Electric guitars and basses are, for the most part, solid-bodied, meaning that they have no soundhole and rely entirely on electric or electromagnetic induction through pickups. Acoustic guitars and basses ordinarily produce sound through their soundhole, but it may not be enough for large venues, so some of them have pickups fitted. The question would be in what way they differ.
What are the differences between electric guitar/bass and acoustic guitar/bass pickups? Typically, electromagnetic pickups work perfectly in electric guitars/basses, strategically placed below the strings and along the body. Acoustic guitars and basses usually work better with piezoelectric pickups and may require batteries to deliver a strong enough signal.
In this article, we'll discuss the differences between electric and acoustic guitars and, more specifically, the differences in the typical pickup technology and design.
Acoustic Vs. Electric Guitars And Basses
Electric guitars/basses, as stated before, carry magnetic pickups almost by default (some variations may be equipped with other pickup types). Acoustic guitars and basses may vary in pickup technology, but the most common pickup type is piezoelectric.
Before we unpack these technological differences, we ought to look at the main distinctions between each guitar and bass type and why they matter for the purposes of this analysis.
First, some background information:
The strength of a guitar's sound has traditionally stemmed from the hollowness of the soundhole and the strings' material and gauge.
Back in the day, guitars served as accompaniment and did not play a prominent role in ensembles. However, some solo works were already penned for baroque guitars by the hands of renowned composers such as Francesco Corbetta or Gaspar Sanz. On the other hand, the guitarron was featured as the period's bass guitar, along with the double bass.
This evolution in the role of the guitar inside a concert chamber is linked with the progressive development of the modern guitar. Guitars could hardly overshadow other instruments due to the limitations in their resonance capacity, adding to their already poor sustain.
By the end of the 19th century, Antonio de Torres Jurado and, later, German luthier Hermann Hauser Sr., were instrumental in what became the classical guitar that is known today. This new version was achieved through various enhancements, including an increase in the guitar's dimensions by 20%, the usage of machine heads instead of wooden pegs, and several modifications to the soundboard.
A steel-stringed version of the classical guitar arrived on American soil around that same period. The modern flat-top acoustic guitar was created by German-American Christian Frederick Martin (founder of C.F. Martin & Company), implementing various components that helped the guitar bear the added tension of metal strings.
Martin is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 13 Best Acoustic Guitar Brands In The World
• Top 11 Best Acoustic Guitar String Brands On The Market
• Top 10 Best Classical Guitar String Brands On The Market
• Top 11 Best Ukulele Brands On The Market
Using the flat top as the framework, the concept of electrified guitars was also starting to take shape. However, this concept would not materialize until the mid-'30s when George Beauchamp and Adolf Rickenbacker came up with the first commercial electric guitar, a lap steel guitar (nicknamed “Frying Pan” due to its curious shape). This same concept was also applied to the bass guitar by Paul H. Tutmarc, touted as the inventor of the modern electric bass guitar.
Electric guitars produced their sound by means of a magnetic pickup that would transform vibrational energy from the strings into electric signals that were then sent to an external amplifying device. This device would effectively replace the soundbox featured in classical and acoustic guitars and would be built with a solid body instead of a hollow body.
As electric guitars rely less on the strings' mass and more on the pickup's output capacity, the strings were shrunk and pushed closer together to allow more maneuverability at the neck and better fretting. The strings were also made with ferromagnetic alloys and metals such as cobalt, nickel, and stainless steel.
The body of electric guitars was also slimmed down, as they did not require an ample soundbox to create audible notes.
Pickup Technology And Design
Even though theoretically, acoustic guitars and basses can create relatively audible sounds through the soundhole, there remained a problem, specifically when performances were being held in larger venues.
As explained in the previous section, electric guitars produced audible signals through a pickup with relatively low interference from surrounding noise. The magnetic pickups introduced in the first electric guitars (and still featured in many guitars today) would capture the strings' movement and convert it to electric current. This was done thanks to the magnetic field created by the pole pieces and the strings' own magnetic properties.
Initially, acoustic guitars would be amplified by microphones. However, microphones are prone to leak outside noise from other sources, such as other instruments and the crowd. In light of this, pickups specific to acoustic guitars were starting to appear, for the pickups are designed to receive signals primarily from the strings and not from the environment.
While magnetic pickups are most commonly found in electric guitars, acoustic guitars are largely equipped with piezoelectric guitars, though that is not always the case.
It's not rare to see magnetic pickups designed for acoustic setups. Regardless, there are various caveats to consider:
- The first one is that magnetic pickups hardly receive signals from the wood. While the wood might be factored into the sound in more ways on acoustic guitar pickups (since they're built with special features to emulate the acoustic sound), the guitar still loses some of its natural acoustic tones when heard from the amp speakers.
