I play acoustic guitar and sing. It's mainly covers that I do, and this has started getting me regular gigs. They're fairly small pub gigs, for the most part, and for amplification purposes I've just had the sound guy point a couple of mics at me, so far. I do find this pretty restrictive, though. I know there's not much I can do about it for the vocals (barring some kind of Madonna-style head mic, which seems a little extreme), but I would like to explore the possibility of an alternative for the guitar. Despite having been a guitarist for some years now, I've never actually used any kind of pickup, and I was expecting there to be a smaller choice than there seems to be. Could you outline the differences for me and perhaps recommend a solution? Also, if I'm serious about this, should I be getting a pickup professionally installed into the body of the guitar?
Craig Allison, via email
SOS Editor In Chief Paul White replies: The simplest type of acoustic guitar pickup to fit is the so-called 'magnetic soundhole' pickup, as these clip across the soundhole, requiring no modification to your instrument. For a more permanent solution, the output socket can be fitted in place of the end strap-pin (you can still hang a strap on it), although this is best done by a professional luthier. Soundhole pickups come in many types and at many prices, the cheaper ones having a slightly 'electric guitar' quality to them, but the better ones, such as those made by Fishman or LR Baggs, can sound excellent. Prices range from around £10$15 to around £300$450, so there's something there for every budget. Some are entirely passive, whereas others require a small battery. LR Baggs also make a miking system for guitar in which a microphone is fitted into the guitar body.
The other popular type of pickup system uses under-bridge 'piezo' pickups, but this type has to be fitted by a competent luthier. Other systems combine under-bridge pickups with internal microphones, but these also require expert fitting. Piezo pickups have a very high impedance and so require either an external preamp or a built-in preamp, the latter often requiring a hole to be cut into the side of the guitar. So if you have a guitar that you want to keep 'as is', your best solution is either to go for a soundhole pickup, or buy a second guitar with a piezo pickup system already built in.
Fitting a pickup of any type will allow you a lot more level before feedback than an external microphone, but the resulting sound may not be quite as natural, so your sound guy may have to apply some EQ. Various external preamps and processors are available to make the output of a pickup sound more 'acoustic', but these add complication and expense to the equation. Pickups don't cure the feedback problem altogether, as sound energy fed back to the guitar body will cause the strings to vibrate, feeding energy back into the pickup, and when you reach a certain level, feedback will reassert itself. In most cases, though, the level at which you can work is acceptably high.