Acoustic guitars are awesome, but there are times you’ve got to raise the volume. The sweet soft strands of your finger-style may not carry as well at that outside gig you’re getting ready to play as it does in a coffee shop.
(Of course, there are plenty of noisy coffee shops that need amps, too)
In order to amplify your guitar, you will need a pickup. A pickup translates the vibrations of the guitar strings into electrical signals that can then be amplified.
That means you either need to purchase an acoustic-electric guitar that is already equipped to work with an amplifier or retrofit your acoustic with a pickup (which, thankfully, is easy to do)
In this guide, we are going to review the different types of pickups and explain which ones are best for different uses. Then, we are going to review some of the best ones in the industry to make it easier for you to choose a quality piece that will exactly meet your specific needs, whether you are choosing one for the sake of recording, or for small performances!
Types of Pickups
Active vs. Passive
Active Pickups – These have a battery pack and the ability to boost the volume a little bit or “add gain”. They often also offer some basic equalizer adjustments and the ability to mix your sound a little bit before sending it to the amp. This can make adjustments a little more easy for you to do from the stage.
Passive Pickups – Passives do not require any additional power source. (So, no batteries.) They simply pickup up the sound, and transfer it to the amp. This is the category that most fall in, and often require the least amount of modification to your kit.
Magnetic vs Piezo Pickups — Which is Best?
Magnetic Pickup – Is often considered the best choice. The magnetic unit sits under the strings of the guitar and functions by magnetizing the strings of the guitar and then interpreting the vibrations into electrical signals.
Most people think that Magnetics deliver a more balanced sound, however since they only interpret the tones from the strings, they may not capture the acoustic nuances you are after. In addition, they do not work on guitars that have nylon strings.
Piezo Pickups – These are some of the most common pickups out there. In fact, most acoustic guitars that are sold with a unit already installed will be using a piezo. The Piezo pickup has a small crystal inside of it that vibrates in frequency with the guitar, and then converts that vibration into electrical sound waves.
Sometimes piezos are accused of producing a harsher sound than a microphone or than their magnetic counterpart would. However, if you want to capture the acoustic nuance without being encumbered by a microphones system, the Piezo is an excellent option.
Microphone Pickups – Without getting into the mechanics of how a microphone works, let’s just say that they offer the absolute best sound. Microphones are designed to capture a wide range of sounds and enable you to accurately capture and reproduce not only the notes but also the tone, of your instrument, which is half the art of being a guitarist. This is the choice for all studio recording and is becoming the mainstay of acoustic professionals.
The Best Options Available Online
1. Review Of The L.R. Baggs Lyric
Just because a pickup is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best.
However, if you want a studio-quality pickup, it is going to cost you.
Most studios will actually set mics on stands near the instrument for recording. This delivers a super high-quality sound that also captures a lot of the squawks and scrapes of fingerstyle playing.
While delivering excellent sound, these condenser microphones are not only expensive ($400+), they also are cumbersome, requiring you to remain in one place the entire time you play.
An excellent “compromise” is the L.R. Baggs Lyric system. Installed inside your instrument, this system delivers studio-quality sound without compromising your mobility during stage performance. It’s the first system that comes close to letting you create that studio-level output during your coffee shop gig.
L.R. Baggs has long been a leader in creating products that capture the true essence of your guitar. Their Anthem series has been setting the standard for several years, now.
However, with their recent release of the Lyric, they used their years of experience they gained from the Anthem series to create a microphone system that is truly decades ahead of itself. The Lyric not only captures the microphone sound, it uses unique circuit board technology to identify and cancel out interference to deliver crisp, clear, natural tones.
The Lyrics also uses a lot of the same installation tricks. So it mounts 3 mm away from the underside of the bridge, giving it the perfect distance for taking advantage of the boundary effect and delivering the perfect, even tone that you love about acoustic guitars.
The only downside with the Lyric is that everyone who bought the Anthem SL is wishing they had waited a couple of years to get this new system.
Is the Lyric Better Than The Anthem?
While the two systems look quite similar, the inner-workings of the Lyric is so much better. The circuit board design enables this little microphone to capture more sound than any other system before it has been able to do.
And when you listen, there is a pretty clear difference in the quality of sound. I mean, if you find the Anthem SL on sale for half the price then sure, grab it! But dollar for dollar, the Lyric is worth its money.
2. The K&K Pure Mini: A Less Expensive Option
I wanted to make sure that this list offers a high-quality pickup for around $100.
If you still want the classical sound offered by the L.R Baggs, but you want to save some money, the K&K Mini is an excellent choice.
