for that 'true' acoustic sound.
I have shared my own personal favourites here in this blog. I don't usually do this, but in this case I really couldn't get to important stuff, without naming names.

All that being said, when an acoustic is recorded in the studio today, it is still recorded by use of a live microphone. Why? Regardless of technology, there is nothing that can duplicate the true sound of an acoustic guitar like a live microphone can.
Cheers for now!

Brett McNaueal