A Lo-Fi Acoustic Guitar Pickup

Part acoustic, part electric—but 100% bitchin'.

Part acoustic, part electric—but 100% bitchin’.

This post is inspired by in interview I just did with Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson, a cool dude and a deep player. I’m digging the band’s new album, World Boogie is Coming. (And for better or worse, that praise comes from someone who hates almost all modern blues albums.) You can read the interview here.

Anyway, Luther was talking about how his entire style is a quest to create a loud, electric version of acoustic country blues. He mentioned how he was more drawn to the Mississippi blues players who went electric by slapping DeArmond pickups on their acoustics, as opposed to, say, Muddy Waters, who swapped his acoustic for a Telecaster. Luther also mentioned that DeArmonds are still his favorite way to amplify an acoustic guitar

At some point it occurred to me that I’d never actually played an acoustic with a DeArmand. So I picked up a 1950s RHC-B and popped it into my old Martin 0-18. Have a listen:

I’m a longtime fan of magnetic pickups on acoustic guitars. I had a Sunrise in my Lowden for 15 years and loved it, but it croaked last year. I replaced it with one of those hybrid models that combine a mag pickup with an internal mic, and it works fine. But after a year or so, I don’t think I’ve ever used the mic sound. I just like the way the mag pickup sounds.

But is it still acoustic guitar? I’m not sure. I increasingly view amplified acoustic as a guitar category unto itself, residing somewhere between acoustic and archtop.

And the DeArmond? Between its noisiness and reticent highs, it’s probably not the best choice for every occasion. It’s also a bigger pain to install and remove than modern mag pickups. But I dig how it sound in the video, and I’m definitely keeping it!

So what’s you experience with amplifying your acoustic guitars?

13 comments to A Lo-Fi Acoustic Guitar Pickup

  • Bryan

    Wow! Great post, and inspiring playing as usual. Thanks Joe!

    The first question that comes to mind is: Can I make a DIY version of one of these pickups? Time to do some research…

  • Oinkus

    It does sound good period endofstory ! Oh wait , I haven’t used a soundhole mag pickup in about 30 years or so ? Good , bad or ugly the only thing I do own is a piezo and yes it is bright and obnoxious and has very few options to alter the sound. A gooseneck inside the guitar has always been a decent sound if you use a good mic , and you can move it around for tonal options. Friend has a Taylor setup like that with the mic and piezo through a Fender Acoustisonic with FX built in and it sounds pretty dern good too. At 250 bucks that is a pricey addon, but it has good depth and texture. I have to figure out how to get a couple more guitars to put some of those flatwound/halfwound strings on one and p-90s in another. Oooh maybe I put the strings on my 335 build that is almost finished? Need to dig in my box o crap and find my Shadow pup to put on my beater and turn it up loud. Hrm this one is a Bill Lawerence Ft-145 I just dug out of a case I worked on recently, magnetic setup for bronze- type stringed acoustics. I ramble I will plug this in and make noise with it later, stay safe and have fun.

    • Oinkus

      The Lawrence pup is pretty decent , there is more then one sound to it. Takes distortion pretty well, tried it multiple different amps and a PA with and without a direct box. For a cheap clip in it ain’t so bad.

  • mwseniff

    I had an old DeArmond pickup on a mandolin (stolen in the late 80’s). It was pretty griity sounding and made the mandolin sound like a perverted electric guitar. It sounded pretty cool with a fuzz. Never recorded it unfortunately. I have a single coil on my banjo mounted under the head at the end of the neck. The banjo sounds like a koto straight into an amp but FX make it more guitar like. It also has a contact mike under the bridge that I can mix in for a little more banjoey sound. I’m not really a banjo player and use it in non-traditional weird music.

    I have a George L’s pickup from the late 80’s on my Wechter TO-8418 that sounds great with any FX and the feedback is a bonus for me. As i said once before it’s like wrestling a live animal. The pickup is actually humbucking and mounts securely with a spring and adjustable height. It has no volume control but that isn’t a problem for me so far.
    I really dig amplified acoustic since Joe blogged about earlier I have been using it a lot for recording. Inwould love to try those strings but I am afraid they would screw up the intonation on my Wechter guitar. Abraham Wechter strongly recommended staying with the DAddario EXP16 if I want to keep the intonation as sweet as it is because that is what they use for the Plek processing. I am very sensitive to intonation and this was the first acoustic I could afford that suits my ear. Too badWechter closed shop his guitars are amazing.
    I am getting a Kent pickup mounted on a pickguard made for an arch top that seems so cool I may have to get an arch top for it. It came from an old music dealer that is closing down in Peoria, IL mainly band instruments tho. It’s all 75% off and my buddy has been buying up a lot of odd student drums and hardware. He got me 2 cello bows for $50 one is a crap student one but the other is pretty decent used but rehaired ( white hair which is OK but I prefer black hair as it’s more rock and roll). He got some cool old cymbals and some steel bodied snares that are collectible as well as some great cheap sticks and mallets. My back won’t let me make the 40 mile drive (not to mention my recent bout with recurring vertigo I get car sick when I’m driving). Probably just as well as it limits my expenditures.

