Buyers Guide: How to choose the right electro-acoustic guitar
Once you've been playing an acoustic guitar for a while, you might want to experiment with an amplified sound. An electro-acoustic guitar is the solution! In this buyers guide we'll take a look at the difference between a fully electric guitar, a semi-acoustic guitar, and a fully acoustic guitar, along with the technology behind electro-acoustic models and what you can expect from them in general. That way you can make an informed decision based on your preferences.
What is an electro-acoustic guitar?
With their rise in popularity, more and more musicians wanted to use acoustic guitars in bands and groups, and the need arose to have a good way to amplify them while keeping an authentic sound. Getting bigger guitars and playing harder wasn't an option, because they'd lose any hint of nuance. And so the experimentation began to find a good way to amplify the sound. It resulted in the first pickups, which then paved the way for both the electric guitar and the electro-acoustic guitar.
Sometimes people use electro-acoustic and semi-acoustic as interchangeable terms, but there's actually quite a big difference between the two. Semi-acoustic models are hollow-body electric guitars that can be played acoustically, while electro-acoustic guitars are acoustic guitars that can be plugged into an amplifier. To be more specific, electro-acoustic guitars are classical or steel-string guitars with a pickup either near the soundhole or under the saddle. Thanks to the pickup, you can plug your guitar into an amplifier or even straight into a mixer, but you can also play the guitar just like a regular acoustic guitar.
As we mentioned, you can choose between a Spanish or a steel-string guitar. The pictures below illustrate the distinguishing features of each type of guitar. Really, the only difference is the pickup, which you'll often find on the underside of the top or next to the bridge. Electro-acoustic models will also have an EQ control, which is pretty much always found on the shoulder. The EQ is used to adjust your sound. Of course, you'll also find a jack input so you can plug in a guitar cable and connect it to an amplifier or mixer.
The kind of sound you want, however, is completely a matter of personal preference. As you probably know, classical guitars have nylon strings, and are wonderfully suited for classical and flamenco music, thanks to the full, rounded sound they produce. Steel-string guitars, on the other hand, are more suited for folk and pop. For more information about acoustic guitars, we invite you to visit our classical and steel-string guitar buyers guides.
Types of pickups
Pickups are essential for amplifying acoustic sound. Electro-acoustic guitar pickups are different than electric guitar pickups, though there are some models that are equipped with electric guitar pickups (more on that later). Pickups function by picking up the sound waves of your guitar and then sending them to the amplifier or speaker in the form of an electric signal. There are a number of ways that you can amplify acoustic guitars.
A logical first step (and one that's still used often) is to simply put an instrument microphone in front of the soundhole. This is the best way to get the most natural sound, because it includes the reverberations from the room you're in. A downside is that it limits your freedom of movement to an absolute minimum, since every movement changes the volume of your playing. Luckily, there's another option in the form of a microphone pickup. This is a small microphone in the guitar body that picks up the sound and transmits it to the amplifier. As we mentioned, this is the best option for your sound, seeing as it transmits the sound it picks up directly.
Of course, the method does have disadvantages, one being that you can get feedback loops if you get too close to your amplifier. This will cause an annoying high-pitched ringing sound. Another disadvantageous side effect could be crosstalk, which is what happens when the pickup receives sounds other than that of your guitar. So for instance if it picks up sounds from the drummer. The pickup picks up every detail, so it's important that you have a good command of your instrument. You could also avoid these issues by placing a noise gate in your guitar's soundhole.
From left to right: piëzo, humbucker, piëzo, single coil, microphone.
A less expensive way to amplify your guitar while avoiding feedback and crosstalk is with the help of a piëzo pickup. This pickup works with pressure. It's a small plate with crystals inside, and when the pressure changes, it sends an electric signal that can then be converted to sound waves. For a guitar, the sound that the strings produce is picked up, which is why the pickup is mounted under the bridge saddle or on the underside of the guitar top, where the vibrations are the strongest. A guitar pickup looks like a long rod if it's mounted at the bridge saddle, and if it's mounted under the top then it will look like a coin.
The advantage of a piëzo pickup is that you won't have any issues with feedback or crosstalk. As such, you'll find that most electro-acoustic guitars have piëzo pickups. The sound is a little fainter than with a microphone, and it can be experienced as being thin. As such, it's important to have a preamplifier (most electro-acoustic guitars have them already built in), but more on that later.
