Trade Secrets!

How to choose the right pickup for your acoustic guitar

Issue 73 October 30, 2008

Photo: acoustic guitar and amp Picking a pickup

How to choose a pickup for your acoustic guitar
Too many pickups!
Too many prices!
Let’s sort them out...

Erick Coleman, October 30, 2008
Photo: Erick Coleman
Sorting out acoustic pickup styles:

Soundboard transducers
These are easy to install — they fasten inside on the guitar top or bridge plate. Picking up the vibration of the top, they generally have a warm sound.

Tip: Pickup guru Kent Armstrong likes to use double-stick foam tape to install pickups like these. He feels that the cushioned gap between the pickup and the soundboard make for a warmer sound.

Photo: Schatten Soundboard Transducer

Schatten Soundboard Transducer
Photo: Schatten transducer Schatten Soundboard Transducer
The Schatten soundboard transducer is tiny, inexpensive and very simple to install: just stick it to the inside of the soundboard. (Les Schatten says the sweet spot is an inch behind the bridge, a bit toward the bass side.) This pickup will fit pretty much any instrument. Pair it with a good preamp and you can dial in just the sound you’re after.

Photo: L.R. Baggs iBeam

L.R. Baggs iBeam Transducer
Photo: L.R. Baggs iBeam
L.R.Baggs iBeam
A very popular bridge plate pickup is the L.R. Baggs iBeam. This pickup captures the natural sound of a guitar by being placed directly under the bridge on the bridge plate. The sound it transmits is warmer and less bright than an undersaddle transducer. This is another easy-to-install pickup.
Photo: L.R. Baggs Para-Acoustic DI L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI
High-fidelity preamp/equalizer with all the tone control your guitar could hope for: midrange, low, treble, presence and volume controls, and a notch control and signal polarity switch for feedback suppression.
Check it out:

Undersaddle transducers
Next up we have undersaddle transducers. They seem to be more sensitive with more attack and presence than the soundboard pickups. Professional installation is the best idea for undersaddle pickups.

Tip: Be sure the bottom of your saddle and the bottom of the saddle slot are perfectly smooth. Gaps mean uneven response (dead strings).

Photo: Fishman Thinline
For a clean, flat saddle slot to install in:

Saddle Routing Jig

Fishman Thinline

L.R. Baggs Element
Photo: Fishman Thinline
Fishman Thinline
The Fishman Thinline is a good example of the undersaddle style. Sandwiched between the hardwood bridge and the saddle, it delivers a bright and cleanly articulated sound.

Photo: L.R. Baggs Element
Photo: L.R. Baggs Element
L.R. Baggs Element
The L.R. Baggs Element undersaddle system features a preamp built directly into the endpin jack. A tiny thumbwheel volume control adheres just inside the soundhole, and the battery is held in a nylon bag fastened at the neck block. So this system is self-contained and your guitar is ready to plug into an amp anytime.
Hybrid systems
Both Fishman and Baggs offer combinations of different pickup types to round out a full sound. The Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend allows you to blend the signals from their advanced Matrix pickup with a sensitive microphone for an excellent balance in tone. The L.R. bags iMix System combines their Element and iBeam pickups with a specialized preamp.

The Fishman Ellipse Aura is really unique: an onboard preamp system that mixes the undersaddle Matrix pickups with sound “images” that reproduce the sound of your guitar as if it were being played through a top quality studio mic. This downloaded image is the response curve of a similar guitar through a recording mic. You download the images to match your guitar, and the pickup’s output will be adjusted as you play — recreating the sound of the mic’d guitar. This gives you great sound at performance-level volume without the feedback common in other acoustic pickups.

Fishman Ellipse Matrix

L.R. Baggs iMix

Duncan Acoustic Tube Pickup

GHS Soundhole Microphone
Photo: Duncan Acoustic Tube Pickup
Magnetic soundhole pickups
No preamp needed. These can capture a clear, natural acoustic sound without the use of preamps, batteries or modifications to the instrument. The jack simply hangs over the edge of the guitar and is protected by a soft sleeve to prevent any damage to the finish. Seymour Duncan’s acoustic tube pickup is a good example.
Photo: GHS Soundhole Microphone
This flexible soundhole microphone, pioneered by luthier Ken Donnell, attaches to a small preamp built into the endpin jack. The self contained unit installs into the endpin hole.

Many people feel that the best acoustic sound comes from a mic. This flexible rig lets you position the mic exactly where you want it, and you’re free to move around, without having to hover around a mic stand.

Tip: Take the time to experiment with mike placement in your guitar, and do a sound check to set the EQ for the room you’re playing. These in-instrument mics sound great, but they can be prone to feedback if you're not careful about placement.
Acoustic pickups produce a small signal that needs to be beefed up before going to a standard guitar amp. This means using a preamp. (This doesn’t apply to amps made specifically for acoustics, like the Fishman Loudbox; those amps have the necessary preamp built in.) Without the preamp, you’ll get lousy sound: very thin, with little character and volume.

The Baggs Para-Acoustic DI described above has all the bells and whistles. For a simpler solution, there is a Baggs Gigpro version. And the Fishman Infinity Matrix puts the preamp right inside your guitar body, with an endpin jack.

I hope this walk through pickup choices helps you figure out which unit will work best for you!

L.R. Baggs Gigpro
Erick Coleman signature

Don't miss an issue!

Get Trade Secrets delivered to your inbox. Only from StewMac.