Choosing the correct pickup for your acoustic guitar is challenging. Luckily, the technology has moved forward to such a degree that there are many good choices for the guitarist or luthier, where, in the not-so-distant past, good choices were often hard to come by!
In this article, we’ll go over the basic classes of pickups. In each case keep in mind that the individual products have installation requirements, pre-amp and control options and other variables that may sway your decision one way or the other. But the pickup type is the basic tonal component in any acoustic amplification set-up, so we are focusing on that.
These under-the-saddle elements revolutionized acoustic amplification. They sit discreetly beneath the saddle, are relatively immune to feedback (compared to microphones especially) and are inexpensive. They offer great clarity and even string-to-string representation in the audio signal. Some players complain about the tight attack that is emphasized (the result of the saddle being used for the sound source). Others say it helps deliver a defined, non-mushy sound. They draw the signal from pressure rather than vibration so they are not suitable for nylon string guitars.
These pickups add more ‘naturalness’ to the sound, relative to the piezo element, with a slightly smoother attack. Working from vibration, rather than pressure, the sound is said to have a more ‘lifelike’ quality. Still an improvement over microphones in terms of feedback suppression, it takes the backseat to the piezo in this regard.
Placing a microphone inside the instrument lends the un-paralleled naturalness of the microphone signal, but suffers from the unnatural placement of the mic (inside the box!). For this reason, it’s nice to electronically blend the mic signal with an under-the-saddle signal. Very versatile tonally, but more susceptible to feedback under louder stage environments. The trade-off to this versatility is the inclusion of more controls attached to the instrument.
Soundboard transducers move the element away from the saddle, directly onto the vibrating wood surface which creates a woodier, more open sounding signal. A bit more susceptible to feedback than a piezo, these pickups are less invasive to the instrument (no holes need to be drilled, for example). This type of pickup has become quite popular in recent years.
The obvious advantage of this kind of pickup is that it can be taken on and off the instrument (they clip into the soundhole), leaving the guitar in 100% original condition. It has the tonal advantage of moving the element away from the saddle, but the disadvantage of placing it near to the neck where bassy overtones are present. The tonal result is a tiny bit reminiscent of a jazz archtop. Still, it’s fair to say that the Fishman pickup magnets are well suited to delivering a natural acoustic tone, and so are very popular. These can only be used on steel string guitars.