Amped-Up Acoustic Guitars

What could possibly go wrong?

There are two ways to approach amplifying an acoustic guitar: trying to duplicate the natural sound, only louder, and NOT trying to sound naturalistic at all. This post is about the second approach.

I love playing acoustic through an electric guitar amp (as opposed to a dedicated acoustic amp). True, the tubes and speakers amputate all high frequencies. But if you think of the instrument not as an acoustic guitar, but an idiosyncratic electric variant, it opens up amazing possibilities.

More often than not, I prefer to play acoustic gigs that way. I did a fun benefit show last year playing rock and R&B covers with a band consisting of Flea, Tracy Chapman, and drummer Dawn Richardson. Tracy had a beautiful, ultra-hi-fi acoustic tone, and the ratty, rumbling sound of my acoustic through a small combo was — well, let’s just say it was a very strong contrast.

Admittedly, relatively few  players exploit this technique. One notable exception is Daniel Lanois. He’s best known as a producer (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, etc.), but he’s also a phenomenal player who does amazing things with an acoustic guitar, an inexpensive magnetic soundhole mic, and small vintage Fender amps. I’ve watched him play up-close a few times, and he’s incredibly adept at conjuring a variety of tones and controlled feedback from this setup.

It’s definitely a white-knuckle playing experience. You have to listen carefully and nix unwanted feedback with quick damping technique. But it can be so expressive!

I’ll talk more about the technique in a bit. But first, check out this short video demo featuring distortion and other stompbox effects, controlled (and not-so-controlled) feedback, and a lot of awkward twisting and turning as I grapple with the tone: 

Mind you, I’ve got nothing against “normal” amplified acoustic sounds. While I can’t stand the brittle quack of under-the-saddle piezo pickups, high-end hybrid systems like the Seymour Duncan Mag Mic I use in the video can sound warm and naturalistic through a good P.A. or a quality acoustic guitar amp. (These are generally “P.A.s in a box” designed for maximum clean headroom and minimal distortion, a concept pioneered in the ’80s by Seymour Duncan’s influential TARA amp.)

Like its name suggests, the Mag Mic combines a magnetic pickup and an internal microphone, which are blended to taste via a a dial on the pickup. The mag side provides warmth and body, while the mic captures all the high-end detail. Most leading acoustic players perform through some variant of this system.

But when playing through an electric guitar amp, I turn the microphone completely off — even a touch introduces feedback (a horrible, high-pitched squeal, not cool, musical-sounding stuff). The Mag Mic works great for this lo-fi approach. So do simple mag-only soundhole pickups such as the Seymour Duncan Woody.

But you need one other crucial component: a good clean boost between the guitar and the amp. In the video, I used a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster, which works great, but you can try pretty much any clean boost. I’ve gotten great results with a Z. Vex Super Hard-On, those little A.R.T. tube preamps, and yes, the Booster/Buffer project from Tonefiend DIY Club. Without a hefty boost, the sound is disappointingly thin.

My affection for this technique stems from childhood: Desperately wishing I had an electric guitar, I shoved a cheap mic between the strings of my mom’s classical guitar and plugged into my dad’s ancient Wollensack tape recorder set to input monitoring. It howled and howled. Total awesomeness.

I’d like to hear from folks who’ve tried similar techniques. And if you haven’t, well, I hope this post inspires you to experiment with transforming your mild-mannered acoustic into a raging electric beast. :satansmoking:

23 comments to Amped-Up Acoustic Guitars

  • DohminSemper

    What a man with a looper can do!
    Joe do you know any good free windows vst looper?

  • Frank

    Hi Joe,
    I love this website. Did the buzz fuzz, its a hoot! 

    Also, love your music. I’d love to build an echo effects unit when you find the time. 

  • Frank

    By the way the url lopper doesnt seem to work :satansmoking: :rant:

    • joe

      Cool! Thanks. Glad you’re enjoying it.

      I fixed the link: http://www.loopers-delight.com/loop.html

      Yeah, an echo would be a cool project. A true analog delay pedal is really, really difficult — frankly, I’d just recommend buying a kit from Build Your Own Clone or the like. But one of those new-school faux-analog digital delays with a PT2399 chip is actually pretty easy. That might be a fun one . . .

       

  • Roger Moore

    Back in the day I used to use my Yamaha acoustic in a similar fashion. It was my first guitar. It had a full size neck with a small body. I had somekind of acoustic pickup that you could just stick in the sound hole. I taped cardboard around the pickup to cover up the rest of the sound hole and help hold down the feedback. It was a hoot to play with effects. I did love doing that little ‘dance’ with the amp to control the feedback. Great fun with a slide and delay effect also….Hey wait…….a delay….like mabye a digital one with a PT2399 chip in it……wait!….That would be a fun build in the ToneFiend DIY club…..I mean I’m just sayin’……… :rant: YES PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    PS: I really dig the line-up of your benefit cover band!