  • NotSoFast

    Was delighted when I first heard Luther. The whole RL Burnside thing was new to me and reinvigorated the blues. Luther plays very melodically.

    That DeAmrond sounds nice. I never thought of fuzzing an acoustic until Cobain did it but I guess it goes back a long way.

  • I’m a huge Elmore James fan, so I’ve long been a fan of the DeArmond-on-acoustic-pushed-to-the-brink sound, but unfortunately I’ve never managed to get ahold of one of these (although I do know of a few of ’em floating around town).
    My buddy has an early 80’s Schaller with a clever spring-loaded mechanism which holds it pretty securely in the sound-hole. It comes with a volume control (wheel-style) and a switch to select single-coil or humbucker mode. Sounds a little too crispy for my liking, but its a handy tool to have around.
    The same friend just mounted a floating neck-mounted humbucker on a early sixties Kay archtop. Boy oh boy, does that thing sound rich and dark like a good cup of coffee!
    And yes, good heavens, I cannot stand piezo pickups in acoustics. Ugh. If I want to sound like a banjo, I’ll play one.

  • mwseniff

    Here’s a picture of the cool Kent archtop pickup/pickguard that I got for $20 (not Kent Armstrong but rather a japanese mfr). It is apparently from the 60’s. I really need an arctop to put it on now (it only needs to be playable with a slide so straight neck is not required). If you can read it the instructions call the pickups “microphones” probably written by a japanese person that was proud of their english skills. Old japanese service manuals were typically like this even fron Sony and other big cos. it was a matter of pride as I understand it. I once told a rep that the company should hire me to read service manuals to correct language, he replied that the writers would be deeply insulted by that.
    I’ve never seen a setup like this with 2 pickups it has no switches but uses the indivdual volumes to control pickup selection. The instruction sheet says the ” Lower microphone responses rather sharply as it’s position being nearer to bridge”. How’s that for some tortured english? The whole assembly mounts with screws thru the pickguard and it came complete with screws and felt spacers sealed in cellophane. It is essentially NOS except for a price $79.95 and “double” written in pencil on the box. The pickups in mine are just black where these say Kent. I feel lucky to have this even if they just sit in the box on display in my studio.

  • I used to do live sound stuff in high school and college in the early to mid 90s, including a fair number of surprisingly good acoustic-oriented acts. Under-saddle piezo pickups everywhere. The LR Baggs pickups sounded best of those, probably followed by Ovation’s stock ones (and I don’t like Ovations, which tells you something), and with the Fishman ones in last place, worst of the constipated duck tones, and not in the good Jeff Beck way. Only player with a Fishman I thought had a good acoustic tone sculpted the hell out of the signal with one of those t.c. electronic parametric eq pedals. The exception that I would very rarely see in pro rigs was the old Bill Lawrence magnetic sound-hole pickup, which always seemed to sound pretty good. I would have picked that sound over the Fishman pickups of the day any time.

    About the time I stopped doing live sound mags were coming into fashion. Ben Harper and Chris Whitley were probably helping that along, as were the Fishman Rare Earth pickups. Some people were also starting to realize that if you didn’t need high volume before feedback, the piezo “dot” type pickups, well placed, were more natural sounding than the under-bridge pickups. The under-bridge stuff has gotten a lot better in the intervening years, too, though I have my long standing aversion to the type.

    For me, I could be very happy with a good mag and/or a good piezo dot. I’ve liked that sort of stuff for home recording in the past, too, as it’s a bit easier to have a plug-and-play set-up that’s reasonably repeatable over time for consistent sound and doesn’t sound that bad at all in a rock or pop sort of context.

  • The attached photo is of my singer’s guitar. It already had a piezo pickup and preamp, but he wanted more versatility, so I fitted a sound hole magnetic humbucker, wired both pickups to a 3-way switch and then routed the output through the preamp. He now has the bright zing of the piezo with the warmth of the magnetic pickup, only louder than an electric guitar thanks to the onboard preamp. He’s really pleased, although I’ve sort of made me life more difficult by expanding the sonic space he now occupies in the band!

  • waluan

    Hi Joe,

    I love the story of this Lo-Fi Acoustic Guitar! I have the opposite problem. I am starting from electric (Tele) and I want to arrive at a hybrid classical/steel tone with a hair of electrical edge. I don’t like the nylon tone and I find the steel tone not versatile enough for my needs (I don’t play much rock), and I like the Tele tone more than the Strat and the LP. So I’m trying to find a sweet middle-ground tone like you did.

    Any suggestions on pickups, strings, amps would be greatly appreciated!

  • Rein

    With all respect for Luther Dickinson, but wasnt Muddy Waters just that: a Mississippi bluesman who stuck a DeArmond pickup on his guitar, especially on his classic late 40s early 50s records. But it is the sound that I really love and what is heard in a lot of early 50s blues records, guitars played with acoustic technique through slightly distorted amps.

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