Guitar Pickup, yay or nay?

Through my long 35 plus years career as a touring sound engineer and a live sound reinforcement course director and curriculum development expert, I have always enjoyed mixing acoustic shows, there is something about that raw talent performing acoustically that spoke to me, watching a singer-songwriter on stage sitting on a stool with a boom mic stand in front of them ready to wow the heck out of their audience, it is an electrifying moment filled with anticipation, a powerful statement that speaks of courage, skills and pure determination to take that show to a different level of performance, a level so pure you can feel the goosebumps on your body. Oh yeah, let’s rock.

But as a live sound mix engineer, I always preferred using a guitar pick-up instead of placing a microphone in front of the guitar. I always preferred a clear and clean signal from the acoustic guitar through the sound system, a signal clear of room and audience noise that gives me total control of the signal. It is really impossible to filter out all the unnecessary noises in a room filled with screaming fans or even an outdoor show where sounds of life might interfere and add unwanted sounds to your mix. Or even if it is a full band with an acoustic guitar, it is always better to use a pickup instead of a stage microphone since that microphone will grab the sound of the drums, bass, and every sound on stage as well. remember, acoustic guitars have a very low signal, very low.  So on a live show, it’s a definite Yay!!

photo of assorted acoustic guitars
Gorgeous assortment of acoustic guitars

With so many types of acoustic pickups (soundhole, transducer, and piezo to name a few) and lots of different brands, it makes it hard for a beginner to decide on the right one that wouldn’t break the bank.

Having a pickup on an acoustic guitar is an essential requirement for any guitar player. Going to a gig? plug it in, sitting at home and you feel inspired to record a tune, plug it in, it is that simple and it makes life easy. But what is guitar pickup and why couldn’t anyone just use a microphone to capture the sound? Well, that depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

Both pickups and microphones are considered a Transducer, a device well known for the production of sound, a device that converts one type of energy to another. There are different types of transducers such as temperature, pressure, light, and sound transducers. Think about this, the solar panels on your roof are a transducer, they receive the energy from the sun and convert it to electric signal either pushed back into the electric grid or stored in a battery. So a microphone is a transducer that converts the received acoustic signal to an electric signal so it can be plugged into many different sources for input such as an amplifier, an input on a sound console, or even a Direct Box (commonly known as a DI). 

An acoustic signal such as vocals and the sound of an acoustic guitar are generated at a very very low-level signal and therefore it needs to be amplified to be loudly heard. 

Now, once the acoustic signal gets converted to electric and passed on to electronic gear it needs to be converted back to acoustic through the loudspeaker which is the last transducer in an audio system.

acoustic acoustic guitar antique art
Acoustic Guitar

But why do you need a pick? Why not just place a microphone in front of the guitar and play? Well, there comes an issue with feedback at times, especially if playing gigs without a proper sound system. Audio feedback is the result of a signal coming out of a speaker into a microphone, but due to the acoustic characteristics of any given room, certain frequencies will be louder than others, and those frequencies will end up back in the microphone creating a sound loop, or as we all know it, a feedback frequency and to avoid that, you need an equalizer to notch down those frequencies, and that requires a competent audio engineer to deal with the feedback frequencies. So, to avoid all that annoying feedback, an acoustic guitar pickup might be a good idea.

That’s being said, in a recording studio session, recording engineers don’t favor the use of a guitar pickup on an acoustic guitar, they prefer multiple excellent quality microphones to capture the pure sound of a well-tuned acoustic guitar since it is a completely controlled environment. A recording studio settings are much different from a nightclub or even a small solo gig in a coffee shop. 

Magnetic soundhole pickups capture the resonance of the strings via magnetic poles, They are affordable, feedback resistant and some are passive pickups so you don’t have to worry about batteries. They might sound a bit thin or a bit much on the high frequencies since they are very close to the strumming strings but classically, they do sound good going to a guitar amp or just feeding the cable to a DI (Direct Box) to a sounjd system. They do have a wire with a 1/4′ connector, and if it bothers you while playing you can drill a hole in the body, add a female 1/4′ plug to make it look professional but we definitely reccomend you have it installed professionally. One brand comes to mind is the LR Baggs such as their M1 and M80 but you should try a few before making your decision.

Transducer pickup is a great idea for an acoustic guitar. As we all know, a transducer by definition is a medium that converts one type of energy to another and in our case, it converts the acoustic signal to electric. A bridge plate transducer with multiple heads to give you a nice rich natural sound. It is a much better sound than the soundhole pickups since it is installed inside the guitar body and away from the strings and some will have a mic pre to adjust the tone and the EQ to your liking.

Piezo Pickup also called Under-Saddle pickup is essentially replicating the vibrations of a specific section of your instrument. Some do come with a microphone to blend the perfect vibrations of your guitar to produce a ward and rich sound. Piezo pickups follow the physics theory of Piezoelectric which states that applying mechanical pressure or stress to a material such as a Crystal will result in electric voltage or electric signal. Piezo pickups are sometimes blended with a microphone to produce such wonder tone for and acoustic instrument.

research on which one is better for your needs, make it easy and make it plug and play. Have Fun!!

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