Best Acoustic Guitar Pickups Reviewed For 2020 + Buyer’s Guide
Improve your acoustic sound today with our range of the best acoustic guitar pickups.
Installing an acoustic guitar pickup on an acoustic guitar allows you to amplify your playing without getting stuck in front of the microphone. In general, there are three options when it comes to the best acoustic guitar pickups: piezo under the saddle (which you will find embedded in most average electro-acoustic prices), soundboard transducer and soundhole pickup.
Each pickup type offers a different sound, so experiment to see which one best suits your playing style. We’ve saved you some time by trying out a number of models that fit every type of acoustic guitarist.
The best acoustic guitar pickups are what you need to know
The most common type of pickup on an acoustic guitar is piezo, which can usually be found under the bridge saddle, out of sight. They capture the vibration of the strings and top of the guitar in the saddle position.
Unlike a traditional pickup with a magnetic field, they use compressed piezo crystals to detect vibrations. Preamplifiers usually translate them before the guitar output – although if they are passive, there will be no preamplifiers and the output will be lower – often including the equalizer option for the player.
Although piezoelectric is inherently considered to be more “acoustic”, it can often sound much brighter than magnetic pickups (we will soon reach them), especially as they detect vibrations where the strings are most closely attached to the guitar. So they express, but not necessarily the “most ligneous” sound after the preamp amplified and compressed their character. This can lead to a terrible “piezo kwacz” – an overload that leads to a brittle, plastic character.
Hardly any other topic brings so much discussion among guitarists as pickups for acoustic guitars. Our beloved instrument is relatively quiet, so it is often necessary to increase it in situations where the volume should go above the living room level. Regardless of whether it is about being able to keep up with a band or being heard at a solo concert – at some point the question for most guitarists is how the guitar should be amplified. Losing weight is the order of the day!
Basically, it must be said in advance that it has never been easier to create a sophisticated sound with a plugged-in acoustic guitar than today. While there are powerful arguments in favor of vintage equipment for many aspects of the guitar, this can only rarely be said when it comes to amplifying acoustic instruments. Indeed, a lot has happened in this area over the past 20 years, and thanks to consistent further development, the latest offers from leading manufacturers are usually the best solutions today. In this article we will deal with the various Guitar pickups.
Acoustic / Electric guitars
The easiest way, of course, is to get a guitar that has been designed as an acoustic-electric guitar from the start. Instruments of this type come in two categories: On the one hand, guitars that are identical in construction to fully acoustic models, but are equipped with pickups at the factory. For many manufacturers, pickups are now even part of the basic equipment. For example, most Taylor models have to be specially ordered without a pickup if one is not desired.
On the other hand, there are guitars that are designed from the ground up specifically for amplified playing. These instruments usually have a thinner body, are often more stable to generate less natural vibration, which helps to better control the sound at high stage volumes and to avoid feedback. In special, rarer cases, these are instruments that are built like solid body electric guitars, but are equipped with an acoustic guitar pickup.
Acoustic guitars that are equipped with pickups at the factory have the great advantage that they can be tested immediately, so that you know exactly what the amplified sound sounds like right from the start. Most pickup acoustic guitars have built-in preamps with controls for volume, equalizer, and more. Some manufacturers, such as B. Ovation, Takamine and Taylor have developed their own pickup systems. If the sound of one of these pickups is specifically desired, there is no way around a guitar of the respective brand.
However, most manufacturers use electronics from specialized companies, such as B. B-Band, LR Baggs, Fishman and Shadow. In some cases, the systems used are exactly the same as those available for retrofitting, in other cases manufacturers work together to develop a system that is precisely tailored to a specific guitar model. So z. B. The Fishman systems of many Martin guitars are only available in instruments of this brand and are not offered individually.
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What if you want to retrofit an acoustic guitar with a pickup? There is more choice than ever before, so there is now a sophisticated solution for every guitar, every style and every budget. However, one thing is clear from the start: there is no such thing as the “best” pickup. There are simply too many factors that affect the sound of a pickup, from the guitar to the music style to the place where the guitar is to be amplified. So there is a certain risk in choosing the same pickup that someone else uses to get good sound.