    • joe

      Oh, it was such a fun gig. Flea is ridiculously good, and not afraid to play in a simple, understated style if the context warrants it. And Tracy is a way, way, WAY more skilled guitarist than many people realize. (For one thing, she is a bad-ass electric lead guitarist.) I always love playing with her — especially when she plays her parlor-sized Judy Threet, which may just be the best-sounding acoustic guitar I have ever encountered. (Well, that one, and Martin Simpson’s Stefan Sobell).

  • El reclusa

    Some of my favorite sounds involve contact mics, acoustic guitars, filters & small combo amps. Fun stuff!

  • I can’t say in over 20 years of playing Acoustic that I have ever used anything then an electric guitar amp. I’ve always been a big believer in playing an acoustic like an electric. Having at times using a Duncan Woody but I’ve even stuck a microphone in the soundhole (okay as long as you don’t dance with the guitar). I think acoustic guitars sound great with distortion, really a full- natural sound that isn’t too bright or chimey.  

  • Peter

    I remember seeing The Breeders (quite a while ago) and being impressed that Kim Deal played the concert with an acoustic guitar through a Marshall half-stack, getting a great rock sound without the squeals and howls I would have expected.

  • dan

    i play my hummingbird thru my fender super champ XD. it has a fishman matrix under the saddle. i set my fender to #16 on the voice setting then add a touch of delay from the amp. sounds amazing! i use this setup every time i play that guitar live. the super champ is a great amp with 16 voices and a bunch of effects. from super clean to total grunge, love it.

  • Double D

    Anyone remember Buffalo Tom?  I don’t recall the guitarist/singer’s name, but he never played “electrics”, yet had one of the most distinctive tones of the grunge era; thick, gnarly, detailed.
     Really this whole thread recalls my argument against piezo-electric guitars: we solved that problem in the 1930′s-they’re called electric guitars.  My ’62 Kay thinline hollowbody has always been my go-to guitar for “acoustic gigs”, and also has been used unplugged with a condenser mic for recording old school cheapo acoustic tones.

  • OK you really got me on this article Joe. I dug out an old George L’s sound hole pickup from my pickup stash and stuck it in my Wechter Triple 0 and plugged it into a Devi Ever Ruby pedal and then into my Egnater Tweaker and a 2-10 cab from an old Gibson GSS-100 amp ( I also used an analog echo patch in my Line6 M5 to liven it up a bit). I have been having a great time playing this setup for the last few days. I had been an electric only player for 35 years because I never found an acoustic with good enough intonation that was affordable. I was turned on to the Wechter guitars late last year and bought one that has as more perfect intonation than any acoustic I’ve ever played under $3000. I have been busily exploring my “unplugged” side for the last few months but I fear that is now at an end. Plugging this guitar into an electric amp is fabulous it is like wrestling a living breathing animal. The sound of the Wechter unplugged is sweet but punchy, plugged in it is alive with power while still maintaining it’s acoustic sweetness. There is a connectedness that I don’t get with my hollow body electric guitars. I will probably be playing this guitar thru electric guitar amps much more than just “unplugged” now. I also love the feedback which for me is easy to control since I play finger style (I also usually play my electrics at the edge of feedback anyway). It is also a real natural for slide which is my main style, I keep the Wechter tuned in a D modal chord (DADGAD low to high). Thanks for another great entry in the Tone Fiend blog. Next I need to try it with my Ampeg Gemini II with it’s 15″ alnico Jensen Concertone but I will probably need to plug into the accordion input. :-)

    • joe

      That’s so cool, Matthew. And I have to say, “wrestling” is the perfect word for the technique. It can really make you sweat bullets, but it’s so exciting!

  • Flürk

    This really reminds me of the accoustic sie of J Mascis, with him plugging his accoustic into various fuzzes and going into wailing solos in accoustic sad songs :)

  • 7string

    One way to deal with feedback is to have a guitar without a soundhole in the first place.

    I play a K.Yairi DY88 12 string and you can crank it real loud with no worries at all. Perfect for live use!! 

    • joe

      Oh yeah — makes total sense! But for some weirdos like me, the feedback is all the fun. It’s what makes playing that way so intense and exciting. I’m not much of a car person, but I imagine some drivers get a similar thrill from driving fast, dangerous vehicles. :)

  • Aceman

    Good clean boost?  WTF?  This is on the low end of the sick & twisted Joe Gore we know and love….

    Ovation + Washburn Stack-In-A-Box pedal FTW!!!! (Or TS-9, DS-1, Metal Muff, whatever puts lead in your pencil…) 

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