The beauty of an acoustic-electric guitar is that you get all the same warmth with even more amplification. So, if you’re playing for a crowd, you’ll know that even the person at the back can hear every note. But since they’re designed to boost your sound, you might be wondering what they sound like unplugged.
Acoustic-electric guitars sound good unplugged as they sound just like standard acoustic guitars. However, where traditional acoustics amplify their sound through the soundhole, acoustic-electric guitars use a piezo pickup and amplifier. Whether the change in sound is better is a subjective opinion.
It’s common for guitarists who only play electric guitars to ask how an acoustic-electric one will sound. In this post, you’ll learn what an acoustic-electric guitar is, how it creates sound, and if a standard guitar is a better option for you.
How Do Acoustic-Electric Guitars Sound?
Acoustic-electric guitars, sometimes called electro-acoustic guitars, are acoustic guitars with built-in electronics to boost their volume. They look the same as acoustic guitars except for the small panel for the controls and plug.
Acoustic-electric guitars sound just like standard acoustics when played live without amplification. However, once plugged in, its sound will change slightly. It’s common to experience distortion, and many people argue that they cannot capture the natural sound of a standard acoustic.
When playing an acoustic-electric guitar, a guitarist uses the controls to adjust the volume, tone, and equalization before plugging it into an amplifier. The sound and volume can be manipulated through the amplifier, but too much manipulation and the guitar will lose its acoustic sound altogether.
Preamps and other effects on an electric amp can try to recreate an authentic acoustic sound, but if you unplug the acoustic-electric, it won’t sound the same.
And if you never plug it into an amp, it’ll sound like any other acoustic of similar quality. But why would you spend additional money for a guitar you’ll never plug in?
Check out this video for a great idea of how these guitars sound. You’ll hear that classic acoustic sound in the beginning, then if you scroll to the 3:50 mark, you’ll hear how it can sound a little more electric:
To better understand how these guitars work, we first need to discuss how an acoustic guitar creates sound.
How Acoustic Guitars Create Sound
Here’s how acoustic guitars create sound:
- An acoustic guitar’s sound starts with the vibrations made when someone strums or plucks the strings.
- Next, the vibrations travel to the saddle and bridge of the guitar, from which they enter the guitar’s body.
- The vibrations “move” the air within the guitar’s body, and the exiting vibrations are the sounds you hear when someone plays.
Acoustic guitars have limited volume, so guitarists will use a microphone and amplifier to be heard in a larger room or with others playing.
There are two ways of amplifying the sound of an acoustic guitar. One is to place it close to a microphone hooked up to an amp, and the other is to put a pickup into the guitar’s body. Either of these methods takes the mechanical sound waves and amplifies them.
The microphone barely changes the sound quality coming from the acoustic guitar. It simply takes the sound and sends it to an amplifier, making it louder. However, a pickup can significantly affect the guitar’s sound because it converts the mechanical sound waves into electrical ones (here’s how to make guitar pickups sound better).
How Acoustic-Electric Guitars Create Sound
An electric acoustic guitar initially creates sound in the same way as described above – the strings are strummed and or plucked, and the vibrations create “sound waves” that we hear.
However, when the acoustic-electric guitar is plugged in, the sound changes.
The change happens because of active pickups built into the guitar. These pickups, also known as transducers, take the sound waves and turn them into an electric form. These can include magnetic pickups placed next to the soundhole, contact pickups, and Piezo pickups.
Some acoustic-electric guitars also have built-in mics.
Most acoustic-electric guitars will use a Piezo. The Piezo relies on the vibrations that come through the saddle, not the guitar’s chamber. Therefore, it doesn’t capture the sound created by having soundwaves bounce around the chamber before leaving through the soundhole.
Piezo pickups function in a different way than magnetic pickups. Instead of using a magnet to generate an electrical signal, piezo pickups generate the signal using crystals. When piezoelectric crystals like quartz are compressed or hit, they create an electric charge.
You’re probably familiar with the Piezo effect. Quarts clocks and timers use the process to keep time, and a Piezo lighter depends on the impact of a spring-powered hammer on a crystal. The crystal creates enough voltage to cause a spark.
Piezo pickups were initially used on acoustic guitars with nylon strings because pickups that used magnetic vibrations wouldn’t work with nylon. However, eventually piezo pickups became the standard for acoustic guitars.
An acoustic-electric guitar, in addition to requiring a pickup system like a Piezo, will also need a built-in preamp to function correctly. A preamp in your acoustic-electric guitar boosts the signal produced by your instrument’s pickup before delivering it to your amplifier.