A number of our models are equipped with a magnetic pickup. This is the same type of pickup that you'll find on electric guitars. They register vibrations from nickel or steel strings in the magnetic field that they transmit. The convenient thing about them is that they render a preamplifier unnecessary, which means you can plug your guitar directly into an amplifier or mixer. There are a few different magnetic pickups with different sounds. First you have single coil pickups, which are pickups with just one coil. They sound bright and sharp, and you'll find them predominantly in Fender models. The other type is humbuckers. These pickups are actually comprised of two single coils next to each other. The coils are wound in opposite directions to keep hum to a minimum—hence their name. Humbuckers produce a full, round sound.
Magnetic pickups are easy if you want a plug-and-play solution. It might be, however, that the sound these pickups produce is too electronic, as the acoustic sound gets pushed a bit more to the background. These types of magnets are also more sensitive to feedback.
In order to get the most natural sound possible, a piëzo pickup and a microphone are often used in combination. The microphone is set up softer than the piëzo so the sound can be amplified without producing feedback and so the sound of the guitar remains as natural as possible. A blend knob adjusts the balance between the two so you can create the sound you have in your head. Of course, you can always buy the separate pieces and put them together to suit your needs or to get different sounds.
From left to right: Takamine CTP-3 Cooltube, Yamaha System61, Godin Multiac Duet Ambiance en Fender Fishman Isys III.
All those pickups are all well and good, but without a preamplifier they won't be of much use. A preamp is responsible for boosting the electric signal received by your pickups so they'll be transmitted and reproduced at the right volume. A 9V battery is often used to power the setup. Such a setup also ensures that your sound doesn't clip (peak). Piëzo pickups have a wide frequency range, meaning that the sound waves coming from the strings are also large and can cause the sound to overdrive. However, there are plenty of different preamplifiers that can solve this issue, such as those by Fishman.
Takamine has recently released a whole new way to preamplify with their CTP-3 Cooltube. Basically, it's a preamp with a tube, like you’d find in a tube amplifier. But it actually goes in your guitar. And instead of heating up, the designer made sure that it's powered by low voltage so it stays cool (and your guitar doesn't burn up from the inside out).
Buttons on the preamplifier
A preamplifier usually comes in the form of a little box mounted in the shoulder or waist of your guitar. It will have a number of buttons, knobs and sliders, all of which control a specific function. The most common controls are for volume and tone. Because you want your amplified sound to be the same as your unamplified sound, the EQ is usually kept pretty basic. In the most simple setup you'll only be able to adjust bass and the treble, but there are also guitars where you can adjust the bass, low-mid, mid, high-mid and high. Another handy control that many models also have is for the built-in tuner. With the help of a little built-in screen with LED lights, you can tune your guitar quickly and easily.
Less common controls include 'phase' and 'notch', which reduce feedback; 'blend', which combines two types of pickups; and sliders that change the timbre. Generally speaking, more expensive models have more options, but that doesn't mean that the less expensive models don't sound good.
Take your pick! Perez 650 Cutaway Thin E1, Godin Multiac Grand Concert HG, Takamine P7D of Ovation CE44P-FKOA Celebrity Elite Plus Figured Koa?
We hope this information has helped you figure out what you want from an electro-acoustic guitar. Of course, the deciding factor is your budget. The higher it is, the better the guitar will look, feel and play. But if you're just starting out and you're on a budget, we still offer a lot of good, affordable guitars from big brands like Yamaha, Ibanez and Fender. If you're looking for really high quality, it's definitely worth your time to check out Takamine, Perez, Seagull and Ovation.
Furthermore, it's important to know what you want. Do you want a classical or a steel-string guitar (thicker neck, nylon strings, classical versus thinner neck, steel strings folk/pop)? Then you can decide how you want it to look. What kind of wood do you want (mahogany, spruce, rosewood, maple)? What colour and what kind of finish (glossy or matte)? Do you need a cutaway? What kind of body do you like for a steel-string guitar (Dreadnought, jumbo, triple-O)? What kind of pickup do you want and with what kind of controls? What kind of amplifier do you want? These are all decisions you'll need to make! If you're feeling stuck, you're always invited to give us a call for some advice!