I have fitted a wide variety of acoustic guitar pickups over the years. Some have come in and out of favour and new ones have come onto the market. I have found that certain pickups will perform better or worse in certain types of guitars depending on their construction, the way the instrument is played and the equipment it is being played through.
The efficacy of under-saddle based systems is dependant on the bridge/saddle setup and I sometimes reject pickups which I like the tone of due to potential fitting issues. I always include some basic setup work in the price but sometimes instruments need more attention before a pickup will function properly. I have thus narrowed down my options to those that have been most reliable. There’s no getting away from the fact that each type of transducer has its own generic tonal attributes and each system tends of course to have its strengths and weaknesses. I’ll always give my opinion on an email or by phone and always advise on a case by case basis.
Steel String Guitar
LR Baggs Element This system is one of the most dynamic under-saddle pickups I have heard and is a good budget pickup. It comes with on board fixed E.Q preamp and a volume wheel which attaches discreetly just on the inside of the soundhole. On board tone control option available. Still a little quacky but better than most.
Headway HE4 This is one of the best sounding under-saddles available and designed in the UK. Due to the 2mm diameter cable design, I only recommend this in certain situations for guitars but use them often with mandolin family instruments. They are comparatively ‘quack’ free for a piezo under-saddle.
L.R Baggs M1 This excellent soundhole pickup has a passive and active version. The passive I recommend with an off board pre amp such as the Para D.I. It has a unique microphonic action which gives this pickup an “airiness” transparency not usually found with magnetic pickups and it is very resistant to feedback. It will pick up body taps/soundboard percussion and although not my first recommendation in this department, it does make possible this style of playing without having to use a dual system. The adjustable pole pieces are an essential to make for correct string balance. A great all round pickup perhaps especially suited to fingerpickers although a good strumming system too. Think the solid bass end of a magnetic without the clunky trebles.
LR Baggs M80 This is a newer and more transparent version of the above. I’ve yet to test this.
Fishman Rare Earth blend Best of the Rare Earth range blending the humbucking pickup with an attached gooseneck electret mic. Traditionally one of the most popular magnetics and for good reason.
K and K pure and ultra pure Great triple head contact pickups. Pure is passive and ultra pure and pure pre phase are active. I recommend strong EQ especially with passive. Sounds great with K and K proprietary preamps and especially the Headway EDB2 preamp.
LR Baggs Lyric This is the bridge plate mic from the Anthem system with its own preamp. In the right guitar this can sound wonderful – remarkably transparent and resistant to feedback. As with all mics, it lacks that artificial bolster in the bass but for those wanting faithful reproduction especially at lower volumes this is an option. Has an extra channel in preamp to add in another pickup via stereo lead.
LR Baggs Anthem pickups. I have been recommending these as a standard (higher end) gigging pickup. You get quack free sparkling highs with great microphonic detail and clarity with a fat and stable low end. It is reasurring to find at last a pickup utilising a mic that is very resistant to feedback at high volume and has a plug and play quality by which I mean you don’t need to spend hours EQ-ing the thing with off-board preamps. I have installed these on many of my own guitars and on those of numerous professionals.
In this system, the mic which is placed on the bridge-plate provides all the top end with no boomy low freqencies whilst an element undersaddle provides the bottom end. The soundhole mounted preamp has a volume, blend (although the under saddle is always present in the bottom end), mic gain and phase reversal.
The Cheaper SL Version is the same pickup minus the blend and phase. You still get a mic gain control which you pre set for amount of mic/brightness in signal. Always go for the full version if you can run to it.
L.R Baggs Elelment Dual Source Similar concept to the above but the element undersaddle is coupled with a foam encased electret mic that fits on the back of the guitar and you blend between two full signals. You can mix on board with a handy preamp or run out in stereo to a blender. I use this system occasionally when I need to mix an existing undersaddle with a mic. The mic also provides a signal responsive to body taps/percussion.
K and K Trinity I have been having great success with this system. Especially pertinent to fingerstyle players, it utilises the standard K and K three head transducer with a gooseneck electret mic. You can choose between an on board preamp or, as I usually recommend, an off board belt clip preamp connected via a stereo lead. Great transparency and stability from the transducers with treble clarity from the mic dialled in from the preamp. As with the above, the mic also provides a signal responsive to body taps/percussion.
Many systems can be combined. I have for example fitted magnetic pickups with a mic and undersaddles with a mic. I have also fitted contact transducers with undersaddles. Off – board blenders can increase possibilities by adding greater EQ possibilities and 9v(ish) phantom power for mics.
Spanish Guitar (Nylon string)
Fishman acoustic matrix infinity. I seem to always come back to this pickup as it has the right kind of tonal shaping for the Spanish guitar and for an undersaddle sounds warmer and less quacky than other models. A good stable, no fuss system for all styles of playing. On board fixed E.Q preamp. For tone control I recommend the Baggs Para D.I or Headway EDB2 off board pre amp.
K and K Pure Classic Four head version of the Western mini. Great for more robustly built guitar tops. Recommend K and K preamp or Headway EDB2.
L.R Baggs Anthem. As with the steel string version, great transparency and dynamics with the bridge plate internal mic producing the majority of the signal
K and K Trinity Classic Utilises the standard K and K three head transducer with a gooseneck electret mic. You can choose between an on board preamp or, as I usually recommend, an off board belt clip preamp connected via a stereo lead. Great transparency and stability from the transducers with treble clarity from the mic dialled in from the preamp. As with the above, the mic also provides a signal responsive to body taps/percussion. As with the Pure Classic, best fitted to slightly more robustly built guitar tops.
Off board pre amp
Headway EDB2. Fantsatic product from Headway. I recommend this box highly. Low noise and imparting warmth and fatness in tone. Very comprehensive EQ -five band plus notch filter (effectively three mid controls). It has two inputs with gain on each, both utilizing the same EQ. It has three settings for guitar, bass and violin (differing amounts of bass roll off). It has onboard mic phantom power but cannot be powered by the desks 48v. Not a box for the technically un-savvy as so many options.
L.R Baggs Para DI. A great piece of kit that will make any pickup sound better and please any sound engineer! Will boost the signal and warm the tone keeping clarity and dynamics. Features volume and tone control – treb, bass and tuneable mid, notch filter, phase invert, variable input gain and XLR balanced output. A mainstay over the years and not too complex for the technically un-savvy.
LR Baggs Venue DI. An elaboration on the Para DI with tuner, mute foot switch and boost foot switch.
D-TAR Equinox. A hugely versatile preamp with two notch filters and parametric EQ and a step up from the Baggs. Most folk will need some tuition on how to use this tool to best effect.
D-TAR Soltice. Very high quality twin channel preamp with phantom power and three band EQ on each channel.