When you play guitar, there is a lot of accompanying gear that you need to learn about, too, so that you can make the best decisions about what works for you and what you want to use in your setup to get the best results. Pickups are part of the accompanying gear category. While there are a couple of different kinds of pickups, today, we will focus on passive pickups for acoustic guitars.
A passive pickup is a device that helps amplify the sound of your guitar. These pickups don’t require any electronics (such as a battery pack) to help them alter the sound they pick up from your guitar before sending it to the amplification system. They work similarly to a microphone.
This article will discuss what amplification does for your acoustic guitar, what passive pickup is on an acoustic guitar, and the variations of passive pickups. We will also list some passive pickups we think are good choices to use if you want to add a pickup to your kit. Now let’s get into it!
What Amplification Does for Guitar Sound
Acoustic guitars are loved for the intimacy they can bring to a performance of a song; however, if you want to play to a crowd of more than a few people, being heard can get tricky. Whether you need to compete with the other instruments in a band, play over the chatter in a restaurant, or reach the very back of a concert hall, an acoustic guitar may need some help in the sound department (Relevant article: how to make an acoustic guitar louder).
This is where amplification comes in. In the simplest of terms, an amplification system is a number of devices that help increase the volume of the sound produced by your acoustic guitar. It usually consists of a guitar pickup and either a preamp and amp or just an amp.
The pickup detects the vibrations created throughout the guitar body when you play a chord, converts it into an electrical signal, and sends it out through a cable. This signal then either travels to a preamp or directly to an amp, where it is strengthened (or amplified) and sent out through speakers, where it is converted back to a sound signal so that we can hear what is being played by the guitarist.
However, the sound can never reach the speakers without a pickup on the guitar, so today, we’re going to discuss what pickups are, passive pickups in particular.
What Is Passive Pickup When Using an Acoustic Guitar?
To be able to amplify a guitar’s sound signal, the signal first needs to be converted to an electrical signal so that it can be sent to a preamp or amp, which is where the amplification occurs. This will require either a microphone or a pickup. Of the two, pickups are the most reliable, both in terms of sound quality and hindering interference from external sources.
They are also usually the more convenient option, as they don’t stop you from moving around when performing and isolate your instrument’s sounds from the other instruments around you.
If your guitar doesn’t already have a pickup built in, choosing an after-market pickup for your guitar can seem daunting. Firstly, there are two main categories you can choose from; active pickups and passive pickups. And once you’ve decided on active or passive, there are several other subcategories to choose from. Luckily, we’re here to make the process a lot easier for you.
A passive pickup is a type of pickup that does not need to be connected to a power source (like a battery) to convert your guitar’s sound signal to an electric one. It simply picks up the vibrations created when you play your guitar and converts them to an electric signal. These are the simplest kinds of pickups and are therefore favored by many guitarists.
However, the tone of the “sound” coming out of a passive pickup can vary significantly from system to system depending on the input impedance of what you are plugging it into (i.e., the preamp or amp).
Since they don’t have any electronics, they can’t have a preamp built in to help regulate the issues that may arise and keep the sound consistent. Active pickups, by contrast, then obviously do have electronics in them to power a preamp.
Variations of Passive Pickups
Under the category of passive pickups, there are several other subcategories that pickups fall into, which we will discuss briefly in this section.
Magnetic pickups typically mount across the soundhole of a guitar and detect the vibrations created by your guitar’s strings by using magnetic fields. They only work with steel string guitars, as nylon strings aren’t magnetic. These are most popular with players who need to play at louder volumes, as they are the most resistant to feedback.
They create big and warm tones that work well for many playing styles, though they do sometimes sound “electric.”
Piezo pickups can be affixed to the body of the guitar, the bridge, or under the saddle (which are then known as under saddle transducers). These are usually the smallest kind of pickups and work by transforming the vibrations that move throughout the body of the guitar into electrical signals. Under saddle, transducers are also the most commonly used pickups in factory-installed systems.
Piezo pickups produce a good balance of resistance to feedback and a pleasant acoustic tone, though they do sometimes create an undesirable sound when driven hard. However, this hasn’t stopped them from becoming the most popular kind of pickup, both on factory installs and after-market systems.
Soundboard transducers can either be installed on the inside of a guitar on the soundboard (hence the name) or on the top of the guitar under the bridge. They work by sensing the motion of the guitar’s top (or the vibration of the top) as you play and converting it into an electric signal. When playing at a loud volume, these pickups are more prone to feedback than magnetic and piezo pickups, but overall they create an enjoyable sound.
Some people have described the tone of these pickups as “woody,” which is likely due to the placement of the transducers, especially those placed inside the guitar’s body.
Best Passive Pickups for Your Acoustic Guitar
Now that we’ve discussed what amplification does for your acoustic guitar and what a passive pickup is when using an acoustic guitar, we can go over a few passive pickups that we think are the best for acoustic guitar accompaniment.
The K&K pure mini is a transducer-only passive pickup system that features three transducers and a ¼ inch (0.64 cm) endpin jack. This pickup needs to be installed on the inside of your guitar and will require the most modification to your guitar of all of the pickups on this list. The transducers are affixed to the back of the bridge, and a hole is cut out of the bottom of your guitar for the endpin jack to stick out of.
This pickup transmits a noteworthy amount of the soundboard since it isn’t as close to the strings as under-saddle pickups are. Each individual transducer is made to pick up a specific string pair, but they also “listen” to adjacent areas around them. This means that it puts out a really well-balanced and warm-sounding full-range signal and reproduces the string sounds without making them sound percussive, thin, or harsh.