- Can the guitar be modified or should it be possible to undo the installation?
- How loud do I want to play? Do I play through a small amp or PA (or both)?
- Do I always play in a similar constellation or does the environment change from gig to gig?
Once these questions are answered, it is advisable to go to a good guitar store to try out different systems, and hopefully find a suitable pickup for the guitar, budget, and playing situation with the help of a knowledgeable seller.
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Unlike electric guitars, where there are many different manufacturers and variations of pickups, but the underlying technology is almost always based on magnetic pickups, there are at least four different types of acoustic pickups: Magnetic pickups (mostly mounted in the sound hole) , pickups mounted under the bridge insert (mostly based on piezo technology), contact pickups and mini microphones mounted on or under the ceiling. Of these options, the pickups under the bridge insert are the most common.
Passive or active?
Acoustic pickups are available in passive and active versions. Active means that the pickup is combined with a preamp that is powered by a battery (in most cases a 9-volt block, sometimes also button cells). The reason for this is that the original output signal of many pickups is quite weak, and therefore has to be prepared by a preamp in order to work with the inputs of amplifiers or mixing consoles. A preamp also offers the manufacturer the option of adjusting the impedance or regulating the sound. For guitars that are built from the factory as acoustic electrics, the preamp is often built into the frame and offers controls for volume and sound, sometimes also a built-in tuner and more.
Retrofit systems preamps are usually designed so that no major modifications to the instrument are required. Often they are either integrated directly into the output socket, or they are mounted elsewhere in the body with double-sided adhesive tape or Velcro. Passive pickups can be divided into two categories: Some pickups offer enough output levels to actually do without further processing. Mostly these are magnetic (sound hole) pickups.
However, there are also variants, such as Schertler’s DYN contact pickup, which are designed with low impedance and thus directly via an XLR cable with a corresponding input, e.g. B. that of a mixer, can be connected. However, many passive pickups are designed in such a way that they do not need a preamplifier, but rely on an external preamp for the best sound.
Magnetic sound hole pickups
Pickups built into the soundhole have been around since the 1950s, and this is the easiest way to reinforce a steel string. Magnetic pickups work just like the pickups on electric guitars by picking up the vibrations of the strings via a magnetic field (of course, that’s why they don’t work with nylon strings!).
The first sound hole pickups were actually normal electric guitar models that were equipped with a clamp for mounting in the guitar. Although the sound results are still appreciated by some blues guitarists (e.g. Roy Rogers and Hans Theessink) who are looking for a somewhat rougher sound (certain old DeArmond pickups are sold at high prices for this reason!), They sounded original pickups are anything but natural. This changed when the legendary Sunrise pickup hit the market in the early 1980s.
Designed from the ground up for acoustic guitars, the Sunrise was tuned to the special balance of phosphor bronze strings, and its stacked humbucker construction provided a fat, warm sound that made it a favorite of guitarists like Leo Kottke to this day , David Lindley, Keith Richards and Richard Thompson applies. There are a variety of modern soundhole pickups available today, and for many guitarists they are the best choice.
Apart from the price (the range is huge; entry-level models are available for $ 30, high-end pickups cost over € 300), there are several special features to consider. Like electric guitar pickups, soundhole pickups are available in both single-coil and humbucker configurations. This refers to whether the pickup has one or two internal coils. Single coils are a little brighter in sound, but have a tendency to background noise, which is why most better sound hole pickups are built as humbuckers.
In contrast to humbucking pickups for electric guitars, in most cases the coils are not arranged next to each other, but one above the other, which means that they are not necessarily wider than single coil versions and only a number of poles, as is usual with electric guitars -Pieces own.
There are also differences in how the pickups are attached to the sound hole. Models like Dean Markley’s Pro Mag or Seymour Duncan’s Woody have simple foam rubber inlays in the side slots that hold them in the sound hole. With many other pickups (e.g. LR Baggs M1 and M80, DiMarzio Black Angel, Fishman Rare Earth, Seymour Duncan Mag Mic etc.), a lateral clamping mechanism that was first introduced at Sunrise has established itself. A screwdriver is required here for assembly.
