A Guide To Mic-Based Acoustic Guitar Pickups

There are countless ways to project the sound of an acoustic guitar. Piezo and contact style pickups recreate resonance through the wood’s vibration, while magnetic pickups capture movement from the strings. Microphone-based systems do all of this and more.

Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend Guitar Pickup/Preamp

A microphone pickup is essentially a small diaphragm capsule mounted on a guitar or other stringed instrument.

Depending on where the mic element is placed, these systems can capture all the “air” and natural character of an instrument in a way that contact-based pickups never could – just ask Tommy Emmanuel, Chris Eldridge, Phil Keaggy, or Sturgill Simpson, all of whom prefer mic-based systems for their live acoustic rigs.

But before jumping headfirst into the world of microphone pickups, here are some things to consider.

Installation & Permanence

If you believe yourself handy enough to work on your own guitars and prefer “self-install” systems, the bulk of internally mounted mic-based pickups will certainly test your skills and patience.

These systems are almost always installed permanently and require a more-than-average understanding of soldering and basic woodworking. So before you bust out the power tools, consider whether you truly trust yourself to be tampering with that fancy new acoustic.

Preamps & EQ

Among all styles of acoustic guitar pickups, microphone systems are by far the most finicky. They almost always require a preamp with variable EQ settings to achieve their full potential.

Aside from the generally steep cost of the pickups themselves, players should also factor in the need for a high quality preamp when determining cost and usability.

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While many systems are mounted internally, some microphones are mounted externally to the body of the instrument. While these external systems can be slightly more obtrusive, they are far easier to adjust on the fly and make for quicker maneuverability when experimenting with different mic positions.

Internal Mount

Internally-mounted mics tend to be the most popular option these days – and for good reason. Despite a more involved installation process, systems such as the Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend and the LR Baggs Anthem offer a number of built-in features that make them great options for players who are on the fence about putting a microphone in their guitar.

The option of blending in the microphone’s signal with that of an undersaddle element allows the user a more flexible approach when playing in different venues and situations. These systems cleverly blend the two pickup elements internally, sending the summed signal to the output jack where it can be carried via a standard mono guitar cable to a stage DI, preamp, or mixing board.

Blend systems certainly widen the range of usability for microphone-based pickups, offering the player the ability to blend in just the right amount of mic for the situation. However, they’re not particularly favored by the acoustic purists due to their bulkiness.

Nearly all of the internal systems require internally mounted 9-volt batteries, which will inevitably need to be replaced. And for those systems featuring a gooseneck, finding the sweet spot for the mic capsule can be a bit of a burden.

But what these options lack in terms of accessibility and bulkiness, they more than make up for with regards to flexibility. They’re definitely appealing to players who find themselves in many different venues from one night to the next but still require a natural acoustic tone.

External Mount

While internally-mounted microphone pickups have grown in popularity, it’s best not to overlook the externally-mounted options and their own set of upsides.

Where internal mics generally require a bulky 9-volt battery and a fair amount of real estate within your guitar, the external options are generally lightweight and powered separately. The DPA 4099 mic is as light as a feather and operates via phantom power from a mixer or external preamp. Featuring an extremely well-made capsule and flexible gooseneck, the 4099 can be used on nearly any stringed instrument as well as on brass and woodwinds.

K&K Meridian External Condenser Microphone

For players seeking the accuracy and flexibility of the 4099, the (slightly) more modestly priced K&K Meridian offers a well-made capsule and mounts similarly to the body of your acoustic. The fully adjustable mount and gooseneck can be taken on and off and adjusted easily on the fly. And like the DPA 4099, it also operates via phantom power.

Where externally mounted microphones excel in terms of installation and accessibility, being fully exposed to the elements of your playing environment makes them more prone to feedback. This makes them best suited for solo performers or for use in small ensembles.

Additionally, nearly all of these systems require a separate preamp as a power source and hub for EQ filters and tone shaping. However, for players who enjoy the sonic benefits of high quality microphones but prefer a pickup that can be removed when not in use, the external systems might be just the ticket.

The Future of Microphone Pickups

The world of acoustic guitar pickups is ever-expanding with new technologies and designs popping up seemingly every week. The Lyric is the most recent microphone-based offering from LR Baggs and utilizes a slender capsule that attaches to the bridge plate of your instrument – a far different approach than the traditional gooseneck style designs.

Additionally, the Lyric is substantially smaller in size than most other systems and makes use of a specialized EQ curve that reduces the awkward mid-range boxiness often associated with internal microphones.

These not-so-subtle design shifts constitute a powerful pickup that exhibits all of the best qualities of mic-based systems without the headaches generally associated with them.

Choose What Works for You

It’s true that microphone-based pickup systems are not for everyone. If you play in a group that features a loud rhythm section, for example, or you play primarily in small rooms with less than adequate acoustics, the simpler piezo, magnetic, or even contact style pickups will likely yield better results.

But if you perform solo or in smaller groups and simply cannot afford to compromise the natural character of your instrument, there is no doubt that these systems can help enhance and define your live sound in an impactful way. Give it a go, and you might never go back.

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