Last Updated on May 28, 2023 by Teemu Suomala
Author: DL Shepherd
Darren has been playing guitar for over 23 years. He fronted the metal band Suddenly Silence in the early 2000’s, and also achieved recognition as an award-winning bluegrass guitarist.
A native of southwestern Virginia, and has shared the stage with many big-name acts from various genres. When he is not playing one of his many guitars, he can be found riding his Harley through the mountains of Virginia.Hide The Rambling▲
Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala
I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.
I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.
I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).Hide The Rambling▲
Have you ever wondered how acoustic-electric guitars can be plugged in and sound so good? While a lot of it has to do with the guitar, a lot of that plugged-in tone comes from what type of pickup the guitar uses to reproduce the tone.
Let’s back up a little and define a “pickup” as it applies to an acoustic-electric guitar:
An acoustic guitar pickup is an electronic device that is capable of capturing vibration, pressure waves, or sound waves and converting them to an electrical signal and current that can be amplified.
They are easy to spot on an electric guitar because they are mounted to the top of the guitar. With an acoustic-electric, the pickup may very well be completely invisible (and it usually is). Therefore, it takes a bit more research to find out what type of pickup system it has installed.
This can usually be found looking through the soundhole on acoustic-electric guitars. Once you learn about the different types of pickup systems, you’ll be able to spot them without any trouble. Let’s get started!
Check our other acoustic guitar guides:
4 Types of Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Under-Saddle Piezo Pickup
Many acoustic-electric guitars come with piezo pickups. These pickups install under the saddle of the guitar, so they are out of sight and always equipped. They are prevalent in acoustic-electric guitars these days.
How Do Piezo Pickups Work?
Piezo pickups use a small ceramic plate or crystal that is placed under the saddle of the guitar. When the strings vibrate, they create pressure waves that are detected by the crystal, which then creates an electrical charge that an external amplifier or preamp can amplify.
Some piezo pickups can be mounted on the soundboard inside the guitar. These are similar to soundboard transducers (which we’ll hit on in a minute). Most piezo pickups can be found installed under the bridge of the guitar though.
This video explains how the piezoelectric effect works:
How Do Piezo Pickups Sound?
Piezo pickups are known for producing a clear, bright tone. This makes them ideal for fingerstyle guitarists or any guitarist with an intricate picking style. They can, however, sound a little harsh at times, especially on the higher strings.
Check our favorite acoustic guitars for fingerpicking here.
Who Are Piezo Pickups Good For?
Piezo pickups are great for guitarists that frequently play live because they are resistant to feedback. They are also great for guitarists that change up their style (they switch from using a flat pick to fingerpicking) because they are so versatile. Piezo pickups are the most popular style of acoustic guitar pickup and they are often found on a wide variety of new guitars.
- Versatile and capable of handling many different playing styles
- Resists feedback
- Needs to be installed professionally for the best sound (requires drilling)
- Highs can sound a bit harsh and brittle
Did you know, some electric guitars come equipped with piezo pickups too! Check the full list of Electric Guitars with Piezo Pickups here.
Soundboard Transducers (Also A Piezo Pickup)
So, what about guitars with nylon strings? One of the most popular ways of electrifying a classical or nylon string guitar is by using a soundboard transducer. This method involves a transducer that is attached to the soundboard.
A transducer is an electronic device that converts energy from one form to another.techtarget.com
These are usually located inside the guitar, but they can be attached externally as well without a lot of modification to the guitar (although they don’t look very good on the outside).
Much like under-saddle piezo pickups, soundboard transducers are highly resistant to feedback which makes them great for live performances.
How Do Soundboard Transducers Work?
Soundboard transducers are attached to the soundboard of the guitar and they work the same way as under-saddle piezo pickups.
A tiny ceramic piece or crystal is used to create a piezoelectric effect. The crystal detects pressure produced by the vibrating strings and produces an electrical charge that can be amplified by an external amplifier or preamp.
Soundboard transducers can be attached to the inside of the guitar, on the backside of the top, or to the outside of the guitar top.
How Do Soundboard Transducers Sound?
A soundboard transducer is very popular with classical guitarists and fingerstyle guitarists because they can produce very warm tones. This is wonderful for fingerstyle players that need that extra warmth. The sound is very natural!
Who are soundboard Transducers Good For?
Fingerstyle players and nylon string players will love soundboard transducers. They simply work great for reproducing warm, rich tones. They do not have the tendency to become harsh when playing high notes (unlike piezo pickups).
- Produces warmer, richer tones than under-saddle piezo pickups
- Can be installed out of sight inside the guitar
- Can be expensive
- Needs to be installed professionally for the best sound
Magnetic pickups are probably the most recognizable pickups on the list in terms of appearance. They are similar to the pickups found in an electric guitar and are usually attached to the soundhole for the best response. They can be installed inside the top of the guitar (like John Lennon’s Epiphone) or clipped on the soundhole for easy removal.
Magnetic pickups can have a warmer tone if the pickup is a humbucker or a brighter tone if the pickup is a single coil. There is a lot of tonal versatility here, and a seasoned guitarist may even keep a couple of different magnetic pickups in their bag and change between them as needed since they are easily swapped out.
