Learn Guitar | Acoustic-Electric Guitar Strategies

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Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy is amped through a PA at Outside Lands in San Francisco.

Photograph by Dave Vann

One of the trickiest instruments to work with live is the acoustic guitar. Although amplifying it seems as simple as pointing a microphone, you''ll encounter issues with tone quality and feedback on all but the quietest stages.

Early acoustic-guitar amplification systems simply added piezo or microphonic pickups to the instrument, but the resulting sound was often overly percussive, honky, and thin. Modern acoustic-electric guitars, on the other hand, have pickup systems specially designed to maintain the tonal complexity of the instrument without feedback, even at high volumes within a mix of instruments.

However, maintaining decent sound quality onstage doesn''t stop at the guitar. Whether you''re playing on open-mic night, touring clubs, or visiting houses of worship, it''s important that you find a way to maintain the sound quality of your guitar no matter what kind of PA system you encounter. Let''s examine three ways that professionals take control of their sound onstage.

he easiest way to work with a venue''s PA system is to simply plug your guitar cable into whatever mixer input is provided. However, this scenario gives you the least amount of control over your sound. When you have an unbalanced output and the distance between your guitar and the mixer is more than 20 feet, you will need to convert your signal to a balanced one in order to avoid signal loss. Most venues will have a passive direct box, which accepts your 1/4-inch cable and provides a balanced XLR output that can be plugged into a cable snake that goes to the front-of-house mixer.

Guitarists who are concerned about tone quality should consider bringing along their own DI, particularly one that''s designed for an acoustic-electric guitar. These products not only create a balanced output, but they typically include a preamp that boosts the signal, while offering EQ controls to compensate for any peculiarities of the PA system or venue.

There are active boxes that run off a battery or accept +48VDC phantom power from the mixer, as well as passive, unpowered products. The device you choose will be determined by your budget, the type of pickup system you have on your acoustic-electric (whether it''s active or passive), and the kinds of features you need. Typical features include a notch filter or phase switch to help mitigate feedback, a dedicated tuner output or built-in tuner, and an effects-loop. Prices start well under $100, though the more feature-laden DI/preamps can cost as much as $400.

One drawback of plugging directly into a PA is that you must rely on the venue''s monitors to hear your amplified instrument. One way to solve this issue is by using an acoustic amp onstage; it not only provides direct monitoring but it gives you greater control over your sound with its built-in preamp and EQ.

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Portable, modular PAs such as the Bose system here make carrying your own system easy.

Unlike an electric-guitar amp, which boosts midrange frequencies, an acoustic amp is designed to cover the wide frequency spectrum an acoustic guitar is capable of producing, while offering features that benefit acoustic-electric players, such as feedback suppression. The more sophisticated products have digital effects. Acoustic amps also include balanced outputs so you can simultaneously send your carefully crafted signal to the front-of-house mixer and go through the PA.

Some acoustic amplifiers can double as lightweight, miniature PA systems and are designed for artists who play house concerts and other small venues. These products include a phantom-powered mic input for vocals and a stereo line-level input for media (MP3 or CD) players. The size and wattage of the acoustic amp you choose will depend on the kind of music play, the onstage volume level of your performances, and whether you''re playing solo or with a band.

The next level of amplification is to bring your own PA. Although you might think that solution is only for loud bands, there are personal PAs designed for soloists and small groups. In one sense, it is a small step up from the acoustic amp, because it not only reproduces the full frequency spectrum, but it includes mic and line inputs, EQ, and, often, digital effects. For the acoustic-electric guitarist who plays indoor and outdoor events to relatively small numbers of people, this can be the smartest way to project a quality guitar tone.

Remarkably, a portable system can be as simple as one or two powered speakers on a stand, with all the connections built into one of speakers themselves. That means you won''t have to pack a separate (and often heavy) power amp and mixer. Examples of this type of system include the Bose L1 Compact, the Fishman SA220, and the HK Audio Elements. All three systems feature narrow, space-saving speaker arrays that are lightweight and easy for one person to schlepp.