Acoustic guitarists who have been around long enough can tell stories about the days of trying to be heard in a band: standing still in front of a mic while battling feedback or using the earliest of aftermarket pickup options and sounding like all wires and no wood. And the first acoustic-electric guitars—like the P-90-equipped Gibson J-160E that John Lennon made famous in his television appearances with the Beatles—didn’t really sound convincingly acoustic either, nor did instruments like Martin’s short-lived D-18E and D-28E of the late 1950s.
In the last few decades, pickups have come a long way for the performing acoustic guitarist. There are now seemingly endless choices of guitar/pickup combinations to suit the needs of players in a variety of styles. Instrument makers work closely with pickup companies to find the optimal electronics for their offerings, and gig-ready acoustic-electric guitars, while once specialty items, can be had at all price points.
Given a market teeming with attractive options, it can be overwhelming, to say the least, to find the acoustic-electric guitar that’s right for your style and which sounds great acoustically while providing excellent reinforcement when needed. To help make your job a little easier, we’ve compiled an overview of acoustic-electrics introduced this year.
In the early 1970s, when country legend Glen Campbell requested an electric model from Ovation Guitars, the company placed a piezoelectric pickup—one that read the strings’ vibrations and converted them to voltage—in one of its trademark round-backed guitars. Later that decade, Takamine introduced the revolutionary Palathetic pickup, which incorporated six individual piezo transducers under the bridge plate for optimal string separation when amplified—an electronics system only available on a Takamine guitar.
The Palathetic ushered in a new era of plug-in-and-play, and today its original design remains virtually intact. Undersaddle pickups in general—those made from thin pieces of piezoelectric material, fitted in slots under bridge saddles—are now the most commonly used type, known for their clarity, especially in the high-end register. If you need that edge to cut through a band or a loud room, and also want good feedback resistance, this is a good choice.
Undersaddle pickups are often used in tandem with onboard preamps—more on this in a bit—but some acoustic-electrics use these pickups on their own. Among the chief benefits is that this pickup type is passive—no need for batteries—and it does not visually detract from the guitar in the way that some electronics systems do. Undersaddle pickups can be added to prized vintage guitars with little or no modifications (see Noninvasive Species sidebar below), and using an external preamp can potentially offer more flexibility than one mounted to a guitar. But a drawback to a passive pickup is that the tone can vary, depending on what you plug into. Sitting at the affordable end of the spectrum in this category is Yamaha’s recent Storia series of acoustic-electrics, aimed at entry level players and going for $400 street.
It’s far more common for new acoustic-electric guitars to feature active electronics systems, combining undersaddle pickups with battery-powered preamps. In the 1980s, Takamine pioneered a design that’s now standard—an onboard preamp with sliding EQ controls, mounted on a guitar’s upper bass bout, with an external battery compartment. Other systems are more discrete, with battery access inside the soundbox, the preamp installed out of sight in the endpin jack, and thumbwheel controls tucked under the top by the soundhole.
Active pickup systems have some nice benefits—you can control the guitar’s tone without the need for external gear and get a reliably consistent sound when plugging into different amplifiers or PA systems. Naturally, plenty of new acoustic-electrics with active pickup systems were introduced in 2019.
At the lower end of the price spectrum, Martin unveiled the 000CJr-10E ($599), an auditorium-sized cutaway with Fishman’s Sonitone. This popular electronics package includes thumbwheel controls for tone and volume. Martin also introduced its Modern Deluxe series of updated takes on classic designs. For about an additional $289, each Modern Deluxe can be ordered with Fishman Matrix Infinity electronics, including thumbwheel tone and volume controls, as well as a voicing switch, which allows for either a bass boost or a flat response.
Gibson recently unveiled the G-45 Studio and Standard—sloped-shoulder walnut models, which at $999 and $1,299, respectively, happen to represent hard-to-beat values in American-made acoustic-electric guitars. Like the Martin 000CJr-10E, these Gibsons are outfitted with Fishman Sonitone electronics.
