Is there any instrument more personal than an acoustic guitar? It comes home with you, creates songs with you, becomes an intimate part of your life. You pour over every detail: body style, size, comfort, and especially tone. The last thing you would ever want to do is arrive at a gig, plug it in, and discover that your perfect, personal tone suddenly disappears. Selecting the right pickups is as essential as any other factor when choosing an acoustic guitar. Today we’ll dive into some of the most common acoustic pickup types to help you preserve the most authentic tone for your most personal instrument.
Magnetic Acoustic Guitar Pickups
These pickups were among the first ever utilized and in many ways laid the groundwork for the magnet coil pickups used in electric guitars today.
Essentially, these pickups work exactly the same as your electric pickups. They feature a magnet insulated by copper wire, generating a magnetic field which senses the vibration of your strings.
Magnetic acoustic guitar pickups are among the most popular and easiest to install.
They produce a warm tone with a bit of a shimmer. Like electric pickups, this style only really receives tone from the strings and nearly none of the body. With them, your acoustic tone will resemble that of a hollow body electric.
Magnetic pickups are generally the easiest to install, as they slip perfectly inside your guitar’s sound hole, often including adjustable components, to create a snug fit.
Best of all, they’re generally the most affordable pickup option, with even top named brands running under $100.
The biggest drawback is that, like electric pickups, magnetic acoustic pickups are susceptible to noise and feedback from the resonance of the body, much like in hollowbody electric guitars. While their bright tone will cut through just about any full band mix, they can also make your guitar sound a bit shrill and brittle, lacking the depth of character that most acoustic guitars possess.
Piezo Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Piezo pickups feature six different piezoelectric crystals placed underneath the guitar’s bridge. These crystals convert physical vibrations into an electrical signal.
There Are Two Types of Piezo Pickups
Undersaddle Transducers sit between the bridge saddle and the bridge itself, with vibrations from the string causing changes in pressure, changing the voltage of Piezo electric material.
The result is a rich, bright,articulate sound best illustrated in light strumming or fingerstyle playing.
The biggest drawback of this style is its excessively large dynamic range. Attack-heavy playing produces what has been dubbed a “quacking” sound which many players find distasteful. This tone can be combated with an added preamp, however.
Undersaddle pickups do require drilling into the body of the guitar, so as a general rule of thumb it’s best to purchase a guitar that has one pre-installed or have one installed by a professional.
They are, however, the least prone to feedback of any of the options we’ll explore here.
Soundboard Transducers, also called “contact pickups” or “bottle caps,” can be mounted under the bridge, inside or outside the body, and really anywhere that produces the best tone.
Because this style listens to the vibration of the bridge plate, mimicking a miked guitar, these pickups often produce the most natural guitar sound.
Soundboarding transducers attach with a temporary adhesive, making them easy to install and remove without risking damage to the guitar’s finish.
These pickups are more prone to feedback, however. Also, playing in noisier settings, like a bar or a busy cafe, can result in a more dull, muffled tone.
Microphone-Paired Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Generally considered the most efficient acoustic guitar pickup design, this style is exactly as it sounds, featuring a magnetic, undersaddle, or contact pickup paired with a microphone.
Just as a room mic would, these pickups produce some of the cleanest, most authentic-sounding acoustic tones. Both the brightness of the strings and the resonance of the acoustic body shine through with mic-based acoustic pickups.
Of course, being among the best generally includes a higher price point. Not only are the units themselves more expensive, usually running upwards of $300, they also require professional installation.
Furthermore, as with any microphone setup, this style of pickup is prone to feedback. This effect can be counteracted with an external EQ or PreAmp, but those features only add to the overall price point.
Deciding on the right pickup depends on your performance venue, playing style, and general preference. In most circumstances, performers rely on a combination of each option for different guitars and venues. Like everything else in your guitar repertoire, finding the right acoustic pickups begins with simply trying out different brands and styles and finding the ones that best capture your voice and style.