Acoustic Pickup Installs
If you enjoy playing guitar at some point you might want to play in front of other people. If your acoustic guitar does not have a pickup installed it might be time to consider it. There are a wide variety of options to choose from and here is just some of the information I'll discuss with a customer to help them make the right choice.
Where are you looking to play?
If it's in small coffee houses or church that might be one style of pickup but if you're playing in a band with a full p.a. system the option might be something else entirely.
I like to find out how much a person is hoping to spend but (not because I want to make more money but) because it will help us find the right pickup for their needs. I need to know what cost is comfortable for the customer to give me a sense for what type of system will be best for them. If it falls within the realities of where they're hoping to play then finding the right pickup is often pretty simple.
Why would I list this last? Well, it's certainly a very important part of the discussion but any time you electrify an acoustic guitar it won't sound truly acoustic anymore. The reality is, depending on where you intend to use the instrument the sound quality becomes somewhat of a trade off. Pickup systems have come a long, long way in the 30 years I've been playing and there are good options at any price point. What constitutes "good" is a balancing act between what would be ideal and what is practical for the individual.
Once I have a chance to talk about where a person will play, how much they hope to spend and what is most important to them about the sound, different pickup systems fall into a few different categories. When shopping for anything, try to see past the marketing hoopla and fancy verbiage because every year the newest, latest and greatest reinvention of the wheel comes out and the sole purpose of that marketing is to get your money.
A simple pickup that clips into the soundhole can be a good option for the player who only periodically plays in front of an audience. Most of the standard soundhole pickups don't require any professional installation and can "pop in" for the performance and come out of the guitar the rest of the time.
Another pretty popular option for the part-time or beginner performer can be a simple contact pickup that is attached the surface with some type of double sided adhesive. Most of the ones I've installed over the years are fairly inexpensive and benefit from a professional install to find the "sweet spot" where the pickup sounds best. If they come with a standard panel style output jack I strongly urge the customer to upgrade to a strap button jack. A panel jack would need to be mounted to the side an acoustic guitar which is fine until you step on the cable that's plugged into the jack and cause some serious damage to the wood. Small cracks around the jack would be the best case scenario and cracks running the entire length of the instrument are entirely possible. If the guitar is made from laminated wood (fancy term for plywood) then the damage gets to be a real mess to fix. By upgrading to a strap button jack it will be securely attached to the guitar through a much thicker block of wood that can withstand considerable pressure from a simple misstep.
Now in this case I'm not talking about the kind of microphone that you sing into or put on a stand in front of your guitar. That is certainly another option but considering the topic of pickup installs, let's focus on a microphone inside the guitar. Microphone based pickup systems often have a more natural acoustic sound than other options but also are susceptible to feedback just like a mic in front of the guitar is. Again these types of pickups benefit from time spent moving them around to find the best location for the particular guitar they're going into.
These pickups are very popular in acoustic guitars and fortunately most manufacturers now take into consideration that a customer might want to add a pickup later. Essentially there is a pickup element that fits between the saddle and the bridge and the pressure of the strings creates a small electrical signal. Without getting into all the factors that go into installing one of these it's important to have a saddle slot that is deep enough to accommodate this type of pickup. Guitars made 10-15 years ago (and older) often don't have a slot that's deep enough and therefore cost more to install. A music store is happy to sell you a pickup system and perhaps offers "free installation with the purchase of the pickup" but they often don't have a clue about what it means to install one. Talk to a luthier in addition to any sales staff you interact with.
Piezo Elements - These are very popular with under saddle pickup systems and perform very well. They tend to have a little more "electric type" sound than a microphone or ribbon but are less susceptible to feedback. Some complain these systems sound "harsh" or "metallic" but with a little help from an E.Q. and/or preamp they work very well.
Ribbon Elements - Ribbon elements under the saddle sound more realistic to my ear than piezos but do suffer from feedback issues more frequently than piezo elements. These realities go back to how and where the guitar will be used and what the customer hopes to hear when they play. Any time the sound is more natural and acoustic the more easily it will feedback.
The most versatile acoustic pickup system is one that combines the natural sounds of a microphone with the less feedback prone under saddle elements. Some even combine a soundhole pickup with under saddle pickup to achieve a similar end result. The system includes an adjustable control that allows you all of the warm, natural microphone type sound, all of the under saddle sound to cut down on feedback or a blend of the two. They will work with some type of preamp system either in the guitar or outside the guitar to give you more control over frequencies allowing you to dial in the best sound for a variety of situations.
For the casual player who on occasion needs to plug in and turn up for an audience any of the basic pickup options work (soundhole or contact pickup). These can be fairly inexpensive and get the job done. If you don't want to pay money for a professional installation a soundhole pickup of some sort would be best.
For small, intimate settings like a coffee house or wine bar a microphone in front of the instrument or a microphone based pickup installed in the guitar will work very well. They have more natural sound but can be problematic when it comes to feedback. Sounds outside get inside the guitar and are then sensed by the microphone. The microphone then feeds the sound to the amplifier or p.a. system and loops back into the guitar body to create feedback. Having the ability to filter frequencies with an equalizer of some sort will help and so will a "feedback buster" sound hole plug if the pickup is inside the guitar.
For larger venues and with other musicians it probably pays to have a quality under saddle pickup installed and I recommend using a feedback buster as well. The feedback buster will help anyone standing in front of a stage monitor to cut down on the feedback coming through the guitar to the p.a. system. A piezo element will probably out perform a ribbon element here too...at least with regard to feedback.
If you are looking for the most versatile, best sounding pickup system that works in a variety of situations, invest in a combination system along with a preamp control of some sort. Having quick access to equalization and gain controls makes it easy to respond to feedback as it starts and eliminate the annoyance for the audience quickly.
The good news is, all of these options get better and better every year. If you start out simple and evolve as a player and performer rest assured the technology and quality of sound is evolving with you.