Schertler’s M-AG6 uses a similar mechanism, but it can also be attached without tools using small thumbscrews. An exception to the usual fastening in the sound hole is found in the NanoMag from Shadow. It is so small that it is attached directly to the end of the fingerboard with double-sided adhesive tape, leaving the sound hole completely free.
Other features that distinguish magnetic pickups are adjustable pole screws, volume controls, integrated microphones or the possibility of adding an additional signal.
Adjustable pole screws can be helpful to ensure a balanced volume balance between the strings, something that can be especially necessary with unusual string gauges, tuning, or playing techniques. Integrated microphones (such as the Fishman Rare Earth Blend and Seymour Duncan MagMic) are an excellent way to add a little more dimension to the pure pickup sound.
LR Baggs achieves a similar effect with the “BodySensitive” function of its M1 and M80 pickups, in which one of the two humbucker coils is installed in a floating position, which also absorbs vibrations from the guitar top. With other pickups, there is the option of connecting a microphone or an additional pickup. For example, the Schertler M-AG6 has a mini jack input for a microphone or contact pickup, the DiMarzio Black Angel can be connected to a contact pickup, and Shadow’s NanoMag is available in versions with an additional nano-flex pickup.
Dock pickups / Undersaddle Pickups
Pickups built into the dock have become the most common type of pickup over the past 20 years. There are many good reasons for this: Bridge pickups offer a very reliable sound in a wide variety of playing situations, they are almost invisibly built into the instrument, necessary modifications to the guitar are limited, and their use is extremely easy. Although there are previous examples, the pickup developed by Ovation in the 1970s was the first popular pickup with piezo elements placed in the bridge insert.
However, the big breakthrough came only when companies such as LR Baggs and Fishman launched pickups on the market that fit under the existing bridge insert, thus enabling retrofitting with minimal modifications. Often plagued by problems with the balance between the strings and thin sound at the beginning, modern bridge pickups – provided they are expertly assembled – are an excellent choice for many guitarists, whether steel or nylon strings.
Since bar pickups usually achieve relatively low output levels on their own, most models are offered in active versions. Basically, bridge pickups can be divided into four different categories: The original design with individual piezo crystals for each string is still offered with models such as the AER AK-15, LR Baggs LB6 and the Fishman AG series. With these pickups, it is important that the placement of the piezo elements matches the string spacing.
The installation must be carried out extremely carefully so that there are no balance problems. The next generation of bridge pickups has different piezo films instead of the individual crystals, which has the advantage that the pickups are sensitive over their entire length and thus prevent many of the problems of crystal-equipped pickups.
In the case of pickups such as the EMG AT series or the Fishman Acoustic Matrix, the PiezoFilm is built into a rigid bridge insert, which on the outside can hardly be distinguished from pickups with piezo crystals. The piezo film is used by other pickups in a very thin and flexible insert, as it is e.g. B. the B-Band UST, LR Baggs Element, D-Tar Wave-Length and the Shadow Nano-Flex is the case.
Another variation uses a round coaxial piezo cable as a pickup, as can be found with the pickups from Carlos, Headway, Highlander and the Fishman Sonitone (which is only offered as standard equipment by various guitar manufacturers). A very special and relatively rare type of bridge pickup are hexaphonic versions, in which each string gets its own pickup and thus its own output signal.
RMCs Acoustic Gold and Shadows Nanoflex-6 are examples of these systems. Bridge pickups absorb a combination of the pressure exerted by the strings on the saddle and vibrations distributed over the entire saddle and bridge.
The resulting sound is usually fairly straightforward, and the typical quick response can sometimes cause an unnatural sounding attack when playing hard techniques. Bridge pickups are usually relatively insensitive to feedback (especially in smaller guitars), and their sound can be easily controlled with EQ or effects.
Bridge pickups sometimes have the reputation of being able to hear the pickup more than the guitar, but this is not necessarily true, since factors such as the height and material of the saddle, flexibility of the bridge and the top of the guitar, as well as the natural Sustain the instrument definitely affect the amplified sound. So it can happen that the same pickup in two different guitars brings very different results.
