Acoustic guitars are intimate and transportable. You can use an acoustic to write songs and practice in the solitude of your home, or cart it to beaches, parks, hiking trails, and other locales to play in the great outdoors. Wherever you choose to sit down with your guitar, you know how beautiful and inspiring it sounds, because you’re a team. You hug your guitar against your chest to feel its resonance, and you can hear the shimmer of every string as you pick it, pluck it, or strum it.
And that’s pretty much the problem when you exit your own little world of acoustic majesty to go out and play with other musicians in a band or a jam session. That acoustic sound you know so well and love so much, may not be the same sound you hear when electronics are added to the mix.
The accurate translation of a natural and organic acoustic guitar tone through the pickups and amplifiers required to get your performance heard amidst a loud band—or projected out into the far reaches of a large venue—is not something that “just happens.” A little bit of study time is required to ensure the pickup and amp you choose is the right match for your guitar, your style of music, and the way you play. Let’s look at some elements you should consider.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting a good mic in front of your guitar and letting it rip onstage. Well, as long as you don’t move away from the microphone position, that is, because then the guitar sound won’t be reproduced very well if you disappear. You probably shouldn’t swing the guitar around, either, as the guitar’s tone, presence, and articulation may suffer as the instrument drifts away from the mic’s sweet spot. It may also be problematic to have other musicians performing with you, because the sounds of any other guitars—as well as drums, bass, keyboards, and vocals—can bleed through your mic and make a mess of the guitar’s audio signal.
So, if your performance style is sitting down on a chair or stool, and the band you play with isn’t incredibly loud, miking your acoustic guitar could be a good move. However, if you dash around stages like an excited Labrador, or bop around to the music like a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance, you’re an excellent candidate for using a pickup-equipped acoustic.
Pick Your Pickup
Acoustic-guitar pickups are available in a few different configurations, and with varying levels of complexity. There are models for players who don’t want to be bothered—who simply want to plug in their acoustic and play without any fuss—as well as models that provide tone enthusiasts with the ability to dial in all kinds of sonic possibilities. It helps to objectively determine which camp you’re in, as a big helping of musical self-awareness will guide you in the search for a pickup that precisely meets your needs.
The other thing to remember is that choosing the right pickup is the beginning step to amplifying your acoustic guitar. As the pickup has to be plugged into an acoustic amplifier, powered speaker, or P.A. system to get your performance out to an audience, the amplification system becomes a critical component of your signal chain. If it’s possible, it makes good sense to test an acoustic pickup by plugging it into an amp at your local music store to hear if the pickup/amp matchup produces the sound you want. It’s not a scary or overly complicated process at all. In fact, testing amps and pickups can be a lot of fun. The goal is simply to find the combo that sounds inspiring to you and you alone. You’re the boss. If you want some help with the acoustic amp part of the equation, please read our article on “How to Choose an Acoustic Guitar Amplifier” here.
The Progress of Acoustic Pickups
Way back in the 1930s, when it became apparent that acoustic-archtop guitars needed some help to be heard over the din of a big band with horns and drums, removable pickups that could be fitted to the guitar without further modification began to appear. These were often magnetic pickups—much like those used on electric guitars. By the 1960s, audiences started seeing “electric” pickups mounted on acoustic guitars, particularly fans who watched the Beatles perform on television.
In the 1970s, acoustic pickups went into “stealth mode,” as piezo pickups were mounted under the saddle or bridge (where your strings come to a rest at the bottom of your acoustic). Piezo pickup systems became quite popular. They were unseen, of course, and their operation required simply plugging one side of a guitar cord into a jack on the guitar, and the other into an amplifier—just like a rocker plugging in his or her solidbody electric guitar. Piezos—sometimes called “undersaddle pickups”—were also somewhat feedback resistant, which allowed more and more dedicated electric-rock players to include acoustic guitars as part of their band’s stage presentation.
Evolutions in technology have provided the various pickup systems with dedicated preamps that are mounted on the guitar’s top side or hidden inside the soundhole. Depending on the model, these preamps offer EQ and volume adjustments, feedback control, and even a chromatic guitar tuner.
Today, when you see guitars that are designated as “acoustic-electrics,” there is likely a piezo pickup (or other pickup technology) already mounted into the guitar along with a preamp. That’s a “good to go” situation. But if you love the acoustic guitar you already own, easily mountable (and removable) soundhole pickups are excellent choices for singer/songwriters, small-venue performers, and anyone who wants the ability to plug in when it counts, but leave the electronics behind when playing alone or in quiet settings. Those who perform a lot in bands and other ensembles, and who prefer a more integrated, somewhat invisible pickup system, can consider internally mounted models that often require a decent guitar tech to install for you.