Unlike the Lyric, the K&K Mini uses a piezo system to capture the vibrations. This makes it ideal for those of us who may not have high-end, quality instrument that we want to amplify ( lower end guitars simply will not have the tonality needed for the Lyric system).
They K&K Mini really does make anybody look good. It has nice, warm tones, and works with both finger-picking and strumming styles. It does a good job with the amplification of the true output of the guitar without adding that tinny tone found in most Piezo pickups.
The K&K amplifies fairly well, although you may find some feedback issues if you get too loud. A lot of folks find that for larger gigs, a little pre-amp is a perfect choice for more sound control and volume.
For the price, the K&K is a very pleasing choice for everyone from the hobbyist to the serious musician.
3. The MXL 770: The Best Pickup For Recording An Acoustic Guitar
So, you are ready to start recording some of your songs. Maybe you want to cut that high-quality youtube video and become as famous as Boyce Avenue.
Pickups have been slow to advance technologically. The Lyric by L.R. Baggs (reviewed above) is one of the most advanced products being manufactured that is currently on the market — and it is simply a tiny condenser microphone.
Bottom line is, if you try to record with a pickup, it is going to sound “off”. Now, for Youtube, you can get away with a lot. The K&K mini or the L.R. Baggs Lyric would be an excellent choice both for playing gigs and cutting Youtube videos.
But for cutting a real song that people are going to listen to over and over?
For that, you will need a mic.
Granted, when you start micing stuff, it gets a lot more complicated. You have to test the room, and may need to hang some curtains to stop echoes. If you are using this in your house, you’ll have to kill the A/C, unplug the phone and shut off the fridge. Nobackground hums allowed!
Fishman Vs MXL 770 Sound Demonstration:
A better question would be: “What affordable microphone is best for recording an acoustic guitar?”
When it comes to Microphones, a Dynamic microphone is simply not going to be able to capture the full range of your needs You are going to have to go with a Condenser.
Granted, Condenser microphones aren’t cheap. The good news is, there is one microphone that is consistently the clear winner among home recording artists: The MXL 770 Cardiod Condenser.
It does an excellent job with both instruments and vocals, so it is extremely versatile. But for acoustic recording, it really captures the magic and delivers incredible results for very little money.
If you wanna blow away your audience, but keep your pocketbook intact, you’ve got to check it out.
4. The HDE: The Best Cheap Acoustic Pickup
The HDE is heralded on Amazon as being the “#1 Best-seller” in pickups for acoustics. That means more of these are sold every day on Amazon than any other option available.
However, we all know that just having a bunch of people buy something does not make it awesome by default.
So, is the HDE a good choice for those needing a cheap selection?
There are several downsides to this product. To begin with, it is a newer product, with reviews only going back to fall of 2012. So we don’t know how long it will last or how durable it is.
However, considering that it normally sells for around $20, you could buy a new one every couple of years, and still not be hurting.
The sound is probably the most important concern, and here it performs decently. It does tend to not pick up the external strings as well, and the Low E and B strings can really overpower the rest. Shifting the pickup so that it is closer to the High E seems to balance things out a little better, but it still is not good for fingerstyle.
However, I have been very pleased with how little feedback and “hum” there is. Once you get it positioned, it seems to deliver a very clear result that was worth the effort of fiddling around with it to dial it in.
Of course, since it is a magnetic pickup, it does not work with nylon-strings.
The resulting output is much more similar to an electric feel than that of an amplified acoustic.
Bottom line is, this soundhole pickup is butt-ugly, but it works better than many that are priced twice as much. For the occasional gig or playing around with effects, this is a great choice.
5.The AXL Transducer: Best Cheap Selection For An Acoustic Sound
For this pickup, I will suggest the AXL. It is piezoelectric, and since it responds to the vibrations of the entire instrument instead off just the strings, it does an excellent job reflecting the overall sound of your playing.
Overall, this product has a lower star rating on Amazon reviews. This owing to an earlier version of the product that had a weak suction cup which refused to stay attached. Since then, AXL has rectified the problem, and it stays attached almost too well.
There are two versions available on Amazon: one which installs more permanently and comes with an endpin, and a second version which only attaches to the face of the instrument body and plugs into your amp with no drilling — especially if you can stay close to your amplification while playing.
At this price point, I would suggest going with the no-drill option. As you can see, drilling is kind of a big deal and something you would want to outsource to a professional.
This is not a professional model. It’s a little quiet. But for amplifying solo playing for that coffee shop gig, it can be a good, inexpensive choice.
Read More Guitar Accessory Reviews…