Acoustic Guitar Pickups often fly under the radar compared to their electric guitar brethren, especially as there are so many more options for those electric inclined players. Whilst you have a myriad of different types of electric guitar pickups, it seems unfair that there are only three types for the acoustic guitar. Yet despite the seemingly simple nature of these pickups, there is still plenty to understand about Acoustic Pickups and how they work, as well as plenty of options to choose from when looking for a new acoustic guitar pickup.
The History of Guitar Pickups
Looking back at a little guitar pickup history, there was actually no difference between the electric and acoustic guitar pickup at first. The pickup was invented out of the necessity to amplify acoustic guitars and allow them to compete with louder instruments of the time in band settings, so the lineage between electric and acoustic pickups starts in the same place. When jazz guitarists were coming up against horn, woodwinds, and drums during the big band era, they quickly found themselves being drowned out, the result of which was the voyage for volume.
The original designs of guitar pickups really aren't too far removed from what we see today. When Lloyd Loar (designer of the Gibson L-5) and Harry DeArmond were experimenting with the earliest pickup designs, they were mounting electronics to the bridges of guitars to capture the vibrations and convert them into electric signals, and their designs were so good, that the fundamentals haven't changed all that much since then. These pivotal pickups were immediately popular because they required little to no modification of the guitar, and, crucially to the development of early jazz guitar, could be moved around to find the optimal tone for the player.
Types of Acoustic Pickup
There are three primary types of acoustic guitar pickup available today, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The best acoustic guitar pickup is really dependent upon your needs as a player, so be sure to read up on all of the different types before making a selection for your acoustic.
Piezo (Transducer) Pickups
The piezo pickup is the most common of all acoustic guitar pickups, and most often found as standard on electro-acoustic guitars. It's also known as an undersaddle pickup, or less commonly as a transducer pickup. Often found under the bridge of the guitar, there are also variations that can be mounted on the guitar top, or alternatively attached to the inside of the body.
The principle way a piezo pickup works is by measuring the sound pressure of your string vibration, converting it into an electric signal and then transferring said signal to your amplifier or PA. Without getting too deep into the sticky topic of piezoelectricity, crystals contained inside the pickup element are compressed into a small space and when pressure is applied, either by mechanical force or sound, these crystals accumulate electric charge which is then transmitted to your choice of amplification.
Piezo pickups deliver a very bright sound that can be quite brittle to some ears. They often sound very percussive because they primarily capture the string vibration rather than the resonance inside the acoustic guitar body. One of the advantages of piezo pickups is that they are far less prone to feedback than other types of acoustic pickup, making them great for playing loud. They also have the benefit of working on nylon string acoustics because they capture sound via pressure rather than a magnetic field. Their sound is often considered unnatural or nasal, and most would say they are a far cry from the sound of a properly mic'd up acoustic guitar.
Soundhole pickups work in a similar fashion to your typical electric guitar pickup, creating a magnetic field which is then disturbed by the vibrations of your guitar strings as you strum or pluck. Just like an electric guitar pickup,they are composed of insulated copper wire wrapped around a magnet. You’ll usually find them mounted over the sound hole, and they are easier generally easier to install than the other types of acoustic guitar pickups, usually only requiring you to turn a few screws to complete installation. When installing a soundhole mounted pickup you may need to widen the existing hole for your guitar jack if you have one, or create a new opening if you’re converting an acoustic guitar into an electro acoustic.
Soundhole pickups deliver a sparkle that’s similar to a single coil pickup on an electric guitar, due to the closeness of the designs. The soundhole pickup also offers a lot of added warmth when compared to a piezo pickup. As they are placed close to the strings you get a lot of detail and clarity from each individual string, albeit with a susceptibility to feedback. They also work great with effects, should you wish to add some reverb or delay to your natural acoustic tone.
Soundhole pickups are a popular choice for those who want a tone different to that offered by a piezo pickup. Whilst they deliver a very usuable sound, they still don’t quite translate all of the complexity of your acoustic guitar's body resonances. They also won’t work with nylon string classical guitars, if you’re looking to convert one to an electro classical.
Working in a way similar to that of a mic’d up acoustic guitar, internal microphone pickups are placed inside the body, to better pick up all those beautiful overtones and resonances that are created inside. They provide a much more realistic recreation of your natural, unplugged guitar tone than the other two systems listed in this article and a lot of these kinds of pickups come paired with a magnetic or piezo pickup. This is because on its own, an internal microphone isn’t particularly loud, so requires some back up to deliver usable volume for live performances.
Internal microphone pickups deliver the most authentic acoustic guitar tone, but unfortunately with the side effect of being incredibly expensive when compared to soundhole or piezo pickups. They will amplify both the percussiveness of your picking, and the warmth and depth of sound provided by your guitar body's internal resonance.
Microphone pickups often require experimentation when installing, as finding the right position for the sound in your head differs from guitarist to guitarist. If paired with a piezo or magnetic pickup then you may find yourself having to try various combinations to find the right fit. They are also very prone to feedback as they pick up all of the sound converging inside your guitar body.
Best Acoustic Pickups
Now we know how Acoustic Guitar Pickups work, lets have a look at some choice picks from our warehouse! We've selected a mixture of pickups from budget to boutique that are sure to help your acoustic project itself.
This passive, magnetic soundhole pickup gives you a crystal clear acoustic tone that’s sensitive enough to deal with hard strumming just as well as it does delicate fingerstyle. It's design helps deliver the chime and top end brilliance of a single coil electric guitar pickup. The 'Woody' is available in a variety of colours with maple, walnut, or black stained housing to match your guitar finish. They are also double potted to help reduce the feedback synonymous with these kind of pickups, and best of all, it’s incredibly easy to install, fitting the majority of acoustic guitar soundholes without any modification.
This tiny little piezo can be mounted anywhere on the top of your acoustic guitar, or even the inside and due to its diminutive stature. The DiMarzio DP130 is best used when you expierment with your placement, and a non hardening putty is provided to mount the pickup, letting you play around to get the best positioning for your acoustic guitar. It will work on any kind of acoustic guitar, including nylon strung classical guitars, ensuring your unplugged sound is elevated to new heights.
Similar to the DiMarzio pickup, the Northwest Guitars Internal Transducer (or piezo) has been designed to capture the unplugged tone of your acoustic guitar and deliver it in an uncoloured fashion. It can be mounted on the top of your acoustic, or inside the sound hole and comes with an adhesive film to ensure it stays in place. Primarily it captures the sound of your strings, resulting in a percussive guitar sound that’s very controllable, whilst greatly minimising the risk of feedback. It’s passive so requires no external power, allowing you to get it up and running as soon as you get it.
The Artec WSH12 delivers a warm and rich tone, with plenty of clarity and definition on each individual string. Thanks to its dual coil design you get no 60-cycle hum, and it is double potted to keep feedback to a minimum. Easily mountable to any acoustic guitar sound hole, it also has 12 adjustable pole pieces giving you further tweak ability over string balance. It comes in a variety of attractive wood casings to match your existing guitar’s finish, and works equally well when treated to hard strumming or delicate finger picking.
Check out all out Acoustic Guitar Pickups.
Acoustic Guitar Pickups may not have the same amount of choice as their electric guitar bound brethren, but there are still plenty of options to help elevate the unplugged tone of your acoustic guitar further and farther than before. With several easy to install options available, this is a modification that can be undertaken without requiring any knowledge of electrics or soldering, making it a great way to add to the versatility of your existing acoustic guitar.
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