Pick Up the Pieces (Part 2)
The last time we met we were talking about pickups…those little “blocks” underneath the strings (where your picking hand rests) that actually make an electric guitar an “electric guitar”. Pickups are the means where the energy generated by a vibrating string is “picked up” and eventually sent out through an amplifier speaker.
The innovation that pickups brought to the guitar world simply cannot be overstated. But electric guitars are just one part of the equation. What about acoustic guitars? With live performance and recording needs being considered, there have to be ways to amplify them just as you can with an electric.
Square (well…rectangular) Peg, Round Hole…
One of the simplest ways to add electric functionality to an acoustic guitar is to use a soundhole pickup. As the name implies, these are simply electric guitar pickups that are mounted in the soundhole of an acoustic guitar. These units are usually pretty basic with no EQ options (although some may have a volume adjustment).
Installation of these types of pickups is pretty easy. Getting it into the soundhole is usually a process that only takes a minute. The wiring is usually the trickiest part. Some units have separate output jacks where a hole has to be drilled into the guitar in order to mount it, and others utilize the rear strap pin as a place for the jack (requiring you to drill a larger hole). The installations are relatively easy, but it may be best to have a professional do the installation if you aren’t that comfortable with power tools.
Can I Have A Piece of Pie(zo)?
Soundhole pickups can make an acoustic guitar tend to sound like, well…, an electric guitar! By that, I mean that some of the characteristics that make an acoustic guitar sound great may be lost in the translation by using a “traditional” magnetic pickup.
Piezo (short for “piezoelectric”) pickups are an option that combats some of those concerns. A piezo pickup is made up of a series of crystals that, when vibrated, generate an electrical signal. They are normally mounted out-of-sight-out-of-mind on an acoustic by being placed under the bridge.
This “direct contact” with the vibrating string gives a sound that more closely replicates the natural acoustic tone; they sound much brighter and can have a somewhat desirable “quack” sound when playing aggressively. Plus, the nature of the installation makes them invisible; soundhole pickups can bring an unnatural look that many players might not like.
Chairman of The Board
Yet another option is the soundboard transducer:
As the name implies, a soundboard transducer is a unit that mounts to the actual soundboard (via an adhesive). They utilize piezo technology, as well as the under-bridge-saddle units, do, but they may have a different tone since they take their vibration sourced directly from the soundboard instead of through the saddle. They are also extremely easy to install as some units have the output jack mounted to a bracket that is mounted to the guitar – again – through an adhesive that will not mar the finish.
Sometimes it can be most efficient to use a regular instrument microphone pointed at the sound hole to get the signal you need. If your acoustic is a prized possession where you have no intention of modifying it then this may be your best option.
While this option leaves your guitar unmolested, there are some things to watch out for. Hitting the microphone (especially in a live setting) may be hard to avoid, and any movement of the guitar will most certainly affect tone and volume as it moves towards and away from the microphone. With the right microphone setup, it can surely sound glorious, but it may be pretty easy to mess things up.
There are also units that are essentially “internal microphones” that are mounted into the guitar. These serve the same purpose but are by far less intrusive – you don’t even know they are there as they are normally inside the guitar.
While microphones (both external and internal) can have a great sound, they can be prone to feedback issues (especially the internal ones). Proper volume and EQ controls can minimize the problem.
Put It All Together
So which solution is the best? As with most things, it is subjective. Many players will go to the extent of mixing a few options in order to get the benefits of both. For example, it is not uncommon at all to use an under-bridge piezo pickup coupled with an internal mic. Combining the brightness of the piezo and the warmth of the microphone to give you a rich, realistic amplified tone.
Installing two different pickup technologies can be difficult, but there are actually pre-manufactured options that do just that, plus add even more functionality.
Preamp units similar to this can come prefigured with a number of features such as a piezo setup, an internal microphone, an onboard EQ, a tuner (almost worth the price of admission alone), a blending function where you can control the mix of piezo/mic signal to optimize the tone, and EQ options that can help to reduce feedback (note: not all systems contain every one of these features). I can tell you from personal experience that this type of unit is just downright awesome! The amount of flexibility right at your fingertips really can’t be over-emphasized.
You can buy them separately and have them installed. Again, as usual, I recommend using a trained professional for this…you know, the whole “don’t try this at home” thing. To make things really simple though, most manufacturers offer guitars with the systems pre-installed from the factory – you can save yourself a lot of headaches by going this route.
There are many great options for getting your acoustic guitar heard above the crowd. Take a look at using one and you won’t regret it.
We still have a few pickup-related things to go over, so hang tight and we’ll see you next week…
As always – peace out!