How Do Magnetic Pickups Work?
Magnetic pickups for an acoustic guitar work the same way that magnetic pickups do for an electric guitar. The magnetic coils sense the vibration on the strings and convert it into an electrical signal that can then be amplified.
How Do Magnetic Pickups Sound?
Magnetic pickups tend to have a warm sound that is reminiscent of an electric guitar. They can have some jangle to the high end and a very warm low end. Overall sound will depend on the type of pickup (humbucker or single coil). For example, the pickup in John Lennon’s Epiphone acoustic-electric is a stacked P-100 humbucker pickup and naturally produces a warmer tone.
Who are Magnetic Pickups Good For?
Magnetic pickups are good for songwriting, rehearsing, and studio applications. They are susceptible to feedback, however, so using them live can sometimes be tricky.
- Can be added and removed very easily on most guitars
- Can come in single coil or humbucker variations for versatility
- Susceptible to feedback
- Not very natural-sounding, and doesn’t bring the full sound of an acoustic guitar to the table
One way to get a great acoustic sound is by using a good old-fashioned microphone. There are special pickups that go inside acoustic guitars that are actually just microphones. They pick up the natural sound of the guitar.
Some microphone pickups can be mounted to the soundhole and easily removed when not needed. Others are mounted inside the guitar toward the bridge and cannot be removed. They are a great way to faithfully reproduce the natural sound of the guitar.
However, they can be susceptible to feedback and, since they are microphones, they will pick up any sound that makes contact with them. This means that if you accidentally knock your guitar against something or hit it with your hand, that sound will be transferred to your amplifier and out of the speaker!
How Do Microphone Pickups Work?
Microphone pickups work just like a microphone – they pick up the sound around them and convert it into an electrical signal that can then be amplified. The microphone is just inside the guitar as opposed to being outside. This allows it to pick up the natural tone of the guitar.
How Do Microphone Pickups Sound?
Microphone pickups sound full, rich, and natural. They really capture the natural voice of the guitar. It is the preferred method of recording an acoustic guitar because of this.
Who are Microphone Pickups Good For?
Microphone pickups are great for recording because they can faithfully reproduce the natural tone of the acoustic guitar. They are also great for finger-style players and those who play with a lighter touch. Of course, they work really well with nylon string or classical guitars as well.
- Most accurate way to reproduce the guitar’s sound
- Some can be added or removed at will
- Susceptible to feedback
- Can be quite noisy if the guitar is knocked around while being played
Dual-Source Pickup System
A dual-source pickup system isn’t a type of pickup but instead combines two or more pickup styles into one system for tone-shaping versatility. These systems may use a combination of a microphone pickup and a piezo pickup, a microphone pickup and a soundboard transducer, or any combination of pickups.
The pickups are usually “mixed” together in a preamp onboard the guitar. This allows the player to use the preamp to mix the signals to get the desired tone. For example, a player might want to use the piezo pickup for live performances and therefore turn off the microphone pickup. While in the recording studio, they may want to turn off the piezo and use the microphone pickup exclusively.
These setups are great if the player has one guitar that they play live and record with while in the studio. This can make them very versatile and ready to play no matter what the situation might be.
How To Choose The Right Type Of Acoustic Guitar Pickup for You?
Choosing the right acoustic pickup doesn’t have to be a challenge. You just have to figure out how you will be using the pickup.
- For example, if you are wanting to play live, you might consider going with a soundboard transducer or a piezo pickup. Both of these are great choices because they are resistant to feedback.
- If you’re wanting something to play in the studio where there is less of a risk of feedback, then you might want to give a microphone pickup or a magnetic pickup a try. Both can be highly effective and versatile in a studio setting.
- If you have one guitar that you want to do everything with, then you might consider using a dual-source pickup system. This will make your main axe a force to be reckoned with whether you are playing live, recording, or just jamming with friends.
If you look at the pros and cons of each pickup, then you’ll be able to narrow things down a bit better.
- The two pickups that give you the best natural sound are microphone pickups and soundboard transducers. Mic pickups are the more natural sounding of the two but are also more susceptible to feedback.
- Piezo pickups are bright and can be brittle on the high end but are not susceptible to feedback.
- Magnetic pickups are loud but can be susceptible to feedback without capturing a lot of the guitar’s natural sound.
Most guitar manufacturers tend to favor piezo pickups. This means that these are the pickups that are installed when you buy a new Martin, Taylor, or virtually anything else. A lot of classical guitars are equipped from the factory with either soundboard transducers or microphone pickups. Magnetic pickups are great for guitars that did not come from the factory with a pickup because they can easily be added to almost any acoustic guitar.
The bottom line: think about how you are going to be using the pickup and let that guide your choice. You aren’t limited to just one so be sure to check out others as well. You might be able to come up with a dual-source system that you can use for just about anything.
You find our full electric guitar pickup types article here.
What Are Acoustic Guitar Pickups?
Acoustic guitar pickups are anything that picks up the sound or vibration of the guitar and converts it into an electrical signal which can then be amplified. Acoustic guitar pickups can be piezo pickups, soundboard transducers, magnetic pickups, microphone pickups, or a combination of any of those. The main function is to convert the vibration or sound into an electrical signal.