Because the preamp system requires a power source to function, batteries are frequently included when purchasing an acoustic-electric guitar.
The Difference Between Piezos and Pickups
A piezo and pickup can both be used to amplify a guitar, but they go about it in different ways. These differences affect the sound quality and possible feedback levels.
Piezos off Bright and Clear Sound, but It Needs Boosting
A piezo pickup is hidden inside the guitar’s body, typically not visible. It detects vibrations from the saddle of an acoustic guitar. Because the strings are very tight there, the sound from a piezo is bright and clear.
However, a piezo creates little volume, so the signal needs to be boosted. This is commonly done with a preamp.
To counterbalance the dynamic range of a piezo, its signal has to be both boosted and compressed. This process affects the guitar’s sound – it can turn a clean sound nasally if the preamp gets overloaded.
Soundhole Pickups Sound More Electric and Are Susceptible to Feedback
On the other hand, a soundhole pickup is usually visible, either spanning the soundhole or tucked away to one side. They detect sound magnetically, much like pickups on an electric guitar.
Though easy to install, they can make an acoustic-electric guitar sound more like an electric, which is not what most players need from this type of guitar.
Luckily, acoustic-electric guitars come with piezo pickups installed because installing one is notoriously difficult (Relevant article: Pros and cons of acoustic-electric guitar). Most soundhole pickups can be installed in under half an hour. Because they create an electric guitar-like sound, acoustic guitarists usually prefer piezo pickups, and acoustic-electric guitars use them.
The Amp You Use Can Affect the Sound of Your Guitar
The type of amp you use can affect the guitar’s sound. For example, most amps are designed for electric instruments, and plugging an acoustic instrument into an amp for electric guitars affects the instrument’s sound.
An acoustic amp is designed to amplify the sound with minimum effects. Acoustic amps might have a few built-in effects, feedback controls, volume, and channels for guitar and microphone. But the primary goal isn’t to change the instrument’s sound but to make it louder.
Electric amps focus on different frequencies – mid-range and treble – and they include a whole host of effects that allow guitarists to create such a broad spectrum of sounds with their guitars.
Indeed, you should think of an electric amp as a separate instrument. The guitarist first manipulates sounds coming through the pickups, and then those signals are further controlled by the amp.
Why You Should Switch to an Acoustic Amp
Unless you specifically bought an acoustic amp, chances are you’ve been playing your acoustic-electric guitar through an electric amp. Without the distortion and effects of an electric amp, an acoustic-electric guitar will sound different.
And if you aren’t prepared for that difference, then you might think that the acoustic-electric doesn’t sound as good when in fact, what you were playing wasn’t purely acoustic sound.
Have a listen to this YouTube video of how an acoustic guitar pickup affects the instrument’s sound:
Regular Acoustic vs. Electro-Acoustic
Although an electro-acoustic guitar is more versatile, the decision on which one you should buy depends on your ability, how much money you want to spend, and your future goals.
Acoustic-Electric Guitars Are Made for Amplification
The beauty of this type of guitar is that you can play it with an amp or play it unplugged. That versatility is ideal for musicians who frequently move from small rooms to larger crowds. In addition, it means you don’t need more than one instrument.
If you have an amp and want to project the sound of your guitar, an electro-acoustic will let you do that.
That said, if you don’t regularly play in larger spaces and therefore don’t typically need an amp, you’ll be spending even more money on top of the extra expense of an acoustic-electric over a standard acoustic.
Acoustic Guitars Require Less Additional Equipment
Not only are standard acoustics cheaper, but they can be played right off the bat. In contrast, to get the most out of an acoustic-electric, you’ll need some extra supplies.
Also, while you may play the acoustic-electric guitar unplugged, and it’ll sound just like an acoustic, you must still carry all your extra gear just in case you want or need to plug it in.
With an acoustic guitar, you won’t have to worry about extra equipment (or its expense), damage to your additional equipment, or finding a place for all of your accessories.
You can easily take your acoustic guitar with you wherever and whenever you wish to play.
An acoustic-electric guitar sounds like a standard acoustic guitar when you unplug it. Differences in sound should be attributed to the amp, especially if your guitar was plugged into an amp for electric guitars.
If you play an electric guitar, you might want to buy an acoustic-electric model for its versatility. However, if you’re dead set on an acoustic sound, then a standard acoustic might be better for you.