Acoustic Pickups Buying Guide

Soundhole vs. Transducer vs. Mic vs. Piezo

So, you've decided to get an acoustic pickup for your guitar, and now it's time to figure out which is right for you. With so many different systems and brands, this guide aims to lay out some of the considerations you should make before choosing an acoustic pickup, as well as provide some excellent options once you're ready to take the plunge.

Check out the video above and follow along below to learn more about acoustic pickup systems and find great choices in each pickup category.

Quick Picks

How Do Acoustic Pickups Work?

There are a few different types of acoustic guitar pickups that go about amplifying your tone in unique ways. Both transducer and piezo pickups work by essentially replicating the vibration of a specific section of your instrument and are commonly placed directly beneath the bridge—typically on the bridge plate or in a thin strip beneath the saddle. A soundhole pickup is placed into your soundhole under your strings and captures their resonance via magnetic pole pieces.

Microphone-based pickup systems, on the other hand, utilize a capsule and come in a variety of mounting styles—with internal or external goosenecks being the most common. Generally speaking, microphones are the most finicky of the three pickup styles, but they can sound incredible. That said, a microphone capsule is simply a more delicate mechanism and can be prone to feedback without a proper understanding of its functions.

However, modern mic-based systems have evolved to offer very user-friendly features and should be on the top of your list if you require the highest in sound quality—more on that to come.

Soundhole and Undersaddle Pickups

For singer-songwriters who play primarily in a chord-based strumming style, there's something to say for a straightforward rig that's easy to use from night to night. Dealing with different sound techs, room acoustics, and feedback, of course, can be frustrating and distracting to your performance, so perhaps what would suit you best is the simplest option: a magnetic soundhole pickup.

Affordable, feedback-resistant, and often passive (no batteries required), these pickups are great options for those looking for the easiest solution, not least of all because they require minimal installation. Just pop them into your soundhole behind your strings, and you're good to go.

Soundhole Pickups

Similarly, the humble undersaddle pickup also works by picking up sound from your stings themselves, just in a slightly different way. Requiring a bit more of an installation process than a soundhole pickup, undersaddle pickups are mounted under the bridge saddle and use six piezo crystals that produce a small voltage when the pickup registers string vibration from under the saddle.

Though they've fallen out of fashion with the advent of more complex systems, there's something to be said for their stalwart reliability. The Fishman AG series is an exemplary model, having been used by countless performers over the years, likely making it onto more than a few of your favorite records.

Undersaddle Pickups

Because both soundhole and undersaddle pickups work by picking up vibrations from your strings while you play, they also share a reputation for sounding brighter and sometimes tinnier than alternative pickup systems.

If that's already the kind of tone that you're going for, you're good to go. If not, though, lots of players have great success tempering these pickups' brighter characteristics by pairing them with a high-quality acoustic DI like the LR Baggs Session DI.

Active Pickups

The difference between active and passive pickups is simple: Active pickups require batteries, and passive pickups do not. But what is the battery in an active system really achieving?

An active bridge plate transducer, such as the LR Baggs iBeam, utilizes a small preamp mounted on the pickup itself. It's specifically designed to strengthen the signal from your guitar and enhance desired frequencies before it reaches your mixer or PA system.

If you are unfazed by the bulk of such systems and the need to change the batteries out from time to time, active pickups typically require less guesswork on the part of the player when it comes to making adjustments and can achieve great results in most live applications.

Active Pickups

Passive Pickups

Generally, passive pickups are as cut-and-dry as possible both functionally and, at times, tonally. That’s not to say that passive systems like the DiMarzio Virtual Acoustic soundhole pickup sound inadequate, but rather that they are not attempting to enhance or drastically color the tone of your instrument.

The main reason that some players prefer a passive system involves the ability to sculpt your tone by using a dedicated preamp. This is another subject entirely, but dependent on your needs, the use of a quality DI box, with a built-in preamp and EQ section, can be invaluable in a room with sketchy acoustics or when playing in a band with multiple instrumentalists. You can achieve more control over your personal mix and will learn immensely by having to make EQ adjustments on the fly.

Passive Pickups

Microphone-Based Pickups

If you are the type of player who simply wants the best build quality and most honest representation of your guitar, you should consider a microphone-based system. A microphone capsule can achieve the most natural recreation of your guitar’s voice, and you can leverage its ability to capture not only your instrument’s fundamental resonance, but also the overtones and “air” that many acoustic purists rely on to achieve their sound.

While there are drawbacks to using microphone systems—namely, their propensity for feedback in live settings—companies such as LR Baggs have created clever workarounds that allow the player to benefit from the sonic superiority of mic capsules, even at above-average stage levels.

Blend systems such as the Anthem offer the player the ability to combine a microphone signal with that of an undersaddle piezo or soundhole pickups in varying amounts, allowing you to use just as much of the mic signal as is needed without feeding back. While such systems are more expensive and typically require professional installation, there is simply no substitute for the flexibility they can provide in live settings.

Blend Pickup Systems

Final Thoughts

Whichever system you decide on, remember to trust your ears. Too much top end string noise? Perhaps a soundhole pickup is not for you. Too much feedback? Consider swapping out your microphone for a bridge-plate transducer or a blend system.

Using the above options as a starting point, always consider in what context you will be using your pickup and how best the gear can serve your personal taste and creative needs.

Editorial content by: McCoy Tyler

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Editorial content by McCoy Tyler

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