Guide to Acoustic Guitar Amplification

By Pierce Campbell

Questions for narrowing your search

Once you plug your acoustic instrument into anything, you are then processing an electronic signal. The best pickup in the world without any pre-amp or processing does not sound like an acoustic intrument. At the same time there are almost no music shops that have a good acoustic guitar set up well with good strings and a good pickup and internal mike, let alone having a good quality preamp and PA to plug the thing into so you can really hear what it sounds like. So you almost have to rely on recomendations of other musicians, articles in guitar magazines like Acoustic Guitar and listening to player's whose sound is close to what you would like to hear.

There are several questions you can ask yourself that can help to narrow the search. Here are a few of them.

What is your budget?

A basic under the bridge pickup or one mounted in the sound hole can range from $75 to $185 for a Sunrise. Installation is usually another $50 to $100 depending on who does it, what needs to be done, and what their rate is. So, a simple setup can run anywhere from $125 to $285. If you get into having a mini mike installed also look for another $125 for the mike and higher installation costs bringing the total to over $400 if you install a Sunrise and a mini Mic. This is not small potatoes and if you have a couple of guitars it is a large nut. The least expensive setup is a removable in the soundhole pickup. These are available from DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan and others and do not require installation as they are meant to be removed after use.

That does not even take into consideration the cost of a preamp to boost the signal and give you some tone control. With a mini mic and pickup combo a preamp is absolutely necessary to give the internal mic phantom power as most need, and to combine the pickup and mic. Pre amps can range from $125 to $1200 depending on the quality and sophistication.

What kind of guitar do you have?

You should think hard about this amount of investment if you are not sure of the guitar you have. The sound chain is only as good as the weakest link. So, if you have an instrument that does not have great sound, or sound that you like, you should wait until you have the right instrument. Spend the most on the instrument and get a quality guitar with a sound that you love to hear. Use a microphone on your guitar until you have a good guitar to put electronics into. Spend the time to go to many guitar shops that specialize in many brands of acoustic guitars so you can play and haer the differences between them. Every guitar even of the same type sound totally different.

Putting a mini mic and a pickup into a guitar does not increase the value. It may sell faster, but you will never get any money for it when you sell your guitar. So, it doen't pay to install it in a guitar you are going to sell, unless you remove the pickup and mini mic before selling.

What type of strings do you use, and how often do you change them?

Always change your strings and use a good quality string. Phospher bronze seem to keep their high end a little longer and you can buy them by the box for savings. Changing strings after every couple of gigs can give you much more tone to work with at the preamp or mixing board. Once again, the sound chain is only as good as the weakest link.

What Style Do you play ?Are you a flat picker, or a finger picker? Do you play with a band? How much volume do you really need?

If you play in a band at higher volumes or have a percussive style, you might want to use just a pickup as it will not feed back as quickly as an internal mic. If you fingerpick and you want the subtleties of the acoustic guitar to shine through you need to have the internal mic or use a pickup with an external mic. Some people like the sound of a pickup alone. Sunrise pickups give you a great bass but the mid and high ranges soung like an arch top guitar. They are used alot by players who have a percussive style. It also has less volume than a Fishman Matrix.

What type of venues do you play and what type of traveling do you do?

If you play locally or even regionally and travel mostly by car, then you have the luxury of being able to carry more gear. If you have a preamp, a tuner and you have to carry CD's some cables and personal stuff, you can do that if you aren't goin by plane. If you are going by plane you might want to consider a smaller preamp, one that does not have to go into a rack.

Do you have the time to set up a rack or a more sophisticated pre amp?

Pendulum and Rane units need time to set up with extra cabels and electricity (maybe extention cords ). Is it worth the better sound for a half hour set and the pressure of having to break down fast? Some performers who have had elaborate setups have simplified recently as they got more successful. The hassles of carrying and setting up more gear weren't worth the added sound quality to them. More versatility equals more complicated gear.

If you travel by plane Sunrise recommends that you remove the pickup from the guitar before flying. Fishman tells you to take out the battery from the Matrix system before plane rides, but that is a whole lot easier that removing a Sunrise. Removing a Sunrise can mean using a screw driver, and taking the strings off as well as more installation because you have to have a mini plug inside the guitar so you can un-plug it . But some people swear by them.

What is your honest tolerance for using preamps and eq's?

Are you a plug in and go person or do you want to spend a little time learning how to use a piece of equipment? it takes quite a long time to learn how to use a Pendulum while a Fishman pro EQ has simple bass, midrange and treble controls.

The other issue is that if you do not know what you are looking for in terms of sound, you will be frustrated for a while until you get used to a certain sound or learn to hear different sounds. Then you need to learn how to approximate those sounds with the equiptment available. Sometimes simple is better because of the ease of operation.

Survey of Some Pickups

[Editor's note: A number of excellent and popular pickups and preamps are not reviewed here.]


