When you think of guitar pickups your mind likely jumps to the many types of electric guitar pickups that produced some of your favorite classic rock, country, jazz, or metal tones. You may even picture the holy grail of pickups, the vintage 50’s Gibson PAF, or “patent applied for” humbucker that graces many vintage instruments. I know we do. But though they may be less exciting (for many folks at least) there’s plenty to know about acoustic guitar pickups as well.
Acoustic guitar pickups actually share a common lineage with electric guitar pickups. The electric guitar essentially traces its origins to the need to amplify an acoustic guitar so it could stand out and compete with the horns, drums, and woodwinds of big bands. Many of the first attempts at this involved simply mounting a microphone/early pickup hybrid under the strings of an acoustic guitar and running it into a speaker. Boom—you’ve got an electric guitar.
Fortunately, pickups for both electric and acoustic guitars have come a long way and there are many different options available to fit your unique needs as a player.
Looking for info on Electric Pickups? Check out our guide to the major Electric Guitar Pickup Types.
Piezo Acoustic Guitar Pickups
The most common type of acoustic pickup, piezo pickups are made up of a line of six different piezoelectric crystals that sit under the bridge of the guitar. Also known as undersaddle pickups, these have been successfully implemented on electric guitars as well to create built-in electric-acoustic options for players that require both electric and acoustic tones out of one guitar. These are generally inexpensive but are known for having low output which can be problematic for those requiring loud, punchy acoustic tones.
Piezo pickups are rather reliable and easy to install however and are noted for having a very bright, thin sound. While this trebly, thinner sound may stand out in some mixes alongside lower register instruments, it lacks the round, full sound of most unamplified acoustic guitars because it only picks up the string’s vibration as opposed to the resonance of the body.
ADVANTAGES: Bright, percussive tone. Less prone to feedback than other pickup types. Already included on many acoustic guitars.
DISADVANTAGES: Tone can be nasally for some, definitely has a different sound than a mic’d acoustic.
Contact or Vibrational Acoustic Guitar Pickups
These pickups are either mounted on the top of the guitar or under the bridge and have a noticeably different appearance from a typical guitar pickup. These pups pick up the vibration of both the strings and guitar body, which often results in a much fuller sound than piezo pickups, with more present lower-mid and bass registers.
The big trade-off is that they may require a bit of EQ to fit into a mix, and are fairly prone to feedback as they pick up all of the excess resonance and vibration from the guitar body.
Modern day models will attempt to address these drawbacks by building an EQ control system into the pickup that can be mounted to the guitar, but even still, players these days are generally more likely to favor other pickups or pickup systems, rather than using contact pickups on their own.
ADVANTAGES: Full-bodied, bass-heavy tone.
DISADVANTAGES: Very prone to feedback. Difficult to fit into a mix.
Microphone-Paired Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Many of the most efficient acoustic guitar pickup designs feature a magnetic, undersaddle, or contact pickup paired with a microphone which allows for more diverse sound capture. The idea here is that by adding some of the normal, amplified sound of just the natural guitar, you can counteract some of the brightness of a piezo pickup or some of the bass-heavy tone of a contact pickup. Traditionally, this is done by having a microphone near the sound hole of the acoustic guitar with the other, paired pickup either attached to the bridge or internal body.
While this are one of the best acoustic pickup options out there, they are also usually the most expensive as it essentially is two pickup systems in one. Take for example the Fishman Matrix Infinity Mic Blend Wide Saddle Pickup which retails for around $300 but is generally regarded as one of the gold standards of acoustic amplification.
ADVANTAGES: Very flexible. Diverse range of tones available to the player, depending on the application. Microphone can be turned down if feedback is an issue.
DISADVANTAGES: Fairly expensive.
Magnetic Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Similar in theory to electric guitar pickups, magnetic acoustic guitar pickups project a magnetic field out around the strings and then convert the disruption into an electric signal. Often, you see these types of pickups mounted directly under the strings in the sound hole of the acoustic guitar.
Pickups of this style were the first used to try and amplify guitars back in the big band era of the early 20th century. Their tone has a bit of the sparkle and warmth of a single coil electric guitar pickup, which some players love.
Even more so than some of the other options on this list however, these can be susceptible to feedback from the resonance of the body, much like in hollowbody electric guitars.
These (along with piezo pickups) are the most common types of acoustic guitar pickups you will see out in the wild, largely because they can be easily added to any acoustic guitar, even if it did not begin its life as an “acoustic-electric” model.
ADVANTAGES: Inexpensive, typically easy to install without modifying the guitar.
DISADVANTAGES: Prone to feedback.
Want to Hear these Pickups in Action?
Check out this great sound comparison by our friends over at Reverb.com
Making Your Acoustic Electric
While there are less options when it comes to acoustic guitar pickups than traditional electric guitar pickups, we hear at Stringjoy always believe the more you know, the better. Often, if you buy an acoustic-electric guitar, that choice is already made for you and the guitar requires no further modification.
Most commercially available acoustic-electrics have that built in piezo pickup under the bridge and an EQ controls on the side or back of the guitar, and for many players, this works great.
Other players simply need to convert the acoustic they learned on to an acoustic-electric so they can be heard at their first gig.
And then of course, there are players that are well-versed in the different types of acoustic guitar pickup systems, know which compliments their particular playing style best, and are fastidious when buying a new acoustic to ensure that it will work great for what they’re aiming to use it for.
Wherever you’re at in your playing journey, hopefully this short guide is useful in understanding what options are available to you, and what the advantages and disadvantages are to each.