- The second one is feedback due to the vibrations produced by the hollow soundbox. While they are more resistant to feedback than regular mics, they are not feedback-proof.
- The third one is output. The treble cores will not pose much trouble interacting with the magnetic field, but the wound strings could generate low signals due to their lack of magnetism, particularly if you have bronze or bronze phosphor strings attached.
- Lastly, they can add weight to the guitar, altering its feel and playability.
Magnetic pickups for acoustic guitars are also called soundhole pickups. They have the advantage of being easy to install and set up compared to those designed for electric guitars, only requiring some screwdriver turns and slotting. Even when it's straightforward to mount and unmount, the cable hanging from the soundhole can easily get in the way. Permanent installation could be a solution, but the soundhole will lose some real estate, and the guitar will become heavier.
Some examples of soundhole pickups for acoustic guitars include:
- DiMarzio Black Angel (link to check the price at Sweetwater)
- L.R. Baggs M80 (link to check the price on Amazon)
- Seymour Duncan Woody XL (link to check the price on Amazon)
Electric guitar and bass magnetic pickups are naturally the most common. These are some honourable mentions:
- EVH Frankenstein Humbucker: guitar (link to check the price on Amazon)
- Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Bass PJ Set Pickup: bass (link to check the price on Amazon)
- Gibson P-94R Humbucker Sized P-90 Single Coil Pickup: guitar (link to check the price at Sweetwater)
Double bass magnetic pickups are far scarcer, but the Schaller model (link to check the price at Thomann) model can still be found online. There is virtually no magnetic or soundhole pickup available for acoustic basses, so you would be limited to piezo pickups.
Piezoelectric pickups (also known as piezo pickups) are different from magnetic pickups in that they don't operate by magnetism but by pressure. They use piezoelectric crystals that detect variations in pressure and produce electric signals from them.
Hybrid electric guitars have piezo pickups incorporated under the saddle and the usual magnetic pickups across the body. Body sensors may also be installed instead of undersaddle pickups.
Among the benefits of piezo pickups is that they convey more natural string tones, encompassing some of the wood. While these work relatively well with electric guitars, they shine the most with acoustic guitars, for they receive vibrations from the entire soundboard and not primarily from the strings. Electric guitars with piezo pickups, for all their benefits, suffer in the distortion department compared with those sporting magnetic pickups.
For acoustic guitars/basses, there are two main piezo pickup types:
- Undersaddle transducers consist of pieces of piezoelectric material inserted in a slot located under the saddle. They offer a high-output signal but with some “quack” factor (heavy attack but with little sustain).
- Soundboard transducers are installed on the bridge plate inside the guitar/bass. They interact mostly with the top side of the guitar/bass, producing a wholly “woody” sound (with a bit more depth than the undersaddle counterpart). Unfortunately, the signals are very low, often requiring a preamp to boost and filter the sound after a strong attack.
Most piezo pickups manufactured for electric guitars are undersaddle. Fishman's Powerbridge line (link to check the price at Gear4Music) line specifically caters to electric guitar players who want to imbue their guitars with a more acoustic tone. It's undisputed that they may never match the natural acoustic sound due to the obvious contrast in build type. Still, they can provide electric guitars with a very good tonal alternative.
For acoustic guitars, we can find the following examples:
- LR Baggs Element: undersaddle (link to check the price on Amazon)
- DiMarzio Acoustic Model: soundboard (link to check the price on Amazon)
- Fishman Matrix Infinity: undersaddle (link to check the price at Sweetwater)
Acoustic bass pickups, as illustrated earlier, are mostly piezo. Some notable models include:
- LR Baggs AB-4 Acoustic Bass In-saddle Pickup (link to check the price at Blue Star Music)
- K&K Sound Pure Bass (link to check the price at Thomann)
- Schaller 723 Oyster External Guitar/Bass Pickup (link to check the price at Blue Star Music)
The Barbera Multi-Transducer is an honourable mention for upright basses; a unique pickup integrated into the double bass' bridge beneath the strings.
For more information on acoustic guitar and bass pickup locations, check out my article Where Are Pickups Located In Acoustic Guitars & Basses?
These other types of pickup technology are mostly used in acoustic guitars/basses:
- Microphone: Delivers the best possible sound out of acoustic guitars and basses (with the most fidelity), but with feedback and background noise as major drawbacks. Internal mic alternatives include the Seymour Duncan SA6, while the K&K Meridia is one of the most popular external mics.
- Blended systems: Perhaps the most convenient option, albeit more expensive. They combine a high-quality mic with another pickup type (such as a soundboard transducer). The Fishman Ellipse Matrix is one such example of a blended pickup: A mixture of undersaddle pickup, condenser microphone and preamp.