Using Reverb on an Acoustic Guitar

Acoustic guitars are essentially small reverb chambers in and of themselves, and just like a well set up room, they naturally encourage reverberated sound. If set up in the right space, they won't require additional reverb effects.

Still, you need to be careful. The natural tendency of acoustic guitars toward reverb can sometimes lead players to dial in too much of the effect, drowning out the sound of an otherwise great guitar when they plug into an amplifier.

Depending on your pickup configuration, the signal coming from your guitar doesn’t always translate well when passed through an additional reverb pedal. The room itself generates its own reverberation, adding competing layers of sound.

Without careful attention to your instrument and the room in which you’re playing, the result of all this reverberation can be a muddy, washed out sonic mess that can leave you and your audience struggling to pick out your actual playing.

Take cues from your space.

Let's face it – the acoustic guitar is hands-down one of the most popular and most beloved musical instruments to have ever been graced by human hands. Why is that?

The inside of a Taylor acoustic guitar

The inside of a Taylor acoustic guitar

Acoustic guitars take the vibrations from a nylon or steel-core string and translate them to sound waves through a box made of wood or composite materials to create gorgeous, luscious auditory beauty. Most of the time, anyway.

This sound box, as it's commonly called, is essentially a speaker made from a hollow box. This means that it generates sound waves that reverberate not only inside the box itself, but also in whatever outside space it encounters. These reverberations – sound reflections from hard surfaces – are some of the most pleasing auditory experiences we know.

Acoustic instruments often sound great in acoustically active spaces because they generate their own reverb. So in those kinds of spaces – large bathrooms, concert halls, etc. – you may be blessed with never needing to use an additional reverb effect at all. On the other hand, if you’re plugged into a pretty loud sound system in a small space – club, bar, etc. – the volume of output is probably going to exceed the room's potential for generating a natural reverb.

Hopefully, for you working musicians, the space will also fill with bodies, which are great reverb absorption tools. In those situations, adding some electronic reverb can help your guitar's amplified sound translate to the human ear in a more pleasant way.

For acoustic guitarists, the most popular method for auxiliary reverb is through a stompbox-style effect pedal. There are so many brands and models to choose from, so finding the one that meets your needs is often a matter of trial and error. But if you're shooting for a natural guitar reverb, stick to the pedals that offer "hall" and "room" settings.


To Reverberate or not to reverberate...

As an acoustic musician, you're probably going to perform in a multitude of different settings. Perhaps a quiet unplugged session at a coffee house on a Wednesday afternoon and a big stage with a large PA for a talkative crowd on Friday evening. For our purposes – and because you’ll know if you need a volume boost from an amp or not – let’s pretend we’re plugged in and using our favorite reverb pedal.

The more reverb you add, the more washed out and indirect your tone will be. You should always consider how many people (acting as sound absorbers) you’ll be playing to and how clear you want your tone to be, regardless of what kind of show you’re playing or where you’re setting up.

If you're playing background music at a banquet dinner and you don't really want to be front-and-center, for instance, turning up the reverb level (wet versus dry signal) may give the illusion that your sound is somewhat distant. You'll still want to pay attention to the length of decay you use, however. It's really easy to get lost in the reverb and forget just how nice and clear your guitar actually sounds without long, spacious decays. In four words: don’t bury your tone.

You'll also want to listen to how active or passive a space is. The more active it is, the more sound reflections you'll have, so adding extra reverb to that kind of space may just make it sound worse or overactive. The same goes for a passive or mellower reflective space – too little, and the room reverb may not be noticed at all.

Feel out what's right for your instrument.

As with most art forms, music is subjective. What it all comes down to is just how much you personally value the natural sound of your own guitar versus the impressive soundscape renderings that are possible with a lot of reverb effects processors.

If you’re playing on an expensive, high quality, handbuilt acoustic, it might behoove you to dial back the reverb and let your instrument’s naturally beautiful tone shine. With these instruments, the addition of electronic reverb clouds up an otherwise spectacular tone doing a great disservice to your instrument and your performance. You might want to opt for a nice microphone to pick up your guitar’s unique nuances.

Adding a bit of extra electronic reverb might make your $300 guitar sing in a way that you didn’t think it could."

If special luthier-made guitars are out of your price range, don’t fret. Today, affordable instruments are not synonymous with terrible tone, and you can often find an instrument that sound quite good at a reasonable price point. With these guitars, adding a bit of extra electronic reverb might make your $300 guitar sing in a way that you didn’t think it could.

While lay listeners may not necessarily be able to pick up the subtle differences between your decent tone and your best tone, you’ll definitely be able to tell yourself. It’s of the utmost importance to develop a good relationship with your acoustic instrument’s tone so that your performance doesn’t suffer. This means a trial and error process when it comes to working out what best suits your performance.

The most important thing to remember is that all guitars aren’t created equally, and different effects and implementations will suit different instruments. It’s your responsibility to learn the most that you can learn about your instrument – plugged and unplugged – so that you can play it to the best of your (and its) capability.


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