The Fishman Approach
As performers sought classy, near-effortless, and sonically uncompromised ways to bring acoustic guitars onto a rock and roll stage, Fishman’s founder, Larry Fishman, began producing his take on the modern acoustic-guitar pickup in the early 1980s. When the acoustic-guitar scene erupted in 1989—thanks, in part, to MTV Unplugged—it generated a massive amount of feedback (the good kind!) from players and even more innovations from pickup makers. Here is where all of those years of acoustic glory have brought us right now…
DIY Soundhole Options
You want easy, you got easy. These do-it-yourself soundhole pickups can be swiftly installed and removed by the player. Perhaps you’re busking outdoors purely acoustically, and a musician invites you to an impromptu jam night. All it will take for you to join the fun is slipping the pickup under the strings—and, well, someone at the jam will need to let you use an amp. A soundhole pickup can also provide more tonal options when you’re recording in your home studio or at a commercial facility. Your acoustic guitar can be miked to capture all of its organic beauty, and then you can install the soundhole pickup to blend in some magnetic-pickup tones for “wide-screen” cinematic textures. More options can inspire more imagination.
Fishman Rare Earth Magnetic Soundhole Pickup
This super-easy to install model comes in humbucking (think “warm”) and single-coil (think “shimmer”) varieties and includes a volume control. The Rare Earth runs on active electronics that require batteries, but the included mini batteries are cleverly mounted under the pickup. In other words—don’t worry about it. You can get up to 240 hours of use before you have to change out the batteries. The pre-wired output cable will dangle out of the soundhole, but if that bothers you, a guitar tech can mount the jack to the endpin of your guitar for an installation fee. More info on the Rare Earth Soundhole Pickups.
Fishman Rare Earth Mic Blend Active Soundhole Pickup
Who knew you could install a hybrid microphone-pickup system all by yourself and without having to modify your guitar? But mounting the Rare Earth Mic Blend is just as easy as securing the Magnetic Soundhole Pickup. The system includes a humbucking pickup and a cardioid microphone (that picks up sound mainly from its front—your strings—and rejects most sound from its sides) on a flexible mini gooseneck. You get a mic/pickup blend control to mix the two different sounds to your taste, and a bass extension/roll-off switch for the mic alone to refine and manage low-end frequencies (too much bass can make the guitar sound muddy and too little bass can produce a thin, sharp tone). This system requires active electronics, and because you need power for the microphone, battery life is 100 hours. The included mini batteries are still mounted under the pickup and the cable can hang out, or you can permanently install the jack—again, with the assistance of a guitar tech at an extra cost. Check out the Rare Earth Mic Blend.
Fishman Neo-D Magnetic Soundhole Pickup
This DIY soundhole pickup comes in two varieties—a humbucker model for robust warmth, and a single-coil for articulation and sparkle. Your call on the tone. No batteries are required, and installation is simple with no alteration to your guitar needed. Just pop it onto your soundhole, plug it into an amp, and play. Learn more about the battery-free, plug & play Neo-D series.
Fishman Blackstack Passive Soundhole Pickup
The Blackstack delivers a vintage-styled sound with an aggressive and articulate tonal stance that can cut through a dense band. No batteries are required, and the system comes with a five-foot cable. Even hipper, a mini-XL connector is integrated into the pickup housing, which allows you to use the included cable, or plug into an endpin jack installed on your guitar by a qualified technician (at an extra cost). Another benefit of the mini-XLR jack is if your cable suffers an epic fail, you can easily replace the errant cable without having a tech do any wiring or other alterations. Learn more about Blackstack.
Fishman Neo-Buster Soundhole Pickup and Feedback Buster
If you perform with an exceedingly loud band, and most other acoustic-pickup systems feedback like howling banshees because they can’t handle the extreme volume levels, the Neo-Buster includes a flexible elastomer cover that fits over the soundhole—basically acting as a guardian to diminish the noise gremlins. The integrated magnetic pickup/feedback buster fits most guitars with a 3-7/8″ or 4″ diameter soundhole, and the humbucking Neo-Buster pickup requires no batteries. Click here to learn more about the Neo-Buster.