Fishman Thinlines are a previous generation before the Matrix Systems which now include a preamp on board. Thinlines were the standard of the industry for many years, before and during the recent advent of combination with mini mics. They sounded very mid rangey and were harder to set up than the Matrix pickups because they had small crystals set into polymer to pick up each individual string. Since in essense the pickup had six pickups in it, you could have problems balancing the output of each string depending on the pressure and angle of the sadle on the pickup. Martin pickups and preamps are made by Fishman and are the same products. Thinlines had that distinctive dull string thud when you hit the strings hard and require alot of eq and processing alone to make them sound like a real acoustic guitar. Try EQing the mids out, bringing the lows up around 70 hz and boosting the highs aroung 10k. Adding a touch of harmonizer or chorus, and then a little exciter helps to take the edge off the brittle high end, but once again you are then carrying several processers and that can get expensive and weighty.

The Matrix system comes in a natural and a hot and features a preamp that is attatched to the end pin mjack ot the guitar. the Preamp is not for volume as preamp suggests, but for EQ. The tone is alot smother than the Thinlines. The pickup itself is one consistent sensor down the length of the pickup so there is not as much problem with getting a balance of string output. The Matrix Natrual is geared for those wanting a smoother warmer guitar sound while the Hot is geared for the acoustic/electric player in a band setting who needs more midrange to cut through the rest of the music. Matrix systems can be used with a mini mic as the Thinlines can but require soldering a smart switch also which can be very difficult. It is a chip that requires you to solder about six solder joints onto a small circuit board with some of the connection having three wires attached. Professional installation is a must.

The Matrix Natural system along with the Crown Mini mic supplied by fishman was the favored sound in the Acoustic Guitar Magazine pickup test shown in the Oct.'95 issue. [Editor's note: The test was actually run by ASIA, the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans; Acoustic Guitar reported it. Several setups received ratings as favorable as the Matrix/Crown system.] This system is great for fingerstyle guitarist and flat pickers too. This system requires a battery that is mounted on the sound block of the guitar. These batteries must be taken out when traveling by plane so they do not rattle around in the guitar doing dammage. It is easily done by loosening the strings. It has a life span of about 90 hours. Please use rechargable batteries. These pickups are probably the most used and also have the biggest support system. There are many more preamp products designed for use with them and so are deigned to sound better with them.


The Sunrise pickup is very popular also especially among slide and finger style guitarists who do alot of hammering and percussive guitar work. It sounds very much like an arch top jazz guitar because of it's humbucker design. Main advantage that people like is that it has very smooth low end.

Sunrise pickups do not require a battery, but do require that you install a mini plug in the guitar so you can remove it when you travel. It is a heavy pickup and can damage the guitar if it falls or breaks out of the sound hole. This is not fun to do as you need to take the strings off the guitar and then unscrew the retainer clips which are inside the sound hole. If the screws fall in which they can easily do especially if you have a smaller sound hole this can be tedious.

Some swear by the Sunrise. It has more of an arch top jazz guitar sound than the Fishman, but look at the people who use them, Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges who both have styles that are conducive to the pickup. Both of these players have distinctive sounds that are enhanced by the Sunrise. Sunrise pickups are hand made in limited numbers each year. That means some times it can be hard to get one. They are are also more expensive than the Fishman pickup with a preamp and have less output.

If you use two or more guitars it is recommended you use the same pickup system in all of them because of voulme and significant tone differences. This can make a switch during a show very disconcerting as volume and tone needs to be adjusted.


The Highlander pickup has MartinSimpson, Crosby and Nash recomending it as well as luthiers who say it sounds great so if you have interest in it check it out. There are not many who uses highlander and that says alot about it's acceptance as an industry standard. So there are fewer people who have installed them.Highlander also requires a battery and is a little more expensive than the Fishman Matrix system. The Highlander 2 can be used with a mini mic also.

Survey of Some Preamps

Preamps for single pickups

Fishman pro EQ
The Fishman Pro EQ is designed for use with a pickup only. Although fishman designs theie product to be used with Fishman pickups, the Pro EQ can easily be used with any pickup, including electric guitars and bases. It ia a basic but warm sounding pre amp with bass, midrange, treble controls and volume controls. A phase reversal switch is added as well as a sub bass control on the back to add bass to small bodied guitars. This is an easy to use and great sounding preamp at a list price of $179. This is a highly recomended piece for the price, size and ease of operation.

L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic D.I.
This preamp has low, mid, high, and volume control with a tunable notch filter and mid range control. A little less expensive than the Fishman Pro Eq with a little more control. It ca be run on batteries or phantom power from a mixing board. Many pros are using this including Cheryl Wheeler. it is not as warm sounding as the Fishman however.

