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Acoustic guitar with electric pickups?
December 27, 2011 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Is Tracy Chapman's guitar in this video (best shots are in the first 10 seconds) a custom jobbie, or is an acoustic with electric pickups a thing that can be bought off the rack?

I'm considering picking up the guitar again, after giving up on it ~15 years ago. The one I had back was a rather low-end beginner thing that didn't sound too good.

Anyway, the guitar in that video strikes me as awesome with its 2-in-1 versatility. Doubly so if one such thing would cost less than buying an acoustic and an electric separately (especially since I'm more interested in the acoustic side, and the electric would probably just be a once-in-a-while thing).

So, is it a thing that a good music store would be have hanging around? Or be able to track down for me if I ask for a _______? Or is it an altogether bad idea for a second-attempt learner?
posted by CKmtl to Shopping (17 answers total)
 
Acoustic Electric guitars are quite common and can be found at any music store.
posted by wrok at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2011


From April 2003, No.124 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine What they play section.


Tracy Chapman's family of guitars started with an acoustic Fender dreadnought and has grown to number more than 20. On Let It Rain, she uses two of her small-bodied guitars, a Baby Taylor and a koa Judy Threet A model. She also has a Martin D-35 with a stereo Frap pickup and an electric Gibson ES-125TC, both of which she has retired from the road. She still uses them at home and in the studio.

"I love my Martin," Chapman says. "I think it was built in 1967. I played it for eight to ten years, but I started feeling it was too risky to take on tour. I have heavy-duty flight cases, but on occasion a guitar can get damaged. It's the same with the Gibson, which was the first electric I bought. I played it on the song 'Give Me One Reason.' The stress of touring gave it neck problems. I got the neck repaired but decided to go on tour with a Paul Reed Smith McCarty Soapbar, which is close to an ES-125 sound."

In lieu of her Martin D-35, Chapman took to the highway with the Baby Taylor and a Martin Backpacker because they're "easier to move around." When Chapman was looking for a simpler tour setup, she went to Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, where she found a parlor-sized guitar made by Canadian luthier Judy Threet (www.threetguitars.com). "It's small in size but very dynamic in sound," says Chapman.

Chapman is now touring with the Threet (and a Santa Cruz PJ as a backup) equipped with a Highlander undersaddle pickup and internal microphone that are run through a Raven Labs PMB-1 preamp. Chapman uses D'Addario light-gauge strings on her Judy Threet guitar, a Shubb capo, National thumbpicks, and a Boss TU-2 tuner. While she uses pickups on tour, Chapman always mics her guitars in the studio, preferring a Neumann U 47. For her voice, she uses a Neumann KMS 105 microphone on the road and a Neumann M 147 in her home studio.

Chapman has an array of other instruments, including a Fender Jazz bass, a Martin B-40 acoustic bass, an Ibanez hollow-body electric, a solid-body Godin with a MIDI pickup, and a McNally Strumstick. Her amps include a Matchless DC30, Fender Deluxe Reverb, and Polytone Mini-Brute. She has a small effects setup: a Hughes and Kettner Rotosphere pedal (for a Leslie speaker sound) and a Z. Vex Super-Duper 2-in-1 pedal that expands her electric guitar's dynamic range. She brings most of her accessories to studio sessions. "I like having a lot of instruments because as a songwriter I want to be able to represent the sounds and tones I hear," Chapman says. "The different tonality of different instruments can be inspiring. But the dilemma is that I can't play them all at the same time. That's why I pack them up to take to the studio, so that the other guys can use them."

Hope this helps
posted by kanemano at 11:36 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


She also has a Martin D-35 with a stereo Frap pickup

Ok. The guitar in the video is a Martin. It doesn't look to my eye like a D-35. It looks more like a D-18, but maybe I'm just not seeing the binding that I would expect on a D-35. The only way that I would know whether it's a D-35 or a D-18 or 28 would be to see whether the back of the guitar is two pieces or three (the D-35 having a 3-piece back).

You can get a Martin D-18, 28, 35 or whatever else off the rack. They are not inexpensive.

On to the pickups. The pickups visible on the top of the guitar in the video are non-standard and were not offered as a feature on any Martin that I know of from any era. Looking at the close-up shot at 0:09 in the video, the pickups appear to be mounted in pieces of pickguard material that is then installed on the body of the guitar, with a cut-out in the pickguard to make room for the bridge pickup. The pickups are similar to Gretsch Dynasonic pickups in terms of pole placement and general design, but the black geometric shape on them tells me that they are not Gretsch pickups but some other manufacturer. I'm not familiar with those specific pickups, so maybe they're some boutique brand.

Given the sound of the guitar in the video, it sounds like there is probably at least one other pickup system in the guitar, as well, using either an internal mic pickup, a FRAP contact pickup sort of system, a piezo bridge pickup, or something else, and the various pickups are being blended in the mix.

So, short answer: No, you cannot buy that guitar off the rack. It's an off-the-rack Martin dreadnought acoustic that has had a lot of custom electronics work done.

To answer the rest of your question: You can buy, off the rack, several different brands and models of acoustic guitar that have pickup systems already installed. They come at varying price points and levels of quality. But there's no such thing as an acoustic guitar that can sometimes be used as a viable substitute for an electric guitar. The acoustics of the acoustic guitar with a round soundhole are such that they alter the tone so much that it just doesn't work. It can be made loud, it can be made distorted, etc. But it will not feel or sound like an electric guitar. It can sound cool, but not "right," if that makes sense.

