Have you ever wondered how an acoustic-electric guitar works? I played mine for years before I ever thought about how the sound might be traveling from my guitar to the Amp/Sound System. I just plugged in and played.
Then one day, I was talking to a more seasoned guitar player and he introduced me to the wide world of electric guitar pickups. He taught me the difference between Single Coil Pickups and Humbuckers and how they pick up the sound differently. Then he demonstrated a practical use for each by playing riffs on his electric guitar.
One thing you’ll get to know about me is these are the types of things that get my creative juices flowing.
Being primarily an acoustic player, I started to wonder about how my acoustic worked. I looked it up and it turns out that it used a piezo undersaddle pickup. Eventually this led to me wondering about all the other ways that acoustics might be able to pick up sound and I started to ask which one was best.
Here’s what I found…
All of my Acoustic guitars have undersaddle pickups. They are the most popular way of amplifying the acoustic sound. Undersaddle pickups are placed under the saddle of the guitar.
The pickup itself is a thin wire with 6 crystals in it that absorb the vibrations from the strings of the guitar through the saddle and send them in the form of electricity to the preamp. In some cases, the 6 crystals each send separate signals to the preamp where the volume can be modified individually for each string. These are called hexaphonic pickups.
The undersaddle pickup is easy to hide because it fits securely under the saddle and doesn’t stick out like a magnetic pickup would. It also doesn’t have the same feedback issues that a magnetic pickup does.
Undersaddle pickups will feed back from time to time but it is much easier to prevent. This is because it doesn’t create a magnetic field and therefore won’t cause interference with other magnetic fields around it.
The frequency range output is larger as well. In layman’s terms, this means that you get more of the natural acoustic sound. Magnetic pickups normally pick up the mid range and leave out most of the highs and lows that give an acoustic guitar its character.
Even though the frequency range is larger, in some cases it can sound thin. This is because the undersaddle pickup only picks up vibrations through the saddle and not from the rest of the guitar.
The undersaddle pickup is now the mainstream option for acoustic guitar amplification. Because of its versatility, it is used by any acoustic guitarist in any context.
Here is a synopsis for easier reading…
How do they work?
- 6 crystals sit underneath the bridge and pick up the vibrations through the saddle.
- Easy to hide
- No feedback from magnetic fields or monitor loops.
- Large frequency range output
- Doesn’t pick up the vibrations from the top of the guitar
- Thin sounding
Most used by…
- This isn’t a specialized item anymore because it has become the mainstream option for acoustic guitar amplification.
My Epiphone Acoustic has a magnetic pickup as well as an undersaddle. They blend together and are part of an acoustic system created by Shadow Electronics.
Magnetic pickups create an electromagnetic field within which the strings move and disturb it with their own electromagnetic field. The pickup senses this movement and sends the information to the preamp in the form of electricity.
Notice the fact that the only partners in play here are the pickup and the strings. This explains the main advantage of using a magnetic pickup: strong presence of strings in amplified sound.
My Epiphone has both an undersaddle and a magnetic pickup that blend together at the preamp. This brings both the natural acoustic sound and the strong presence of the strings together into one masterful sound.
Another advantage of the magnetic pickup is that many of them can be installed with little to no irreversible modification to the guitar itself. While undersaddle pickups require drilling holes and reshaping of the saddle (in some cases), the magnetic does not.
There are a couple disadvantages though. Because of the exclusive string-pickup relationship, it loses out on the natural acoustic sound of the guitar. This can cause it to have an artificial sound like an electric guitar.
Furthermore, magnetic pickups stick out like a sore thumb on an acoustic. There are very few magnetic pickups that can be installed covertly.
They are best used in a blended system and are used mostly by acoustic guitarists who want a quick and reversible method of amplification.
How do they work?
Magnets capture the movement of the strings and translate it into sound.
- Brings out the sound of the strings.
- No irreversible modifications.
- Doesn’t emulate the natural acoustics of the guitar.
- Can sound artificial like an electric guitar
- You may not like the way it looks on your acoustic because it stands out and you can’t hide it.
- In a blended system
- When the musician doesn’t want to modify his guitar irreversibly.
- On acoustic guitars as an easy way to amplify the guitar sound
Microphones pick up vibrations from the air and send that to a preamp in the form of electricity. In this article, I am going to focus on microphones that are installed inside the guitar.
I have seen two different types of microphones installed in a guitar. One is a gooseneck microphone and the other is a lapel microphone.
A gooseneck mic is more common and has the advantage of being flexible enough for a guitar technician to place it in the “sweet spot” where it will pick up the most sound.
I have only seen one guitarist use a lapel mic in his guitar. It wasn’t able to be placed in an optimal spot for sound but its purpose wasn’t to amplify all of a guitar sound.
This musician pulled out the mids and lows and used effects pedals to add an angelic sound behind his guitar to fill in the space nobody knew was there. It is really genius how he did it. I will write about it eventually and put the link here.
The microphone picks up the natural acoustic sound capturing everything about the guitar in the most honest way. However, it is prone to feedback.
It is best used in a quiet venue so as to avoid feedback issues. It is also great when blended with other pickups.
This type of pickup is mostly used by guitarists who are sticklers for the acoustic sound and want all of the natural character of the acoustic to come through.
How do they work?
Microphone receives vibrations from air.
- Captures a true acoustic sound
- Prone to feedback
- When you are doing a solo concert in a quiet venue
- When you are blending it with other pickups
- By solo acoustic guitarists who want an honest acoustic sound without the degradation caused by the other pickups
Every pickup type has its place. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to acoustic amplification. If you’re a beginner, stick to the undersaddle until you become familiar enough with your guitar that you start to feel like something is missing.
Then talk to a guitar tech about how to fill in these gaps. If you’re a solo acoustic artist, a microphone might be right for you.
If you play in a loud rock band like me, you might want to try out a blended system like mine.
What kind of pickups do you use? Comment below. I’d love to hear your perspective on this.