Luthier Tips du Jour Mailbag - Acoustic Guitar Pickups

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In this episode, Robbie O’Brien visits with renowned Brazilian composer and guitarist, Paulo Bellinati. They discuss how to amplify an acoustic guitar to stay true to its’ original sound.

Video Transcription

[on-screen text reads: Luthier Tips du Jour Mailbag]

Mailbag question: Most amplification systems do not reproduce the true acoustic sound of my guitar. What do you recommend?

Robert O'Brien: Today's Tips du Jour mailbag question comes from Germany. "Dear Robert, as a professional musician, I find myself in situations where I need to amplify my instrument. The problem is that most amplification systems do not reproduce the true acoustic sound of my guitar. What do you recommend? Manfred in Germany."

Manfred, this is a difficult topic and many musicians just like yourself, find themselves in these situations where they need to amplify the guitar, but they're not happy with the amplified sound. Recently I was in Brazil and I stopped in to talk with renowned Brazilian guitarist and composer Paulo Bellinati [on-screen text reads]. One of the subjects we talked about was exactly this, how to amplify the guitar or the instrument to get the truest acoustic sound while being amplified. I had my video camera with me during this conversation, so I'll let you listen in on what we talked about.

Paulo Bellinati interview

Hi, Robert O'Brien from O'Brien Guitars. I'm in São Paulo, Brazil with Paulo Bellinati, and I decided to visit him. We were talking about a problem that guitarists in general have and that is how to amplify your instrument so that it has the truest sound as possible or that it can have while on stage. And Paulo was telling me about a new pickup that he's using. What was the name of the pickup?

The new Carlos Juan pickup

Paulo Bellinati: The pickup, the name is Carlos Juan.

Robert: Carlos Juan.

Paulo: It's a Spanish name, but he's from Stuttgart in Germany. The pickup is made in Stuttgart.

Robert: And what's so special about this pickup?

Paulo: Well, I think Carlos Juan is an electronic genius. The pickup is a coaxial transducer that goes underneath the saddle like the Highlander or even some Fishmans that use the coax system. What Carlos did is a preamp. He built a preamp on the jack. On the jack.

Robert: So it's an on board-

Paulo: It is on board.

Robert: But not like in the size. Actually in the jack itself.

Paulo: In the jack itself. It goes together with the jack. The hole of the jack holds the entire thing. And the system is very sophisticated and controls the extremely high power of the coax. The coax, they start to vibrate, and inside the saddle is [inaudible 00:02:29]. And this communicates with the vibration of the soundboard. And the sophistication is that... I'm a musician for more than 45 years, and I use all kinds of pickups invented in the world. Since the Barcus-Berry in the old days, I passed Ovation, I passed all the systems, Fishman and Takamine and all those guys. And then RMC that are made in California, I used for 20 years almost. And I'm using Carlos Juan now because I think the sound is more real. The acoustic pair is very problematic. When you listen, you have your sound in your room, which is nice. And when you plug in the sound most of the time it's horrible.

Robert: It's different.

Paulo: It's very plastic. And this is very awful for all musicians. And what this pickup does is has a huge dynamic range to pick up the colors of the metallic and soft. It brings out all those. Of course, it brings also all the noises.

Robert: Exactly.

Paulo: If you're noisy play kind of guitarist, you're going to put this out very, very well.

Robert: One of the problems I have as a guitarist is when I'm playing it picks up a lot of the fingernail noise, especially on nylon strings. Is this better than the pickups I've been used to?

Paulo: Well, this pickup has two internal controls that you can adjust. There is a middle part, mini part that controls the medium curve. And then you can go clockwise and make the guitar very dark. Then you're going to have a color that's extremely dark, almost no treble at all. And when you go counter-clockwise, then you start to add medium trebles and go treble. The guitar gets very, very thin, but you have all this curve to control.

Robert: And these are on-board controls? Through the soundhole?

Paulo: No, no, is inside the jack.

Robert: Okay.

Paulo: You adjust and then it is not possible to access on the stage, but when you install the guitar, you can ask the client if he wants more dark or more treble.

How difficult is it to install the Carlos Juan pickup?

Robert: So that brings up my next question. How difficult is this to install? Is this something that can be done after the fact or while the guitar is being built?

Paulo: Well, it is extremely easy to install, but it's extremely complicated to install right. I mean, the sensitivity of this pickup is also its principle enemy. I mean, if your [inaudible 00:05:32] has imperfections inside, any kind of imperfections, you're going to be in deep trouble. The pickup, the coax itself, it's totally even. But it kept the evenness of the bone, the saddle, and of the saddle slot. So this is the main problem of the installation.

Robert: Is this something you would recommend to have a professional install or can anybody install it?

Paulo: Any luthier can install, but he must learn how the pickup works.

Robert: So there's a learning curve.

Paulo: There's a learning curve to understand how this system works.

Robert: And you install your own. So how did you learn?

Paulo: I learned because Carlos Juan convinced me to do it.

Robert: And you studied with him to learn how to install?

Paulo: Yeah, I went to Germany two or three times and make all the adjustments. We spoke in the Skype many times and frequently ask a question, electronic question also, because I change the coax, I remove, uninstall, the volume part. I do electronics.

Sound demo of Paulo's guitar

Okay. This is my guitar. It is made by an Antonio Tessarin 2008. It has a high-end Carlos Juan pickup on it. So the guitar is a pretty nice classical guitar [Paulo strums the guitar]. The amplified sound... [Paulo strums the guitar again, the sound is natural and clear]  I think the responses... One thing I like to do is always compare the sound, the natural sound of the guitar. It sustained everything natural and then compare with amplifier one, which should be very, very close. This is what I'm looking for, this is a good system. When you have this, the amplifier results is very close to the acoustic sound. This is what we are looking for. Of course there's a pickup, but it's a very reliable system.

Robert: All right. So Paulo, thank you very much for your knowledge and your expertise on this subject, and hopefully this will help people understand how to amplify their guitars while they're on stage.

Paulo: My pleasure.

Robert: Life's good, right? Thank you.

Paulo: Thank you, Robert.

[on-screen text reads: More Luthier Tips and online courses available at]



Robbie O'Brien

Luthier and Instructor, Lutherie Academy