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
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
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
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
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
Both have their benefits and their
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
James Taylor uses this system. Need I
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
#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
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
Cheers for now!