I collated this article and shared with you what I knew about the acoustic guitar pickup.
There are four types of guitar pickup: under-saddle, internal microphone, contact, and magnetic.
This is the most common guitar pickup, and many factory-made guitar pickups are of this type, which uses a piezo-electric strip, mounted under the guitar saddle.
Advantages: the sound is very clear and direct, and it’s not prone to feedback, so it’s great for strumming in a band context.
Disadvantages: because the piezo itself has a certain thickness, it will make the guitar string action higher, so to install it we need to sand the saddle lower. Installation is difficult, because if this isn’t done well, the volume of the six strings will be uneven.
The sound of this pickup is more electric and dry, and it doesn’t pick up percussion on the guitar body.
Installing a small condenser microphone inside the guitar body gives a very authentic, natural sound in a quiet environment. A microphone is the only way to pick up the complete sound of the guitar.
Advantages: the tone is natural and has a sense of space, with a high fidelity of sound reproduction. It also picks up percussive sounds.
Disadvantages: prone to feedback, so no good for playing in a band.
A contact pickup is almost all Fingerstyle players must-have pickup, generally glued to the top, below the bridge, sensing the vibration of the guitar top. It gives a warm, natural sound, similar to a microphone.Advanced users can stick multiple contact pickups in positions around the guitar body pick up more percussive sounds.
Adventages: warm and natural sound, not prone to feedback. It can pick up the sound of guitar and percussive sound
Disadvantages: the placement of the contact pickup will affect the sound, so you need to have an experienced professional install it.
This is the type of pickup used on electric guitars. On an acoustic guitar it is mounted in the sound hole. The sound quality is mainly related to the pickup, and the original tone of the guitar has not much to do with it. You can route the cable through the sound hole instead of drilling a hole in the guitar tail, so it would be a good choice if you don’t want to drill a hole, or if you want to use the same pickup on more than one guitar.
Advantages: sound is very clean, warm tone, easy to install, not prone to feedback.
disadventage：because the pickup is clamped to the soundhole, the guitar’s resonance may be affected and it won’t be able to pick up percussive sounds. Its position in the sound hole can impede the right hand. It won’t work with nylon strings.
Once you know the four ways to pick up sound, all pickups can be further divided into active and passive.
Active pickups require batteries, most factory-installed guitar pickups are active. The guitar body will have a battery and preamp, and most also have a volume & tone control panel.
Advantage: you don’t need to buy an additional preamp to get a high volume output.
Some control panels can also adjust the volume and tone of the guitar.
Disadvantages: the price is generally higher. Sometimes you need to loosen the strings to change the battery. There are more parts and wires inside the guitar, which may make the guitar heavier or cause unwanted noise.
Passive pickups don’t require a battery in the guitar and are the choice of many professional performers.
Advantages: you don’t need to remember to change the battery. Very lightweight, and there are fewer wires inside the body.
It is generally recommended to use passive pickups with a preamp, otherwise the volume is relatively small.
Dual System Pickup
Because each pickup has its advantages and disadvantages, advanced players often choose dual-system or even multi-system pickups.
The most common fingerstyle dual system is magnetic + contact, which many masters use to pick up guitar and percussive sounds and is not prone to feedback, making it ideal for stage performances.
I personally use a combination of Sunrise and K&K Pure Mini pickups. Sunrise is also chosen by lots of top players such as Kotaro Oshio, Sungha Jung, and Andy Mckee, who are all known for their great sound.
On the other hand, I think microphone + contact is the best combination to maintain the original tone of the guitar. It also records very well. Master fingerstyle guitarist Don Ross claims the best onboard pickup must be at least a dual system which includes a microphone.
The biggest disadvantage of using this combination is that you should be careful of feedback when using it on stage.
My classical guitar has a microphone + contact system called K&K Trinity Pro, which gives a good, natural sound.
Microphone + undersaddle are the most common dual-system factory installed pickups, and there is usually a control panel to adjust the microphone’s volume in the mix, to reduce feedback problems.
Some zealous players will mix three or more pickups, microphones, contact, magnetic, etc.
Stereo or mono: almost all factory installed active pickups are mono, which means that no matter how many pickups you have on your guitar, the final output will be combined into a single track. This is fine for most users, and the benefit is that you don’t have to buy stereo cables and a stereo preamp. Professionals may use stereo pickups that allow EQ, volume, and effects to be adjusted for each channel individually, but this requires more equipment.
As for the price of pickups, Chinese-made dual-system pickups can be as cheap as HKD200 to HKD2000. Of course, the sound is not as good, but is cheap.
Imported pickups are generally at least HKD1000. If your funds are limited but want to have a better, more stable tone, you can buy an imported single pick-up, and then upgrade to a dual system to improve the sound later, so that you don’t need to replace the entire system.
Of course, remember to ask a professional to install it for you.
If you want your guitar to make a good sound on stage, you need to have the following. (My personal preference is shown in parentheses):
Good Pickup (Sunrise, K&K)
Good preamp (K-K, AER)
Good cable (Kaminari)
The most important thing to have good playing skills. (Please find a good teacher to upgrade your fingers!)