The great thing about acoustic guitars is that they don’t need a volume knob or an amplifier to be heard – the guitar’s own resonant body naturally amplifies the sound.
But what if you need to turn the volume up? Whether you want to perform gigs, jam with other musicians, or just play louder, the time may come when you decide you want to amplify this instrument. The first step is choosing the right acoustic guitar pickup.
What Is an Acoustic Guitar Pickup?
A pickup is an electronic device that literally ‘picks up’ the mechanical vibrations of sound and transduces them into an electric signal. This signal can then be amplified through a speaker to become much louder than its original source.
‘A pickup … literally ‘picks up’ the mechanical vibrations of sound’.
Unlike electric guitars, acoustic guitars achieve their sound primarily through a resonant body – that big empty space in the middle of all that wood. But it turns out that replicating this inherently acoustic sound via electronic means can actually be kind of tricky …
Over the last half-century, acoustic guitar pickup companies have developed four main types of pickups to try and capture this elusive sound. Depending on your budget, playing style, or performance context, any one of these four types could be right for you:
The sub-saddle pickup is a thin wire that lies beneath the saddle and picks up mechanical vibrations from the strings. It is probably the most common type of internal acoustic guitar pickup.
Basic Sound: a bright sound with a sharp attack.
Best Use: high volume settings, particularly when performing with a live band.
This pickup consists of one or more sensors that are attached either to the top of the guitar or under the bridge plate. Surface pickups produce a very natural, authentic sound because they pick up both the mechanical vibrations of the strings as well as the sound from the resonant body.
Basic Sound: warm, rich, and natural sounding.
Best Use: soft/medium volume settings, particularly as a solo instrument.
Sometimes referred to as a ‘sound hole pickup’, this is a narrow bar that fits directly in the sound hole itself. It uses the same technology as an electric guitar pickup and, consequently, has a similar ‘electrified’ sound.
Basic Sound: less natural ‘electrified’ sound with a soft attack.
Best Use: high volume settings, particularly when performing with a live band full of electric instruments.
The last acoustic guitar pickup option is to use a microphone. Since the sound we’re trying to pick up is acoustic, just like the human voice, then why not use the same means to capture it? There are two kinds of mics worth considering: internal (fits inside the guitar) and external (a regular microphone).
Basic Sound: the most natural, authentically acoustic sound.
Best Use: in soft/medium volume settings, particularly as a solo instrument; this type is often used in tandem with other types of pickups (more on this below).
Expert-Level: Combining Types
One final option is to combine various types of pickups. This tends to be more of an expert-level option, for obvious reasons. However, by combining the strengths of different pickup types to cancel out the weaknesses of others, this can be the best way to maximize the quality of your amplified acoustic guitar sound. (And also the most expensive, naturally).
By Cody Robinson
Cody is a professional singer, songwriter, performer, and recording artist. His instruments include bass, trumpet, drums, harmonica, piano, and most especially guitar. In his spare time he travels, brands businesses, and makes lists of his many accomplishments.
Cody is a student at the University of Utah under his own self-created degree, Music Business and Technology, and recently returned from four months living in Kathmandu, Nepal, providing humanitarian aid to the victims of the recent earthquake.
Watch the music video for ‘Batti Ayo’, Cody’s tribute to the Nepal quake victims, at codyrobinsonmusic.com