New acoustic-electrics by PRS also come standard with Fishman electronics. The SE T60E ($1,049), for instance, uses PRS’s hybrid X/classical bracing, which is said to allow the soundboard to vibrate more freely than traditional steel-string bracing—translating to a wider range of nuances, which are captured by Fishman’s GT1, a combination undersaddle pickup and soundhole-mounted preamp.
Cort’s line of affordable acoustic-electrics includes two new offerings, among others. Having a solid spruce Sitka top and EvoRose (a composite alternative to rosewood) back and sides, the MR720F ($389.99) sports Fishman Presys electronics, with a three-band EQ, LED tuner, and phase control. The Gold Mini F ($649.99) is a 3/4-size dreadnought boasting a solid Adirondack spruce top and Fishman’s Flex Plus system, with a Sonicore under-saddle pickup and low-profile volume, bass, and treble controls (see full review on page 82).
Among Eastman’s new offerings is the AC108CE-LTD ($999), a 14-fret cutaway with a solid Adirondack spruce top that’s equipped with L.R. Baggs’ EAS (Element Active System) electronics, with a super-thin pickup that’s designed to mirror the soundboard’s vibrations and capture a wide range of nuances. This same system is standard on guitars by other makers, like Breedlove, which installs it in the Pursuit Exotic Concerto Prairie Burst CE ($799) and other models.
Alvarez’s new Artist Elite series includes affordable acoustic-electrics outfitted with L.R. Baggs’ Element pickup and Stage Pro Element EQ. As seen on a model like the all-solid AGFM80CEAR Grand Auditorium ($599.99), with its maple back and sides, the Stage Pro is an externally mounted preamp with a three-band EQ, built-in chromatic tuner.
Fans of the 12-string guitar celebrated the reintroduction of Guild’s legendary maple jumbo model. While it’s available without a pickup, an acoustic-electric version, the F-512E Maple ($3,999) adds L.R. Baggs Anthem electronics—whose soundhole-mounted controls do not disrupt the beauty of the maple’s figuring.
Some guitar builders of course supply their own proprietary electronics. Takamine, still a leader in this realm, introduced a handful of acoustic-electrics this year. For instance, the slope-shouldered CRN-TS1 ($1,799), a 12-fret dreadnought with a torrefied spruce soundboard, is outfitted with Takamine’s trademark transducer, as well as CT4B-II onboard electronics, an upper-bout mounted preamp with a three-band EQ, and integrated tuner.
From Taylor’s Builder’s Edition series, the all-koa K24ce ($4,799), with the maker’s new V-Class bracing, is equipped with onboard ES2 (Expression System 2) electronics. Three sensors sit behind the saddle instead of under it, catching the vibrations moving back and forth rather than up and down. At the other end of the price spectrum, the Academy 10e ($649) sports Taylor’s ES-B electronics, also using behind-the-saddle placement and onboard volume, tone, and tuner controls.
Other Electronics Systems
While the undersaddle transducer is the most common acoustic-electric pickup, another smart type is the soundboard transducer, which is usually mounted on the bridge plate. A pro is that this pickup type captures the motion of the guitar’s top, for a woody sound; a con is that it can be more susceptible to feedback than the undersaddle variety. Then there’s the internal soundhole microphone, often a mini condenser fitted inside the guitar, frequently used in tandem with an undersaddle or soundboard transducer. This type of solution can capture the sound of a guitar recorded in the studio.
While soundboard transducer and hybrid electronics systems (like an undersaddle pickup and soundhole mic combo) are less often factory-installed in acoustic-electric guitars than the standard undersaddle pickup/preamp set, there are plenty of good options out there—electronics that discourage feedback, at the same time promoting sounds that are free from the artificial, boxy qualities that are sometimes associated with undersaddle pickups.