It is not the cheapest of all pickups, but it is made well and from high-quality materials and sits inside your guitar, so it is more protected than other pickups, and thus it will last you a long time. However, if you don’t have the budget to buy this pickup and have it installed by a luthier, you might want to consider one of the other pickups on our list.
If you own a nylon-stringed guitar, this might be the pickup for you. Made expressly for nylon string guitars, the NG-1 piezo pickup will naturally reproduce the sound of a nylon guitar; however, it will do well on a steel-string guitar as well. This pickup installs directly onto the tie block of your guitar’s bridge and doesn’t require any modifications to be made to your guitar. It’s essentially a plug-and-play pickup system.
This sensor is encased in a lightweight wooden exterior and makes the pickup a small and discreet one. It is easily installed and can be detached or remain installed when you aren’t using it. Using the tension of your guitar’s strings, this piezo-type pickup can easily pick up and reproduce their sound through an amp or preamp system. It comes with a detachable 8-foot (2.44 m) long ⅛ inch to ¼ inch (0.32 to 0.64 cm) cable and is relatively decently priced.
The KNA AP-1 is an easy and effective solution for anyone looking to amplify an acoustic instrument, like a guitar. It mounts to the surface of your guitar and doesn’t require you to modify the exterior or interior of your guitar in any way. It can adhere to the guitar body at any place, but somewhere close to the bridge will likely give you the best results. It is a small and lightweight device that uses a piezo system to pick up your guitar’s sound.
This pickup reproduces the sound of your acoustic instrument naturally and without altering the sound. It comes with enough non-abrasive adhesive putty to be applied multiple times if need be, but it can be left on your guitar when it’s in storage or transit. The putty is strong and will hold the pickup in place if you decide to leave it on your guitar when it’s not in use. It also comes with a detachable 8-foot (2.44 m) long ⅛ inch (0.32 cm) to ¼ (0.32 to 0.64 cm) cable.
This is one of the most inexpensive pickups on this list, but it doesn’t lack in quality, so if you’re on a tight budget, this might be the pickup for you.
The Seymour Duncan Woody SA-3SC is the first magnetic pickup on our list! This pickup is designed to mount into the soundhole of your guitar. It will fit easily into most acoustic guitar soundholes with an impressive diameter range of 3.85 inches (9.78 cm) to 4.10 inches (10.4 cm). It is easy to install and doesn’t require any instrument modification. It has a single magnetic coil on the inside, which allows it to pick up string sound when you play.
This pickup offers a reasonable response that amplifies your sound without detracting from it or creating a hum while also allowing it to blend seamlessly with other instruments and vocals. It is perfect for strumming and even for fingerstyle playing and also comes in two different color options (black and walnut), so you can choose the one that best suits your guitar.
It is moderately priced to be affordable for most musicians. However, it does not have a detachable cable, so if you aren’t using an amplifier, you’ll either have to remove the pickup or find a way to secure the cable away so it doesn’t dangle down the front of your guitar.
The Sound Seeker is another soundhole magnetic pickup and can be installed without making any alterations to your guitar. This passive pickup uses a humbucking system to pick up sound, which means that the coils inside the pickup are stacked. This is done to ensure better string-to-string balance and acoustic clarity while also having the benefit of reducing noise. This double coil system reproduces your sound clearly and naturally.
It can be used on both 6-string and 12-string acoustic guitar models and features 12 adjustable coil heads so you can get exactly the tone you want. It also has volume control and tone control knobs, so you can really tinker with your sound until you like it. It has a soundhole diameter range of 3.8 inches (9.65 cm) to 3.94 inches (10 cm).
It comes with all of the tools necessary to install it onto your guitar and has a cable that can be directly connected to your amp or preamp system. However, this cable is not detachable, so it might get in the way when you are playing unplugged.
The Donner DSS-6 is also a magnetic humbucking pickup. This pickup uses magnetic fields to pick up string vibrations and transmit them to the amp or preamp system it is plugged into. This means that the sound it picks up is not affected by the external environment and is transmitted with virtually no extra noise. The coils are housed in a solid mahogany exterior, which transmits vibrations stably, creating clear and balanced tones.
This pickup is suitable for virtually any acoustic six-string guitar, featuring a soundhole diameter range of 3.8 inches (9.65 cm) to 3.94 inches (10 cm), and can be quickly and easily installed without making any moderations to the body of your guitar. However, it is not suitable for the Taylor’ baby’ guitar series or the Martin’ little’ guitars.
It features volume and tone control knobs and comes with a detachable cable, meaning that there won’t be any cables dangling around when you aren’t playing your guitar through an amp or preamp. It also comes with some accessories included in the package and is very well priced.
This brings us to the last pickup on our list; the Amumu SP60. It is a humbucking pickup with a ceramic magnet and double coils and features six adjustable pole pieces so that you can adjust the balance and tone best for your playing and performing style. It also has a volume adjusting control so that you can adjust the output volume to your liking.
It has the largest range for soundhole diameter, starting from 3.54 inches (9 cm) all the way through to 4.33 inches (10.1 cm), and is suitable for steel-string acoustic guitars of many sizes. It produces a natural and warm sound that has a wide dynamic range, and the double coil feature helps to reduce noise from external factors.
It is a reasonably priced pickup and comes with installation tools and accessories included. It is not necessary to modify your guitar to install this pickup. However, the manufacturers do suggest that you run the cable through the inside of your guitar, meaning you’ll need to drill a hole in the bottom of the guitar to get the jack out.
There are many factors that go into creating a well-rounded guitar setup, and pickups and amplification are just a few. We hope that this article helped you better understand what role amplification and passive pickups play in your guitar setup and that perhaps we were able to help you find a pickup that will fit nicely into your setup. Nonetheless, we hope you enjoyed reading this article!