Pickups.The pickup was the core ingredient that made the electric guitar possible. Now manufactures have transformed the acoustic world by introducing pickups that allows that beautiful acoustic sound to be amplified.
Every year we are left in awe with the new technology being developed and think, “How could they out do this?” Yet they constantly rise the bar higher. The top systems that have been introduced over the last three to four years are here to stay.
While the models may be refined again and again, I think we’re just getting started down a new path to acoustic amplification.
We’re going to take a snapshot at some of the most popular pickups released by various manufacturers over the last few years. Lets get started.
The Expression System (Made by Taylor Guitars) – This is one of the most innovative pickups systems on the market today. Far too often the sound of your beautiful acoustic is altered when put through amplification and Taylor set out to put an end to that.
It uses a system of sensors strategically located in the neck, and two in different areas within the body. These sensors are known as “Dynamic String Sensors”. They measure string vibrations throughout the body and convert them to an electric signal which is then transferred to the preamp. In short, it uses a contact pickup system.
The reason why the ES produces such a natural tone is due to it’s multifaceted approach to the electronic placement. There isn’t just one specific area around the sound hole being covered by a mic, rather, the entire body and neck.
Now you can shape your sound via three discrete knobs. The truth of the matter is that you may not want to use them because the guitar sounds so good on it’s own.
I haven’t seen another pickup system quite like this, nor do I anticipate to see one to match it for quite a while. Go check them out for yourself and hear the difference.
Piezo System – This is an under the saddle pickup that consist of a strip of piezo electric crystals that line up below the strings. These pick up the vibrations and transfer them into an electric signal. They are generally used by manufacturers in student level instruments but some companies have taken them to a new level.
Fishman and L.R. Baggs are examples of companies that have used piezo technology to produce decent sound quality.
The number one complaint associated with these pickups is that they sound extremely bright and have a verily weak output volume. It’s a great choice for anyone who wants to keep things simple and relatively cheap. You’ll have to spend some time working on your tone but you can compensate by using a few different pedals and making use of a sound board.
Aura System (Made by Martin) – I really like the ingenuity of this pickup system. Martin combined the best of two worlds to create something known as the “Aura system”. In reality, it’s just a form of a blender that uses an actual mic and the piezo element to produce a more natural sound.
I use Martin as the example here because they did a great job. However, there are feedback problems with these pickup systems that can jeopardize your gig if you’re not paying close attention.
The condenser mic in and of itself is nice but doesn’t add a tonne of color until you mix in the saddle pickup. While that’s my personal opinion, many other guitarists seem to agree with me.
Magnetic Soundhole Pickups – These pickups are modeled after the electric guitar. They look like electric pickups and function in the same way. The good news with these pickups is that feedback is rarely a problem.
The bad news is that they look awkward and you’ll have a cord hanging from the side of your guitar unless you get a jack put onto the end of your guitar. That’s kind of a bummer because it costs more money to put in a jack. However, if you’re looking for something cheap and affordable, this may be a great option for you.
Every acoustic model has it’s own body type. Some are smaller in stature, some are larger, and some fall in between. They all have different size curves and details. While they may have these curves and shapes in the same places, the size of the guitar combined with these curves produces a very unique tone known only to that individual instrument.
When playing various guitars, it is relatively easy to hear how an acoustic guitar’s physical dimensions project, contour and balance the tone it produces. Through the generations there have been a few model shapes that have stuck around.
While different companies make slight adjustments on the various models, they still resemble the classic shapes to some degree. Here are the four most common shapes available on the market today and a description of the sound they produce.
Dreadnaught – Made famous by Martin guitars, the dreadnaught earned it’s name from the great British battle ships of World War I. Very nice all around tone with pronounced bass response and great treble tone. This model is slightly chunky but many prefer it over any other due to it’s pallet of tones.
Jumbo – If you thought that the dreadnaught was big, it doesn’t have anything on the jumbo. Introduced by Gibson, the jumbo has been first choice for many of the artists in Nashville. It’s considerably louder and has a very deep tone. Treble can get lost on a six string due to being over powered by the bass. However, when you slap on 12 strings, you get a wider range of frequencies, making for a very well balanced guitar. That’s why you’ll see many jumbos serving as 12 strings.
Concert – The smallest shape. Great for the stage as you can control feedback issues and have a tighter handle on your fretboard. Every time your body gets smaller, you loose certain frequencies. In this case, the guitar sounds on the higher end of the spectrum because the bass tones don’t come out that well.
Auditorium – The bass is slightly less pronounced on this guitar. You also lose some volume. The bass aside, the only real difference that separates this shape from the dreadnaught is size. This guitar is far more cozy and controllable.