Learn more from our full How Guitar Pickups Work guide.
Why Do You Need Acoustic Guitar Pickups?
You may need an acoustic guitar pickup for playing live music where your guitar’s volume simply won’t cut it alone. This means that you’ll have to plug the guitar into some sort of amplification, and therefore you need a pickup.
You may need an acoustic guitar pickup when you’re playing with a large group of instruments. This is especially true for smaller acoustic guitars or nylon string guitars that lack natural volume. Basically, amplifying the acoustic signal means that you have complete control of the volume and tone of the guitar.
Check our definitive guide on how to choose acoustic guitar strings here.
Some people may want to plug their acoustic guitar directly into some recording gear. Since home recording is a huge deal these days, many players may not have the money or the space for a bunch of expensive microphones. Therefore, an acoustic guitar with a pickup is much more desirable and practical.
What Does Combining Pickups Mean?
Combining acoustic guitar pickups means simply combining one or more pickup types into one system. This is also referred to as a dual-source system or blending the pickups. This means that the player is able to “mix” the sound of the two or more pickups together to achieve a desired tone.
Do You Need A Preamp for Acoustic Guitar Pickups?
A preamp is certainly recommended. A preamp allows you to dial in your tone easily. Preamps can be built into the guitar or they can be external. You’ll find that they can be a lifesaver when you’re playing live, and they can add new tonal possibilities when you’re recording directly in the studio.
Preamps can not only balance out your sound, but they can also remove noise from your signal and help control feedback. Some may even have built-in effects such as reverb. They allow you to plug into basically any house PA system and achieve great tone.
Acoustic amplifiers will have dedicated preamps built into them as well. These are portable so they can go with you to any gig. Some have a direct output that allows you to run the signal directly to the mixing board on the house PA or they can be miked.
Regardless of what preamp you decide to go with, you will find it a necessary piece of gear that will help you in a variety of ways.
It should be noted that preamps usually come with a built-in tuner, and trust me, having an acoustic guitar with a tuner is one really handy thing.
Is Piezo Pickup The Same as Magnetic Pickup?
No. Magnetic pickups create a magnetic circuit between the pickup and metal strings. They use wound magnetic coils to do this.
Piezo pickups, on the other hand, are composed primarily of copper and ceramic. They pick up the vibrations of the strings and do not rely on a magnetic field. This is why they can be hidden under the saddle of the guitar.
What is The Difference Between Piezo and Under-saddle Pickup?
At the time of this article, they are the same thing. An under-saddle pickup is essentially a thin piezo rod that is cut the length of the saddle. A small hole is drilled in one end of the bridge and the piezo rod is brought up through the hole from inside the guitar. It is laid horizontally in the saddle slot on the bridge, and then the saddle is placed on top of it. This makes it appear as if the pickup isn’t even there!
Are All Acoustic Guitar Pickups Magnetic?
No. Not all acoustic guitar pickups are magnetic.
- Magnetic pickups use coils of wire wrapped around magnets to create a magnetic circuit between the metal strings and the magnets.
- Piezo pickups do not use magnets. Instead, they pick up changes in pressure from the vibrating strings and convert that into an electrical signal that can then be amplified. No coils or magnets are required.
- Microphone pickups use a microphone that picks up the natural sound of the guitar. There is no magnetic interaction involved with the strings. It simply picks up the sound of the guitar.
- Soundboard transducers pick up the vibrations of the soundboard or the bridge and convert them into an electronic signal. There is no magnetic circuit created at all between the pickup and the strings.
What is A Passive Pickup On An Acoustic Guitar?
A passive pickup is any pickup that does not require the use of external power (usually 9 volts) to operate. These are usually magnetic pickups. Many piezo, microphone and soundboard transducer pickups require an external source of power. Onboard preamps typically distribute the power from a 9-volt battery to the pickup. This is considered to be an active pickup system.
Passive pickups, such as magnetic soundhole pickups, are often a good choice for live performers or players that only occasionally use a pickup because they can be easily installed and removed very quickly without the need for a 9-volt battery.
Conclusion on Types of Acoustic Guitar Pickups
I have personally relied on piezo pickups in my acoustic-electric guitars for many years. They work great for live performances and when jamming with friends in a band setting. In the studio, I always mic my acoustics to achieve the best natural sound that I can get.
Perhaps I need to look into a dual-source system for my trusty Alvarez tho…
I’m thinking out loud. The bottom line is that you have to go with a pickup that will help you achieve your goals. While most people will generally find that piezo pickups work great for most situations, you may not be “most people”. You may desire or require something different.
This goes for all of you nylon string players out there. You definitely need something different that a piezo!
The great thing about it is that all of these pickups can be bought and installed on nearly any acoustic guitar. Some require more work than others and may need to be professionally done, but at least you have options.
Again, I encourage everyone to get out and play some different types of acoustic guitar pickups to see what works best for you. Each has its pros and cons, so what works for you may not work for someone else. Trying them is the best way to figure out what you want!
Happy picking from all of us here at guitaristnextdoor.com!
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