Contact pickups (also called ceiling transducers, adhesive pickups or contact microphones) are mounted directly on the ceiling of the guitar. There are many variations of this type of pickup: some models are temporarily attached to the outside of the ceiling, others are installed from the inside. Most of these pickups are based on piezo crystals or foils, but other technologies are also used.
There are also huge differences in terms of price: entry-level models are available for less than € 20, high-end pickups can cost several hundred euros. Simple models are, for example, Dean Markley’s Artist Transducer and Shadows SH2000.
Pickups of this type are “glued” on with a special modeling clay and can be used with almost any instrument that has a vibrating surface. In terms of sound, you shouldn’t expect miracles here, but depending on how the guitar sounds (these pickups often sound better with nylon than with steel strings), they can be a simple solution if you only want to play a little more from time to time.
Most of the better contact pickups are semi-permanently glued to the inside of the ceiling. Here are the Pure Systems from K&K (by the way, an originally German company with its current headquarters in Oregon, USA). B. used by Andy McKee and Don Ross to be particularly emphasized.
These are three pickups, about the size of a small coin, which are mounted under the bridge area. Similar pickups are available from Fishman (SBT) and Seymour Duncan (SoundSpot). Another high-end contact pickup system is offered by Trance Audio.
Based on the legendary but no longer manufactured FRAP pickup (used by Neil Young, for example), the Trance Acoustic Lens Pickup offers a design that absorbs vibrations three-dimensionally. Two special contact pickups that stand out from other designs can be found in the AKG C411, which is based on an internal miniature microphone, and the Schertler DYN, which generates its signal via an internal magnetic coil.
Both are attached to the outside of the instrument. The Schertler in particular is popular with many classical guitarists and mandolin players (e.g. Chris Thiele).
Contact pickups are also often found in systems that combine different types of pickups. So z. B. B-Band uses a bridge and a contact pickup in the A2.2 XOM system, and LR Baggs also adds an iBeam contact pickup to the Element bridge pickup in its iMix system.
Contact pickups can deliver a very natural sound that is close to a studio-like microphone pickup. However, there are many factors that can cause problems. The most important thing is of course the guitar itself, and some instruments just sound better than others with contact pickups.
At high volumes, there may be problems with the reproduction of bass frequencies, which can often be compensated for with a good EQ, but sometimes it can also lead to an uncontrollable, boomy sound. For this reason, contact pickups are usually the better choice for guitarists who play solo or in relatively quiet ensembles than z. B. for those who have to keep up with the volume of a rock band.
One might think that the simplest way to amplify a guitar would actually be a microphone built into the body. Unfortunately, however, this is anything but easy, since the inside of a guitar has a very complicated sound, which does not necessarily have the desired qualities. It can also be very difficult to get enough volume before feedback occurs.
For these reasons, internal microphones are often used as an add-on to a pickup, which enables a very natural yet controllable sound to be achieved. Some of these systems have already been mentioned above in the magnetic sound hole pickups, but microphones are also often combined with bridge pickups, such as. B. the LR Baggs Anthem, D-Tar Wave-Length Multi Source or the Fishman Ellipse Blend.
However, there are also internal microphones that are designed for use without the support of a pickup. Examples can be found on the LR Baggs Lyric, the MiniFlex 2Mic series, as well as the DPA 4099 and K&K Meridian, the latter two being mounted externally on the instrument and positioned with a small gooseneck. Internal microphones used alone can deliver very good results at low volumes. However, if you want it to be louder, or if you are close to the amp or speaker, problems with feedback or an unbalanced sound can quickly arise.
Plug it in!
There are quite a few scene insiders who believe that modern pickups saved the acoustic guitar from sinking. Ok, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, but if you look at how much “acoustic” music isn’t actually as unplugged as it seems at first glance, you have to admit that the music would sound different if that Acoustic guitar amplification would still be as it was 30 or 40 years ago.
The fact is that a natural, amplified sound is easier to achieve than ever. As long as you are aware of what the fundamental qualities of the different pickup types are, it will mainly depend on personal taste and the playing conditions, which models will be shortlisted.
Here you should definitely try out as much as possible yourself, be it in the circle of friends, in specialist shops or at trade fairs. With a little practice, a more than satisfactory sound should be achievable through an amp or a PA. Have fun experimenting!
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