What is an Electro Acoustic Guitar?
An electro acoustic guitar is just like your standard acoustic, but with one big difference: it houses electronics like an electric guitar. This means you can plug your instrument into an amp or PA system and crank the volume for gigging. Luckily for us, most acoustics these days come fitted with electronics so we don’t need to give it much of a second thought when deciding on our next guitar.
The main purpose of an electro acoustic is to give you the option to increase volume, whether you need to match the rest of your band or you're playing solo shows. Unlike an electric guitar's pickups which are used to colour your sound, electro acoustic electronics are designed to reproduce the natural tone of the acoustic instrument as closely as possible. The secondary benefit is the ability it gives you to add guitar effects such as reverb, delay or modulation - a great advantage if you like to experiment with your music.
An electro acoustic saves you lots of time and money as a gigging musician. The only real alternative to what an electro acoustic offers is to mic up your guitar with an external microphone. This can cost a fair amount more in comparison to buying an electro acoustic version of the regular acoustic guitar. All you have to do with an electro acoustic is plug into an active speaker and you’re good to go.
Types of Electro Acoustic Pickups
Acoustic sound can be captured in a number of ways. There are three main groups of electronics used to "pick up" sound, each with their own pros and cons. Essentially, they all do the same job:
- Piezo – Usually situated between the bridge saddle and bridge. They detect vibrations from the strings, which alters the voltage of their special piezoelectric material as it is fed through the cable into your preamp. The result is a clear, direct sound, sometimes described as "honky".
- Soundhole (magnetic) – These are essentially the same design as electric guitar pickups but balanced to have a flat EQ. When you wrap wire around a magnet, it creates a magnetic field that is disturbed by string vibrations. Often found in the soundhole of an acoustic - you can’t miss them.
- Microphone – Quite literally a miniature microphone inside your guitar. And much like placing a mic in front of your acoustic, it serves as the "premium" choice to get your electro acoustic to sound as realistic as possible. Because of the mic placement, there’s always risk of feedback, something to bear in mind when gigging.
What is an Electro Acoustic Preamp?
In order to amplify sound, you need both preamp and power amp sections. Many electro acoustic guitars come with a built-in preamp. This takes the raw sound of the pickup or microphone and shapes it into a pleasing tone. Onboard preamps usually give you the ability to alter the voicing in more detail and adjust volume from your instrument. Most come with a three-band EQ and additional controls, like presence, phase and even a built-in tuner.
Electro acoustics without preamps tend to sound very transparent, so you’ll have to do all your tweaking on the guitar amp, preamp pedal, PA system or whatever you've got it plugged into. Preamps are great when you run direct into PA system, as you don't need an external preamp pedal to get a basic sound you'll happily use.
What are the Best Electro Acoustic Guitars?
There are plenty to choose from. As with any guitar or instrument, it depends on a few things: your sound, your style and your budget. Here’s a selection of some of the most popular electro acoustic guitar brands on the market…
Sire first made waves with their Marcus Miller-designed bass range, and have now expanded on their acoustic section with the Larry Carlton series. You've got A3 and A4 models to choose from; the main difference being the solid wood body used to make the A4 guitars. You've got the option of dreadnought or grand auditorium sizes and natural or sunburst finishes.
The Sire SIB electronics system stands for ‘simple is best’, and combines a piezo pickup with an internal mic to give you an extremely satisfying recreation of natural acoustic tone. Three simple controls allow you to tweak without overcomplicating things: mic blend, EQ search and volume.
Alvarez have been in the electro acoustic business longer than many of their competitors. They were founded back in the ‘70s and have pioneered electronics in acoustic guitars for a long time. Because of this, they’ve got one of the most diverse ranges of acoustics on the market today. They use a wide variety of woods in their builds, including African mahogany, Macassar ebony, flamed maple and black walnut bodies.
Their electro acoustic models are fitted with the renowned L.R Baggs Element pickups and StagePro EQs. Element pickups are super discreet and don’t distract from the glorious build quality of the Alvarez acoustics. You’ll find a few guitars just use these without the visibly external EQ – keeping the aesthetic of the guitar super simple and classy. If you’re after more tweaking ability, the StagePros-equipped acoustics are best for you. Three-band EQ, phase, volume and built-in tuner.
Beginner or casual players will feel right at home with EastCoast guitars. They’re simple, effective and don’t cost the earth. You have a classic choice of tonewoods, including spruce, mahogany and sapele bodies and tops. Saying that, the selection here are still packed with electro acoustic goodness, capable of projecting your music to a larger audience.
These guys make their pickups and preamps in house in order to keep costs down, making it more affordable in the long run for you. They only require basic functionality and perform admirably, producing a clear, transparent sound when plugged in.
Learn more about EastCoast acoustics here.
Martin set the trend for contemporary acoustic design, including the invention of the dreadnought shape. These guys know a thing or two about making acoustic guitars as arguably the most famed company of the modern world. Yet another milestone in their long list of accomplishments is the concept of traditional x bracing. This reinforces the tonewoods to ensure acoustic vibrations are dispersed evenly throughout the body.
Martin favour the use of high-end Fishman electronics in their vast electro acoustic selection. Most of their current range incorporates electro acoustic models, and it makes perfect sense considering the "all features included" mindset of their builds. Depending on the price range and specs, Martins are equipped with their classic and clear sounding Matrix VT pickup and preamp, or the solder-free Sonitone in more affordable models.
Find out more about the complete line-up here.
Sometimes all you need is the pickup. In most cases, it doesn’t take too much adjustment to add electronics onto an acoustic. If you’re not feeling comfortable with the idea of tinkering with your precious instrument, take it to a local guitar shop (including Andertons!) and they’ll have it done in no time.
Fishman are no doubt one of the most popular pickup manufacturers. Not only are they highly regarded for designing pro pickups for electric guitars, but their electro-acoustic range is extremely consistent too. You’ll find a lot of guitar builders source their electronics from Fishman because they’re extremely reliable.
L.R Baggs are the other big name in acoustic pickups. These are certainly geared towards pro players and the premium market with the best microphones, piezo systems and humbuckers you can get your hands on. They are widely lauded for their faithful reproductions of the acoustic itself – one of the reasons you’ll want one if you have a guitar made of quality tonewoods.