There comes a point and time in every guitar geeks journey where the opportunity to plug in comes along. It can be at home with a new acoustic amp, it can be at an open mic, it could even be with friends at a jam; whatever the case though you will most certainly need a pickup. There’s a catch though…
How do you even begin to figure out what acoustic pickup you need for your unique playing situation?
I will help out your pickup shopping experience here and offer up some pros and cons of each of the main types of pickups that are out there.
I plan on covering the most common types of acoustic guitar pickups here. I will be leaving some specialty pickups and rarer birds off the list simply because they are not as common to encounter when simply shopping for your first pickup.
So here goes nothing, a crash course in the basics of acoustic guitar pickups.
1.) The Under Saddle Pickup – This is probably the most common type of pickup you will see out in the world of pickups. The under saddle pickup is a thin strip that sits underneath the saddle of your guitar. These types of pickups are usually made with piezo crystal, which takes the acoustic vibrations of your guitar and “translates” them to an electrical signal.
These pickups are unobtrusive and function very well. They do have a tendency to sound “quacky” simply because of where they are picking up the vibrations from, but also due to their location they have great clarity. As for installing these pickups it is best left up to a trained repairman since there are adjustments that will need to be made to the saddle of your guitar after the pickup is in place. These pickups often are active, meaning there is a battery required and the signal is a bit stronger than a passive version of the same pickup. Plus, the active option will give you access to onboard volume and tone controls.
2.) Bridge Plate Transducer or Contact Pickup – These types of pickups are quite minimal. In most cases you can get these pickups installed permanently, but I have seen options from Schertler and other brands that allow for quick application and removal when not needed.
The wonderful aspect of these pickups is that they are picking up vibrations from the surface that they are in contact with resulting in a truer acoustic tone. Most often these type of pickups will sit on the bridgeplate of your acoustic guitar and since that is where they are picking up vibrations the sound produced by this style of pickup is much more natural and full sounding. In most cases these pickups are passive lending themselves to a very natural and transparent tone.
Contact pickups really range in terms of how easy or difficult they are to install on your guitar. Some, like the Schertler Basik, are very easy to install in mere seconds, while others such as the K&K Pure Mini are a bit more involved and best left to an experienced luthier. Also something to note these pickups can be sensitive to feedback due to their inherent nature of being in contact with a resonating surface.
3.) Magnetic Soundhole Pickups – If there were medals being presented, these pickups would win the gold medal for ease of use, feedback resistance, and installation. These pickups use a magnet (think electric guitar) to sense the string’s vibrations.
Generally speaking these pickups have a more round almost “fatter” tone because of where they are located (usually in the soundhole), and due to the fact that there is a magnet involved. Magnetic soundhole pickups usually sit right in the soundhole and can either be used on a temporary basis or permanently installed. If used temporarily there is a huge downfall in that there is a cord dangling down the front of your guitar; so if you fancy this type of pickup it’s likely best to get it installed for good.
This pickup also works very well with external effects such as distortion, delay, or reverb, and these magnetic soundhole pickups are easily the most feedback resistant so they are great in louder situations. Another thing to note with these is that the tone produced will be lacking a bit of that woodiness and body we come to expect from our acoustic guitar… not a dealbreaker, but something to be aware of.
4.) The Internal Microphone – This pickup type is exactly what it sounds like, a microphone inside your guitar. These pickups do a fantastic job of picking up body sounds as well as the guitar strings so if you are a more percussive player this pickup type would be one to certainly try out.
One thing to be aware of with the internal mics is that they can be very susceptible to feedback at higher volumes. As with any microphone the louder it is turned up the more likely feedback will end up being a problem… it’s just the nature of the beast.
Due to the feedback factor internal mics are usually paired with another type of pickup. When used in combination with another pickup the internal mics can add a nice airy quality to the tone of your guitar with a bit of added articulation as a result of the mics placement.
So which pickup is the absolute best one to get?
The true answer lies in what you will be using it for, what kind of guitar you are putting it on, and what tone you like the best. So use this as a guide and give some different pickups a try. Think to yourself how will this fit my situation? Also, don’t be afraid to take a couple different pickup types for a spin and if you happen to like more than one you can always get both installed… seriously, it’s a thing, and you get the best of both worlds.
Happy pickup hunting guitar geek!!!