Most people would be able to hear the difference between piezo and soundhole pickups if they were played back to back. But we don’t all have that luxury – that’s why we thought we’d dig a little deeper and do the explaining!
The differences in a nutshell:
- A piezo pickup is installed inside the body of the guitar, where it often can’t be seen
- A soundhole pickup is usually visible bridging the soundhole, or tucked away to one side of it
- Piezo pickups generate their sound by detecting vibrations of the guitars saddle
- Soundhole pickups are magnetic like electric guitar pickups, directly detecting vibrations of the strings
- Piezo pickups sound clear, pronounced and transparent, with minimal feedback
- Soundhole pickups naturally sound reminiscent of electric guitars, are easy to fit, but are sometimes susceptible to feedback
Piezo is short for piezoelectric, referring to the generation of a voltage by detecting variations in pressure (in this case, vibration). Unlike ‘traditional’ pickups or microphones, piezo systems uniquely detect vibrations from the wood of your guitar to generate sound, usually from the saddle. The material that detects these changes in pressure consists of tiny piezoelectric crystals – cool huh?
Piezo pickups detect their vibrations from the saddle of the guitar, where the strings are particularly tight. As a result, the sound is often extremely bright and clear, with plenty of attack – every note is defined. They have a broad dynamic range, so the nuances of your playing shine through pretty accurately. If you play softly, your guitar’s signal will be quiet; strike hard, and the guitar will bellow accordingly.
Because they exclusively detect vibration and get no sound from the inside of the guitar, they’re almost totally resistant to feedback. This makes them brilliant for loud, live performance situations – no ear-splitting feedback or hum to worry about!
Piezo systems produce a fairly low output, meaning they often need to be boosted via a preamp. In some cases, the sensitivity of their dynamic range requires that the signal be compressed and boosted at the same time, which can quite drastically colour the tone of your instrument. In addition to this, the phenomenon of ‘piezo quack’ is well-known among the guitar community; it refers to the sensor or preamp getting overloaded and producing an unattractive nasal quality.
Piezos are also notoriously fiddly when it comes to fitting. They’re most often found pre-fitted to instruments, but if you fancy fitting one yourself, you’d best prepare for a challenge!
As mentioned earlier, soundhole pickups detect vibrations in your guitar’s strings using magnetic fields. These magnetic systems can sometimes produce a clear sound that’s similar to an electric guitar – because they’re essentially the same as electric guitar pickups. The output is often similar too, so there’s little boosting required to bring them up to a decent level – but that’s down to preference to some degree!
Magnetic systems are usually super-easy to install; you’ll recognise them as the pickups that simply bridge the gap of your guitar’s soundhole. They often simply require slotting in, sometimes with a few turns of a screwdriver.
Because they rely on vibrations of the strings, soundhole pickups can be a little more susceptible to feedback. Some people also aren’t always keen on the almost-electric quality of these systems, especially given the fact that they’re fitted to acoustic guitars. Again, it’s totally subjective!
Summary: the difference between Piezo and Soundhole pickups
- Piezo pickups are bright and clear, while soundhole pickups sound clean in a similar way to electric guitars
- Piezo systems have a broad dynamic range, but produce a low output and require boosting to decent levels
- Soundhole systems are often easy to fit, but you can’t miss them sat across your soundhole
- Piezo systems are fiddly to fit unless they come included, but you can hardly tell they’re there
- Soundhole systems can sometimes feedback, while piezos are more or less feedback-proof
There you have it! Many companies offer combinations of pickup choices; many Sire acoustic models feature both piezo and magnetic pickups for a versatile blended tone. Brands like LR Baggs also produce hybrid pickups which combine piezo, magnetic and/or microphone for a great natural sound. You’ll often find LR Baggs electronics included in popular acoustic models from Alvarez, Gibson, and many more.
Want to know more about acoustic pickup choices? It doesn’t end at piezo and soundhole. Check out our guide to acoustic pickups! And while you’re here, check out the rest of our labs & learn content – enjoy!