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Ring Music

Torontos guitar specialists since 1969


Acoustic Guitar Pickups

Amplifying an acoustic guitar is not a new idea. Nor are the means of doing so. But today's pickups definitely offer better performance than those offered even a decade ago. Better feedback resistance, easier installations, and better tone are just some of the advantages of today's pickups over those of yesteryear.

There are several families or types of pickups available for acoustic guitars. This "pickup primer" will describe the various types, the pros and cons of each, and suggest the best application for each.

Magnetic Soundhole Pickups: These are often peoples' first pickup and can usually be installed in the soundhole in seconds. They function like electric guitar pickups in that they magnetize the strings. They generally sound very good on the bottom four strings (the wound strings) but are usually more electric sounding on the B and E strings. Dean Markley and DiMarzio both offer good sounding soundhole pickups with a 10-foot cable already attached for around $100. The Fishman Rare Earth and Sunrise are top of the line magnetics which sell for just under $300.

Surface-Mounted Piezo Pickups: Piezo pickups (pronounced "Pee-ay-zo") are a very popular category of pickups. There are two basic types - surface mounted and bridge mounted. Surface mounted piezos can be affixed to the top of the guitar or inside up against the bridge plate. Because they are sensing the vibrations of the wood, placement is critical in terms of feedback potential and optimum tone. These pickups usually sound much better if a preamp or equalizer is used to beef up the often low output they emit. These Piezos can sound incredibly good, that is to say, very "acoustic", at relatively low volumes and usually in solo applications only. They tend to feedback other stage noise such as drums or bass at higher volumes. Schaller, McIntyre and Fishman all offer excellent pickups of this type.

Saddle-mounted Piezos: These are quickly becoming the industry standard. Takamine, Ovation, Martin, Seagull and others all offer electrified versions of their most popular acoustic models with saddle-mounted piezo pickups and onboard active preamps. If you're going to install one in your prized acoustic, just install the pickup or pickup and endpin mounted preamp - don't go drilling holes in your guitar to add volume and tone controls as this may affect the value of your guitar. One of the most popular pickups of this style is Fishman's Matrix Natural. It incorporates a piezo-film pickup which goes under your saddle, and an ingenious preamp which is housed in a tubular extension of the output jack. The rig runs on a typical 9-volt battery, mounted to the neck block for easy access, and sounds great all on its own. And don't worry about frequent battery changing - Fishman specs boast a life of 6000 hours of continuous use!

If you prefer to use an external preamp with a bridge-mounted piezo, I recommend the Dean Markley Sweet Spot Pickup. it is a terrific sounding saddle pickup which adds almost no weight to your guitar and minimal modification.

Saddle-mounted piezos offer high feedback resistance and are invisible to the naked eye, and are familiar to most soundmen which means they'll be able to give you a sound quite easily. Some people complain that they are harsh or brittle sounding which can be true if you're comparing it to the unamplified sound of the guitar. Remember that a saddle piezo is sensing the vibrations of the strings and the saddle material and very little of the soundboard. This is bound to seem metallic compared to the sound of a vibrating soundboard.

Dual Pickup Systems: As you can see from the descriptions of the previous three pickup types, each has its pros and cons. This has led many serious amateur and professional players to combine two or more types of pickups to achieve a more accurate "acoustic" sound. One of the best dual systems available is the Fishman Rare Earth Blend that combines a soundhole magnetic pickup with a gooseneck mounted microphone. This combination sounds incredibly natural with about a 60% pickup, 40% mic blend. (In a loud band situation it may be necessary to use less microphone to avoid feedback).

Ring Music also offers a custom dual pickup rig which combines a Dean Markley Sweet Spot under the saddle piezo with a Shure miniature Lavalier microphone. The beauty of this system is its low weight and invisibility.

We also stock the Seagull Duet Series guitar which features the L.R. Baggs piezo/mic combo design. Other systems are available on request.

No matter what your taste, budget or requirements, there is a pickup choice that's right for you. Feel free to drop by the shop to discuss pickups further and to hear them for yourself.

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