What's the deal with the Acoustic Guitar Pickup?

A Clear Look at The Acoustic Guitar Pickup

There are several things to consider when choosing an acoustic guitar pickup. For starters, is adding a pickup better than just getting an acoustic electric guitar? If you do add a pickup, will you need an acoustic guitar preamp?

Let's take a look at our options.


For starters there's the magnetic pickup. That's the type that mounts across the soundhole of the guitar.

Magnetic pickups have gotten a bad reputation over the years. They tend to have a warm full low end sound but are sometimes overly bright and loud, on the 1st and 2nd strings. There's a simple explanation for this.

A magnetic pickup senses, or reads, the steel in a guitar string. The part of the guitar string that is steel in a wound acoustic guitar string is the core.

Even though the overall size of a wound string is bigger than a plain string, the steel part of the wound string is smaller. So you end upwith an unbalanced sound.

How do you deal with that if you want the warm, usually feedback free, low end sound of the magnetic acoustic guitar pickup? There are several ways.

One way is how the pickup is mounted in the soundhole. You can place a shim under the pickup mounts on the bass side and that will help balance between the bass and treble. You can also mount the pickup at an angle with the treble end closest to the neck. That will help take some of the bite out of the treble.

The choice of strings can help. GHS's White Bronze are specifically designed to be used in an acoustic electric setting. The alloy in the wrap wire seems to be read more easily by the magnetic acoustic guitar pickup and gives a more balanced sound.

There are also several pickups on the market that are designed to be used on guitars strung with regular phosphor bronze strings.

Sunrise was one of the first of the new and improved pickups. They have adjustable pole pieces and that helps make a balanced sound.

Lots of players, pro and amateur alike, swear by them. The only drawbacks that I've ever heard about are that you need to use an external pre-amp that Sunrise makes and that they're heavy.

I've heard of one case in which a guitars top was cracked by the weight of the pickup when an airplane dropped from turbulence.

There are other well received pickups made including EMG's and the Fishman Rare Earth.

Magnetic pickups are often used with other acoustic guitar pickup sources as part of an overall amplified sound.


After the magnetic pickup came the transducer. These would normally attach to the bridge plate inside the guitar.

F.R.A.P.was one of the early leaders in this area. The idea behind it is for the pickup to sense the movement of the guitars top and convert it to an electrical impulse. This made for a more natural sound than the magnetic pickup.

The drawbacks to them are that they tend to be a little "feedback-y" and that they pick up noises from the top. If you bump the top or drag the buttons of your jacket across it that will be amplified too.

Top mounted transducers don't have the following that other acoustic guitar pickups do, but they can still be a good choice, especially in a multi-pickup system.

A fairly common use is to combine it with a magnetic pickup. You get the solid fundamental tone of the mag, especially in the low end, and the "woodiness" of the transducer from the top.

The next big deal was the undersaddle transducer. This uses piezo crystals which are put in a polymer strip and placed under the guitar's saddle in the bridge.

The vibration of the strings thru the saddle is what is sensed and amplified. The signal is usually pretty hot and needs to be buffered with a pre-amp. The most popular ones, like the Fishman Matrix have the pre-amp attached to the part of the endpin jack that is in the guitar body.

The pros of an undersaddle pickup are that they don't change the appearance of the guitar and that they're pretty feedback resistant.

The cons are that they have their own unique tone, which some people like and some don't like. They also only take a sample of vibration from a small area of the guitar(directly under the saddle). As a result they don't sound especially "acoustic".

They are the most widely used acoustic guitar pickups in the last 20 years though, so people are used to the sound.


The last acoustic guitar pickup that we'll talk about isn't really a pickup. That's the internal microphone.

While external mics have been widely used in the past the small internal ones are fairly new. The advantages of using an internal mic is that it will most accurately reflect the sound of your instrument. The disadvantages are that they feedback pretty easily.

You really have to be careful about where your guitar is in relation to your speakers.


O.k. How do you decide on what's best for your application? It all depends on your playing situation.

If you're playing in a band situation you'll want something that you can play pretty loud without feedback. Your best bets are either a magnetic pickup or an undersaddle pickup.

If you're a solo fingerstyle player you'll have different needs. Most solo players want either a very true representation of their guitar or a bigger than life kind of sound.

To do that usually requires a lot of gear and patience. A popular approach in a situation like that is to use multiple acoustic guitar pickup sources.

Like we've already discussed, a magnetic pickup can produce a full rich low end sound. You can combine that with an internal mic, under saddle transducer, or top mounted transducer and get a very full rich sound.

I used a Fishman Rare Earth Blend Pickup in a Martin steel string for quite a while and was very happy with it.

Until I figured out the "sweet spot" for the mic I had some feedback problems, but once I figured that out it was pretty foolproof with a great sound. It also kept me from having to use a pre-amp or mixer to mix the pickup sources. If you choose a pickup mic combo that doesn't offer onboard blending, you'll need a pre-amp or mixer that can combine the different pickup sources.

You can even use both channels of a guitar amp. The drawback to the guitar amp approach is that you have less control than you would with a mixer or pre-amp.

This will give you some basic knowledge about the acoustic guitar pickup. The pickup end of the equation is developing at a much faster rate than guitars themselves are changing. Online user reviews can be a good way to get preliminary info on what you're intersted in.

After the research, you just have to bite the bullet and try whatever pickups that you're interested in. But that sense of adventure is what fingerstyle guitar is all about.

Have fun and keep picking.

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