Preamps designed for pickup/mini mic combo

Pendulum SPS-1 Stereo Preamp System
Pendulum is well known for making the highest quality pre amps fro acoustic instruments. They are also some of the most expensive, but are worth every penny considering the sound quality and versatility of the unit. The SPS-1 ia a stereo 3 band parametric EQ and includes a custom preamp that plugs into the guitar with a special cord. The idea behind this is to preamp at the guitar to give a good strong signal going through the cable to the SPS-1 rack. This cuts down on noise and signal degradation. The preamp module has volume control as well as balance between the pickup and internal mic, allowing for control at the guitar.

The stereo parmetric EQ allows you to eq the pickup and mini mic seperately and then combine them the way you want after EQ. The unit also has phase reverse switches for both the pickup and the internal mic, as well as an overall phase reverse switch allowing you to get the fattest sound possible. Also included are any possible combination of outputs, tuner output, an effects loop and a mute/ effects on off footswitch. also a headphone jack is included so you can eq to your hearts desire without any one getting mad at the volume. it also has an internal power supply.

This unit lists for $1095 and is hard to get a discount on from dealers. It is a highly rated devise but can be hard to learn to use effectively if you have no experience with parametric EQ's. This is a rack mounted unit.

Pendulum HZ10-SE mono 4 band parametric EQ
This is a mono unit with many of the same features of the SPS-1. Being mono means that the pickup and mini mic are summed together before the parametric eq and cannot be eq'ed seperately. Listing at $750 with a two pickup pre amp module which only has a volume control. A head phone jack is not included. this is a rack mounted unit.

Rane AP-13
This stereo 7 band graphic EQ allows you to combo a mini mic and pickup and eq them seperately using 7 bands of graphic EQ which is much easier to use than a parametric EQ, but is not as versatile. Included are phase reversal switches, tuner output, headphone output, low cut filters,. muting switch and more. this unit has a transformer outside the unit, so you have to plug in a "wall rat", or external power supply to get AC for it. Listing at $549, it is much less than the Pendulum and is highly recomended for it's price range, ease of opreration, versatility and sound quality.This is a rack mounted unit.

Fishman Acoustic Blender
This is a more basic unit for combining a mini mic and pickup. It is a stereo unit with bass, treble, gain bass cut and Phase reversal for each channel, so these are available for the pick up and mini mic. Also included are haedphone jack, effect loops, mute, and output level. Although the Blender dous not offer the EQ available with the other devises mentioned, it is a standard of the industry and runs on batteries as well as AC. It is not a rack unit so,it can fit into much smaller areas than the rack unots for travel. The Acoustic Blender lists for $439.95 and the stripped down version, the Pocket Blender lists for $359.98. Both units can be monted on a mic stand for easy accessiblity during performances.


Pierce Campbell 
P.O. Box 1490 
Naugatuck, CT 06770 
Email -

Rane - Ray Bloom 
10802 47th Ave. West
Mukilte, WA 98275-5098
web sight : Http://
AP-13 Pre-amp 
	for pickup and mini mic

Fishman Transducers - Larry Dalton
340 - D Fordham Rd.
Wilmington, MA 01887
Acoustic Matrix pick-up/pre amp
	pickup w/internal pre-amp can be 
	combinedw/ mini mic
Model G pre-amp
Dual Parametric D.I.
	direct box w/ 2 bands of parametric EQ
Acoustic and Pocket Blenders
	bass/treble/volume for mix of pickup 
	& mini mic
Crown Mini Mic

Pendulum Audio - Greg
P.O. Box 339 
Gillette, NJ 07933
908-665-9333 Greg
SPS-1 Stereo Preamp System
	stereo 3 band parametric EQ for 
       pickup/mini mic combo. 
	Highest quality and versatility
HZ10-SE  mono 4 band parametric EQ for 
       pickup/mini mic combo.

Acoustic Guitar Magazine
October '95 #34
Special Gear Issue - pickup test
Web Site

3rd Planet
5459 2nd St.
Irwindale, CA 91706
gig bags and gig racks

305 Glenwood Ave.
Ventura,CA 93003
Highlander IP-1 & IP-2 pickups
	IP-2 can combo w/ mini mic

BBE - Rob Rezzuto
5381 Production Dr.
Huntington Beach, CA 92649
386 Acoustic Pre-Amp

L.R. Baggs
483 N.Frontage Rd.
Nipomo, CA 93444
Para Acoustic D.I.
	low/mid/high/tunable notch and mid

Sunrise - Jim Kaufman
8101 Orion Ave. Unit 19
Van Nuys, CA 91406
Sunrise Pickup
Paul Neri Luthiers - Paul Neri
Clinton, CT  /   203-669-3351

Sam Ash - Jeff Meline
New Haven, CT  /  203-389-0500

Youngblood Guitars - GeorgeYoungblood
Guilford, CT  /  203-453-1682
great selection of new and used guitars too

Mandolin Brothers
Staten Island, NY 718-981-3226