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Pickups

Every now and then someone comes along and tells me about some new pickup I need to listen to. Piezo electric pickups and pressure sensitive pickups have one major problem. There’s no air. When you mike an artist’s voice there’s air around it; it sounds like it is somewhere, in a space. The piezo equipped guitar, or mandolin, or anything, has no air around it – it doesn’t sound like it occupies the same space as the singer.

Secondly, and maybe even more important, is the matter of tone. Piezo pickups, even the latest and greatest of them, sound, on the treble end, like the quacking of a duck. An in-tune duck, we hope, but a duck nevertheless. And not of the Baker variety, either. Usually the bass end sounds even worse. Baritone duck.

Adding a mic to the mess doesn’t help. The pickup tone and lack of space is still there. An internal mic, especially the type on a gooseneck, muddies the issue even further. The internal guitar mics I’ve seen usually end up riding right beneath the soundhole, the absolute worst place they could be in terms of clarity of tone, feedback, you name it.

Now the argument is that the guitar has to be heard, and I agree with this. But I am convinced that if it’s possible to mic a singer to a loud degree without feedback, the same should be true of miking the guitar. Furthermore, a “good” pickup system will cost plenty so a good mic should be an option. At this time I generally use a GT 44 from Groove Tubes, a nice small diaphragm vacuum tube mic. It works great on stage and has a very high volume/feedback ratio. I used an AKG 460B for years. There are plenty of great guitar mics out there for under $1000. I think mine (or the Alesis GT 40, the same mic) was about 500 clams. Sometimes they show up on ebay for less.

Another solution is a properly placed internal mic. Martin Carthy gets great volume and tone from his old 000-18 guitar with a properly placed internal lavalier mic. He puts it directly underneath the fingerboard extension over the body, under about the 17th fret or thereabouts, pointing straight down, towards the treble side of the guitar. This solution allows him to move around on stage and his guitar still actually sounds like a guitar.

Okay, what, you might ask, about electric guitars. Well, first of all, they use magnetic pickups (a totally different technology) and are generally played through an amp. If I’m playing an electric guitar at a gig or in a session I simply mic the amp. That gives you the “air” I was discussing earlier. It’s still an “acoustic” sound. A sound that you would hear in a room. The natural sound.

There are some magnetic pickups available for the acoustic guitar that, in my opinion, would be a much better choice than the piezo garbage out there, but you need to remember that if you’re using one of these, brass or bronze strings (not magnetic) don’t work so well, and the two treble strings will be much louder. Nickel wound strings will work.

Generally speaking, though, give me a good mic to go along with my great guitars and I’m a happy camper. I hope you are, too.

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