That said, the guitar I would recommend if you want to get as close as possible to what your describing is a Gibson the model number of which escapes me at the moment. A friend of mine tours with one, and it's like a J-200 but has, I think, a humbucker in the neck position and Les Paul-style knobs on the top. It sounds sort of like a weird electric when plugged into a good amp.
posted by The World Famous at 11:58 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The guitar in that video is a Martin D-18E, the same model Kurt Cobain used on Unplugged in New York. The D-18E different from your average acoustic/electric in that it was outfitted with some variety of DeArmond pickup that you'd see more commonly in archtop jazz guitars of the era. Only a few hundred of these were produced, but there are other similar models at more affordable prices--for example the Epiphone EJ-160E "John Lennon" is one example. Another cheaper option is an active magnetic soundhole pickup which I would characterize vaguely as being halfway between the piezo pickup sound of a conventional acoustic/electric and that of an acoustic guitar fitted with electric guitar pickups.
posted by Lorin at 12:01 PM on December 27, 2011


ugh, and i even proofread...redundancies aside, the point stands!
posted by Lorin at 12:03 PM on December 27, 2011


Lorin is awesome. FWIW, the DeArmond pickups are a close relative of the Gretsch ones. And I'm sort of semi-shocked that Martin would sell a guitar that looks like someone without a clear plan had a go at instaling pickups in it.
posted by The World Famous at 12:04 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ohh and what the hell, because there's little I love more than geeking out about guitars, here's a brief writeup about Martin's foray into electrified guitars.
posted by Lorin at 12:10 PM on December 27, 2011


Here's one like it from Epiphone, but lacks a bridge pickup and is pretty cheap.

Honestly though, putting in two humbuckers into an acoustic guitar will make it really sound more like something like an archtop or semi-hollow/hollow electric, only with more feedback. The reason you don't see many around is because of the feedback problem. Remember the Nirvana Unplugged? It was being recorded for a massively popular TV show and album with the most professional of professional sound engineers, and he had feedback screeches constantly.

There are two-in-one guitars that start out as electrics that have piezo pickups in them as well, like the Parker Fly, which basically nobody uses.

Unless you REALLY want to have the look of an acoustic, you're better off going with a real electric + a real acoustic (with proper acoustic guitar pickup).

On prievew, I see I've covered nothing new. :(
posted by Threeway Handshake at 12:33 PM on December 27, 2011


I believe that she has just taken one of her Martins and had some DeArmond pickups installed on it. Those look very much like DeArmonds, which are basically vintage pickups common to manufacturers like Kay and Teisco back in the 60s and 70s..
posted by spicynuts at 4:20 PM on December 27, 2011


Acoustic-electrics are very easy to find. Beware of the ones with the round backs, as they tend not to sound much like either an acoustic or an electric, but rather more like plasticky crap.

Putting a pickup into an acoustic is a simple job (there are many that just slot into the sound hole without any tools), but, yeah: feedback city. It's only useful as a means of getting an acoustic guitar into a PA--it's not anything close to a proper electric guitar.

One decent alternative to an acoustic guitar with a pickup is an electric guitar through an acoustic simulator. You don't get the amp-free uses of the acoustic, obviously, but you do get the versatility of the electric.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:55 PM on December 27, 2011


Crazy feedback, eh? That'd drive me nuts, so thanks for bursting my bubble.

Sys Rq: Beware of the ones with the round backs, as they tend not to sound much like either an acoustic or an electric, but rather more like plasticky crap.

Like Ovations? I was eyeing a couple of them a few months ago. Do they really sound that odd? I kind of like the look of them...
posted by CKmtl at 9:39 PM on December 27, 2011


Like Ovations? I was eyeing a couple of them a few months ago. Do they really sound that odd? I kind of like the look of them...

Not odd (they're actually pretty popular), just different. Thinner, flatter. They can be excellent in a mix, but on their own, or as the sole accompaniment to a vocalist, they don't quite cut it IMO.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:21 PM on December 28, 2011


My electric/acoustic setup is a Simon & Patrick Songsmith acoustic with a Baggs M1a pickup which I installed myself in ten minutes. This goes into a Fender Acoustasonic amp which is bloody loud but also has a DI out which can go into the PA. I've never had feedback issues at stage volume and we get pretty loud. It's mostly because of the Baggs pickup which is very feedback proof and also has a terrifically nice sound. It's a great combo and I heartily recommend all of it, whether for playing with a band or doing solo gigs. (The Acoustasonic has a mic input too so you can actually do the vocal/guitar thing without a PA very well, certainly good enough for a small bar gig).

Acoustic Electric guitars rightly have a bad rep for feedback and 'quacky' electric sounds but if you choose the right gear none of that applies.
posted by unSane at 5:53 PM on December 29, 2011


(I wholeheartedly recommend getting a full size acoustic rather than one of the slimline models (eg Yamaha APX line) because the acoustic sound is SO MUCH BETTER. Also, an aftermarket pickup can be swapped from guitar to guitar if you upgrade).
posted by unSane at 5:54 PM on December 29, 2011


A big thumbs down to Ovations from me. They were trendy for about five minutes in the 80s but they do not sound great at all. Your best bet is to go to a good music store with a big acoustic room and play everything in there. You'd be surprised how good cheap acoustics can sound these days.
posted by unSane at 5:56 PM on December 29, 2011


(Okay I did once get feedback when I plugged my acoustic into my 100w Fender Twin and turned it up 'to see what would happen. What happened was that my guitar almost exploded. Do not do this.)
posted by unSane at 6:22 PM on December 29, 2011


Picked up a Takamine EG363SC today. The store was still having their boxing day week sale, so it was set down by a few hundred.
posted by CKmtl at 6:03 PM on January 2, 2012


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