A Little Help Needed
Fishman offers some expanded-feature acoustic pickups that, as a result, prompt a “professional installation recommended” caution. If you or someone you know is good with tools and woodworking, you can probably make the following pickups “DIY projects.” Just keep in mind that a pro installation by a qualified guitar tech isn’t a big deal, doesn’t usually take a lot of time, and is typically pretty affordable. Your local guitar shop or musician friends can often help with recommendations of where to get the job done.
Fishman PowerTap Earth Pickup
The PowerTap Earth is a dual-source system with a Rare Earth humbucking soundhole pickup and an internal tap-body sensor that’s perfect for modern players who use their acoustic-guitar body for added percussion and increased dynamic response during performances. There’s a blend control conveniently mounted on the soundhole pickup for mixing the levels of the guitar and percussive sounds, and the system is designed to be near-impervious to feedback. (A very good thing when you’re slapping the guitar as if it were congas, bongos, or a cajon.) This is an active system and mini batteries are included. Another hip option is that you can choose to run the system in mono or stereo, and it automatically delivers the right output depending on whether you plug in a stereo or mono cable. More info on PowerTap Earth.
Fishman PowerTap Infinity Pickup
A different take than the humbucker and single-coil soundhole systems, the PowerTap Infinity includes an undersaddle pickup—the Fishman Acoustic Matrix—and the Fishman Tap body sensor pickup. There’s some more sonic options available, as well. You can blend the sensor and undersaddle pickups, of course, and you also get volume and tone controls, a scoop control (which cuts midrange frequencies while simultaneously boosting treble and bass frequencies), a voicing switch (for accommodating different guitar bodies), and mono or stereo operation. Get all the details on Fishman’s PowerTap Infinity.
Fishman Matrix Infinity VT
This system features an expanded range that enhances not just acoustic steel-string guitars, but also nylon-string models, 12-strings, and even basses. The Fishman Acoustic Matrix undersaddle pickup is the star here, along with steel- and nylon-string control modules. Other controls include volume, tone, scoop, and voicing. The Matrix Infinity VT resists feedback, so it’s a great choice if your band sound is closer to Metallica than Joni Mitchell. Read all about the Matrix Infinity VT Pickup & Preamp System.
Fishman Matrix Infinity Mic Blend
A multi-position mounted cardioid condenser mic is added to the mix for blending organic textures with the Fishman Acoustic Matrix undersaddle pickup. Like the Infinity VT, the Infinity Mic Blend accommodates steel-string, nylon-string, and 12-string guitars, as well as basses. Control include volume, tone, blend (for the mic and pickup signals), scoop, and voicing. Output can be stereo or mono, and is automatically determined by the cable you plug in. Click here for more info.
Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend
This extremely ergonomic design puts the essential audio controls right at your fingertips. A low-noise, soundhole-mounted preamp offers volume and mic/pickup blend sliders, a phase switch (for fighting feedback), and a mic-trim control. The system includes the Acoustic Matrix undersaddle pickup and a cardioid-condenser mini microphone placed atop a gooseneck that allows easy mic positioning. Although the Ellipse Matrix Blend features a savvy neodymium-magnetic mounting system and solder-free connections, it’s still recommended that a qualified tech does the installation. Learn all about the Ellipse Matrix Blend.
Fishman Ellipse Aura
The Fishman Aura Acoustic Imaging Technology that’s a big part of this pickup system is a combination of benevolent sorcery and extraordinary tone. Basically, tons of audio “Images” of many different guitars are recorded in professional studios using truly magnificent microphones. The Ellipse Aura lets you download up to four of these Aura Images into the preamp system, essentially making your guitar sound about as amazing as it would on a multi-platinum selling, Grammy-winning album track. Well, that may be a bit over the top, but you get the idea—your guitar will sound awesome. You can blend the selected Aura IThomage with the onboard Fishman Acoustic Matrix pickup for some stunning tonal textures. You also get automatic feedback control, a phase switch, low-and frequency tone shaping. All the details on the Ellipse Aura can be found here.
Adding a pickup to your favorite acoustic guitar opens up a new world of possibilities and sonic adventures. Now, you can plug into stompboxes and digital guitar processors and explore effects such as delay, reverb, chorus, tremolo, and even distortion. You can audition different acoustic amps, and if you’re looking for bold new sonic horizons, you could plug into high-octave amplifiers typically used for metal or industrial music. Almost any guitar sound you can envision is within reach once you can plug in. The super-cool part is that you can always go back to playing unplugged. You’ll find that commanding two distinct worlds of tone is about as fun as it can get without having superpowers!