Amplifying Acoustic Guitars

By Mark Hanson

February, 2004

I continue to receive questions about amplifying acoustic guitars. Since there are so many possible combinations of pickups, microphones and amplifiers, I can't pretend to know them all. But I will share my experiences and current preferences.

When I play very small and quiet venues I simply play acoustically. I cut my acoustic teeth in the late '60s and early '70s, when good acoustic amplification consisted of a high-quality microphone through a PA system. Players needed to project back then! Out of sheer necessity, and at the insistence of several good instructors I had, I learned to use the entire dynamic range of the guitar (which really isn't very much), and to create good tone with no amplification. I still record using only good microphones. No direct signal.

When amplification is necessary in a very small venue, I currently use a Sunrise pickup and an AER 60W acoustic amp. I get a very nice sound with that simple setup on my Collings mahogany SJ. The AER is compact, lightweight and powerful. It doesn't color the tone at all, which may not be what you want!

When I am in a bigger venue with a P.A. system, I use the Sunrise through a direct box. I own a Sunrise preamp, and a Baggs Para Acoustic D.I. I use one of those two if I am playing in a venue that uses a sound system. The Baggs has EQ and volume controls, while the Sunrise has no controls. Recently I experimented with the Sunrise through a Demeter preamp, which is the setup that Lyle Lovett has used for years. The result was a very nice, warm sound.

When I am playing through a P.A., in addition to the pickup system I aim a good-quality microphone at the 12th fret of the guitar. There has been some discussion about phase cancellation when you combine two signals, but I have never noticed a problem in my performances.

I prefer a good condenser mike, but, in a pinch, a simple Shure SM-58 works nicely. If a sound person points an SM-57 (the one they use to mike guitar amps) at your acoustic guitar, insist on an SM-58 instead. The 58 has a warmer midrange. If you use a combination of mike and pickup, I suggest you try rolling off the treble from the pickup signal, and rolling off the bass from the mike.

There are many good acoustic amplifiers on the market. What you can afford will have an effect on your choice. For many years I used a slant-faced Crate. It did very nicely for small-venue gigs, but colored the tone more than the AER does. Tommy Emmanuel travels with the battery-operated AER amp. I have several friends who swear by Ultrasound amplifiers, and others who continue to use Crate. You will have to experiment with several to make an informed decision. Please be aware that some amps simply won't work well with certain pickup systems. You need to find a combination that suits you.

Like acoustic amps, good pickups are in great supply, also. My friend K.C. Wait at Pioneer Music in Portland, Oregon, loves the K&K pickup system. At the recent NAMM show I saw the new M1 soundhole magnetic pickup from Baggs. In addition to sensing the vibrating strings, this pickup purportedly senses the vibrations of the top of the guitar. That's a cool concept, but the show was so noisy you couldn't tell how well it worked! I have heard good things about it, though, and plan to experiment with one in a quiet venue. In the meantime, as I have for 16 years, I continue to use a Sunrise because of its good tone and ease of use.

So, if you are in the market for upgrading or adding an amplification system to your sound, the first thing I suggest is that you take your time. Experiment with several combinations of systems at your local music retailers so that you can make an educated purchase.

One last thought: Remember that mostly the sound that comes from your guitar is created by your hands and your brain. A good player can make a mediocre guitar sound pretty good, so keep practicing!

Copyright © 2004 Accent On Music and Mark D. Hanson