Let’s say you finally bought your guitar of a lifetime. It sounds fantastic and you want that wonderful sound to he heard by more than a few people close by. You have no choice but to amplify it somehow. Back in the 1970s a couple companies like Barcus Berry began selling “contact pick-ups,” thin pieces of wired plastic-like material that were installed beneath the saddle in the bridge of acoustic guitars. The only alternative at the time where pick-ups that mounted in the sound hole and were essentially microphones and not very good ones at that. They made acoustic guitars sound like bad, muddy electric guitars, were prone to feedback, and the wire was always in the way when you played. Those first contact pick-ups were permanently mounted under the saddle, with the input in place of the bottom strap button. They were a bit better, but not much. They too were prone to feedback and had a quaky, raspy sound that accentuated the treble end and although they sounded a bit more “acoustic” they were not pleasant to hear and certainly did not transfer the sound of a fine acoustic guitar.
Not much changed in design for the next fifteen or so years although the overall quality of this type of pick-up (called a piezo pick-up) did improve a bit and guitarists began using equalizers to improve the sound. But in the early 1990s a few companies began producing “active” (i.e., battery powered) acoustic pick-ups that were much better sounding. Unfortunately the act of changing the 9v battery usually required taking all the strings off to reach inside the guitar (some are still like that).
Then the Fishman company began producing active pickups that were wired in tandem with a small microphone mounted inside the guitar. They had a nice little control panel that was housed on the side of the guitar that included things like a 3 or 4-band equalizer, impedance switching capability, volume control and a low-battery light. Many manufacturers began offering them as standard equipment on some models, including Martin. The Fishman devices sounded pretty good but still not purely acoustic and some players objected to having a “trap door” on the side of their very expensive guitars.
With the rapid development of all things electronic in the 1990s and into the first decade of this century, many smaller companies took up the challenge of making a natural sounding acoustic guitar pick-up and some major players emerged like B-Band. Most of these were active pick-ups that still required a 9v battery. But about 2005 a small company in Washington called K&K began producing contact pick-ups that were passive, mounted inside the guitar on the bridge plate and sounded great. When used with their pre-amp they could produce as close to a pure acoustic sound as I’ve ever heard and I’ve had them installed on over a dozen guitars so far. I love them! Being somewhat mechanically challenged I always have my regular guitar repairman Fran Ledoux of Bay Fretted Instruments do the installations but supposedly it is not that difficult to do yourself following the detailed instructions that are included with the K&K. There are even You Tube videos showing how to do it.
However – and here’s the take-away from this column – I still believe that the best sound will be attained by using a good microphone. Mics are difficult to use for most people however because they are prone to feedback when placed anywhere near speakers and the player must stay a very certain distance from the mic for the best sound. So what I do anytime I’m playing a medium to large venue is to use a combination of my on-board K&K run directly into an amp or the PA board plus a good quality omni-directional low impedance microphone. With this set up I get a good sound, and by leaning in to the mic when it’s time for a solo I can get the slight boost in volume needed to be heard on single-note passages.
There are many, many other options out there and many players prefer to tweak the sound between the guitar and the amplifying unit rather than depend just on the pick-up and a mic to get the best sound. This probably makes the most sense, but as I said in the beginning, my pockets aren’t as deep as I wish they were and buying even more gear is not an option as long as I’m doing local gigs that don’t require the loudest, most refined sound.
So your best bet if you’re considering amplifying your guitar is to go to a large retailer and try many different combinations of pick-ups, amps and outboard devices. Also consider the type of engagements you’ll have and how sophisticated your equipment needs to be. Good luck and if you come up with the perfect sound, please let me know!
Peace & good music,