A handful of guitars in Martin’s midrange 16 Series—the D-16E, GPC-16E, 00-16E, 000-16E($1,699 each), and the D-16E Burst and OMC-16E Burst ($1,899 each)—come equipped with Fishman Matrix VT Enhance electronics, made exclusively for Martin, which capture the longitudinal energy of the guitar’s soundboard. The Enhance package is said to have a transparent tone and includes a unique tone control that boosts the treble and bass frequencies while cutting the mids.
Martin’s Modern Deluxe series can be ordered with L.R. Baggs’ Anthem system (an optional $390), which includes an undersaddle pickup and proprietary condenser microphone, which is mounted to the bridge plate and positioned 3mm above the plate, such that it performs as if it were placed outside of the guitar in the studio. A mix control allows blending of the pickup and mic, so you can easily adjust the sound based on the size of the room or volume of the band. If you like clarity but also want the natural sound of wood, a system like this would be a good option for you.
In a completely different direction, Yamaha’s recent TransAcoustic lineup includes acoustic-electric guitars with built-in effects. One of the latest additions to the series, the CSF-TA ($699.99) is a parlor-sized instrument that when unplugged has natural reverb and chorus effects that can be called forth from a vibrating device inside the guitar. When the guitar is plugged in, these effects are amplified through Yamaha’s SRT piezo pickup and System 70 TransAcoustic preamp.
Fender’s American Acoustasonic Telecaster ($1,999.99) is a hybrid guitar that incorporates three different pickup systems—a Fishman undersaddle transducer, Fishman Acoustasonic Enhancer, and Fender Acoustasonic Noiseless magnetic pickup, plus the Acoustic Engine, a processor. With this unique instrument, you can access all kind of classic acoustic tones—there are settings like “Sitka/rosewood dreadnought”—as well as electric sounds. This is obviously a good solution for a guitarist who must cover a lot of sonic territory in a single gig. And for those who prefer the looks of highly figured woods, the Acoustasonic Telecaster is now available in cocobolo, ziricote ($3,299 each), and koa ($3,999.99).
Of course, on paper and on the internet, it’s easy to be wowed by the possibilities inherent to the latest acoustic-electric guitars—for both performing and recording purposes, such a far cry from the earliest examples in terms of sound and flexibility. But the best way to find what will work best for you is to try a bunch of different pickup types on guitars from various makers, as gear selection is such a highly personal thing.
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Thinking about an aftermarket update to your custom concert rosewood-and-spruce beauty? If the sight of sawdust makes you queasy, you might not be able to bring yourself to add a pickup. On the other hand, it’s no big deal if it just means widening the endpin hole a bit to install the jack. That’s different from gouging out a hole on the side of your guitar for an onboard preamp. And if you don’t want to modify your guitar at all, you can try the Vintage Jack ($87.50), which will fit into most existing endpin holes (but does include a 1/8-inch output jack, as opposed to the standard 1/4-inch).
To amplify, say, your prewar Martin D-18, there are noninvasive pickup options available. K&K Sound’s popular Pure Mini ($99), for instance, is a passive solution consisting of three coin-sized transducers, which are adhered to the bridge plate. The transducers pick up sound from the wood, and experimenting with their placement can yield optimal results from your guitar. Positioning them slightly toward the treble side will offset a boomy dreadnought, for example.
When volume is needed, a magnetic soundhole pickup, with its typically fat, warm sound, is a smart option. While some models can be easily detached when not in use, others can be permanently installed, with the cable hidden inside the guitar and the jack sent through the endpin. A potential drawback is that soundhole pickups can sound less natural and more electric than other types. But this is balanced by the ability to be heard in a stadium in front of a loud drummer. Just a few good magnetic options include Bartolini’s 3AV ($120), DiMarzio’s Black Angel ($164.99), Fishman’s Rare Earth ($179.95), Seymour Duncan’s Woody ($59), and Sunrise’s S-1 ($310). —JM
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.