Q: Onstage, miking an acoustic guitar can be problematic. Today, we have a wide variety of pickup options, and in the right hands, guitars with pickups can sound wonderful. However, they can sometimes have an unpleasant twang, something like rubber bands on a cigar box. What are your thoughts about installing pickups on a fine guitar? —Sandra Rizzo, Peoria, Illinois
A: Years ago, I owned a ’39 D-28, which sported prominent screw holes through the rosette for surface-mounting a magnetic pickup, as well as a plugged hole below the bridge where a volume pot once lived. I don’t know how long a pickup was used on that guitar, but it couldn’t have been for more than a fraction of its life. The disfiguration of a vintage classic, however, is permanent.
The first question to ask when contemplating pickup installation is, “What alterations am I willing to live with after discarding an obsolete pickup?” Mounting a magnetic pickup on a prewar D-28 seems like an obvious no-no, now that the pickup is long gone, and prewar D-28s cost more than my first house. But what about installing a modern pickup on a Brazilian Santa Cruz?
These days, pickup installation typically requires enlarging the endpin hole to accept a 1/4-inch jack, securing wires and/or batteries to the interior of a guitar, drilling a hole through the saddle slot, and so on. Some alterations are irreversible. Anyone who’s tried removing the formerly gummy, later petrified adhesives used to mount interior components, however, can attest to the lasting quality of even the least obtrusive aspects of pickup installation.
A fine acoustic guitar can last several lifetimes. But will today’s acoustic pickups someday be prized by future collectors in the same way that, say, antique carbon ribbon microphones are now coveted? I’m betting that some modern-day Nikola Tesla invents a high-fidelity, wireless, miniature, low-impact, acoustic sensing element in your lifetime, if not mine, rendering contemporary pickups obsolete.
I understand why players need pickups. Whether you’re a pro who can afford a salaried sound man, or you gig for fun just a couple times a year, you still want good sound. The guy who installed the pickup on my D-28 was also after the best sound available at the time.
My advice to clients who request pickups is to think globally about how they intend to use their guitars, and to alter with caution. An amplified acoustic guitar sounds as good as the entire signal chain, which for the pros includes guitar, pickup, cables, preamp, signal processing equipment, and sound system— not to mention judicious and experienced mixing. The Brazilian Santa Cruz with a pickup and an “acoustic” amp probably beats “rubber bands on a cigar box,” but don’t expect it to match the concert fidelity of Sean Watkins from last year’s Nickel Creek tour.
Many guitars produced today by independent luthiers, boutique shops, and the custom facilities of large production shops are destined to become tomorrow’s vintage classics. If you can afford the Santa Cruz, you can probably also afford a designated gigging guitar. Quality new and used high-volume production guitars are available literally by the millions. Plugged in and with minimal sound support, many, if not most, sound about the same as the guitars you’re saving for the grandchildren.
If you’re less committed to collecting sound reinforcement than to collecting guitars, think about keeping the Santa Cruz in the music room—and wait patiently for the second coming of Nikola Tesla.