Installing a pickup in an acoustic

First a bit about different pickups and how they perform.

Guitar pickups have come a long way since the DeArmond sound hole pickups of the 50’s.  I remember my uncle playing his Gibson J-45 with a DeArmond, a Fender Twin and an Electro-Voice microphone.  That DeArmond was about the only choice if you wanted to play live without two microphones.

Now there are so many options it’s staggering.  Fishman, D-Tar, Schertler, Dean Markley, LR Baggs, etc.  In fact there are so many pickups you may wonder where to start.  I have to say that there is no right or wrong.  All the pickups currently made are very high quality and will serve most people very well.  It’s more a question of what’s right for you.  Your guitar, how you play and what kind of setting you will be playing in are very important.  I feel the best way is to try them out at you local music store.  Try them out and see what happens

There are three basic types of pickups:

Electro-magnetic, such as Dean Markley Pro-Mag, Seymour Duncan Woody, Fishman Pro-Rep 102, the LR Baggs M1, as well as the aforementioned DeArmond to name a few.  These pickups are identical in structure to a pickup for an electric guitar.  They are however, voiced for an acoustic.  A magnet made of alnico (aluminum, nickel and copper), ceramic or rare earth metals is surrounded by wire, usually copper and when a ferrous string is struck the vibration creates an electric charge that is transmitted to an amplifier. These pickups vary a great deal in quality, starting with the Dean Markley to the limited run Sunrise.

Piezo ceramic, (the most common) are typically under the saddle consisting of a thin ribbon of piezo material.  The name piezo  comes from the Greek “to squeeze” or press. When the string (ferrous or non ferrous) is struck the vibration causes the piezo to compress and produce the electric charge.  Some piezos can be contact as well.  These are attached directly to the sound board and can work on many other instruments.  Be aware that the contact pickups will also pick up any surface noise from the top and can feed back more easily than the under saddle piezos.  This applies to some pickups such as LR Baggs i Beam that are attached to the bottom of the bridge plate.  The charge is minute and must be amplified by means of a pre-amp.  Most modern units include the pre-amp in the 1/4″ jack supplied with the pickup.  Almost all of them come with an option to use volume and tone controls inside the edge of the sound hole. With the right amplifier you can get something that approaches a natural guitar sound.

The third is a microphone, usually installed inside the instrument but sometimes, in the case of Schertler, under the saddle.  In most cases this is my least favorite kind of amplification.  The sound made inside the guitar is not the sound you hear from outside.  Having said that, you should check them out for yourself.  Some pickups like the B-Band make a pickup with a combination of piezo and microphone with a mixer.  I make an exception with the Schertler as I have recently installed this in a parlor guitar I made with stunning results.

I find that all of these are a compromise of one sort or the other.  None of these will produce as natural of a sound as a good microphone.  Sometimes that’s just not possible so the pickup is a must for most stage performers.  If someone from a music store tells you a certain brand of pickup is the best, walk out.  There is no best, try them all out in a guitar that is closest to what you have.

Now, enough procrastination… on with the install.

If you’re using a sound hole pickup, you can simply run the cable out the sound hole and be done.  The Dean Markley Pro-Mag is such a pickup.  Not all of the sound hole pickups are like this. The higher end LR Baggs and Sunrise use an end jack strap button.

For most pickups there are three steps in installation:  First, for the under saddle variety you must drill an appropriate hole for the pickup wire.  The piezo units come in two sizes, 3/32″ and 1/8″. Pick the one that fits your saddle slot.  Fishman’s have the lead at the end of the pckup,  Schertler’s have a rectangular lead in the middle and some like the DTar have a coaxial cable that has to have a hole drilled at a 45 degree angle so as not to kink the cable.  This brings me to the next step in fitting.  Some DTar’s (Timberline model) and the Highlander pickup have a round cable and the bottom of the saddle slot has to be altered to fit.  This means you will have to have the correct router bit and make or buy a jig to route the slot properly.  This should only be attempted by someone who knows what he or she is doing.  It’s pretty easy to muck up things.

If we simply put the saddle back in, the action will be to high so we must take away material from the saddle in the same amount as the thickness of the pickup.  Sand paper on a piece of glass is the simplest way to accomplish this.  Be sure you maintain a flat and true surface on the bottom.  If the saddle does not contact the pickup evenly your sound will suffer.

The next step is to install the end jack.  If you don’t have a strap button on your guitar it’s simply a matter of drilling the correct size hole.  This is usually 15/32″ or 1/2″ depending on the brand of pickup.  Make sure of your position and use a center punch to mark the location.  Then use a brad point drill to drill the hole, taking care to keep it straight and true.  If you have a strap button this becomes much more difficult as your drill bit has no starting place.  DO NOT under any circumstances try to free hand this operation.  You can crack the end block!  The simple solution is to buy a step reamer for your drill which will take the tapered hole and enlarge it to the right size.  These are expensive at about $70, so unless you’re doing a lot of them, you can take a wooden end pin and cut it off at the point it is even with the body.  Then you can safely drill the hole.

Some guitars such as late model Taylor’s have an end pin that is all ready for the end jack, just unscrew the end pin and install the jack.

If you’re using a DTar Load n Lock where the battery is in the end jack, the drill size is 7/8″ and this is the only method to use.  As always make sure your tools are sharp and do not use regular drill or spade bits as this will not end well.

You must now connect the pickup to the end jack.  Some models are a simple 1/8″ jack (DTar), others (Fishman) require you solder the connection.

Set the inside nut to fit the thickness of the end block.  Most end blocks are a pretty consistent 3/4″ but I have encountered some Martin’s from the late seventies and early eighties that have end blocks over an 1″ thick.  If this is the case it’s best left to a professional luthier.

The last thing is to set the battery box.  Usually it’s got a clip or bag that attaches to the back or head block with self sticking Velcro.  Clean the surface of the wood with alcohol or naptha to insure good adhesion.  Use the wire guides to do the same with the wires left dangling.

This should work for most set ups.  Good luck and see you next time.


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