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Ken Talks About Pickups On His Archtops:

Not surprisingly, many players have expressed interest in a good way to amplify my acoustic  archtop guitars.  In the recording environment, microphones are the obvious choice.  Out in the real world of stage performances and jams, miking an acoustic guitar can be difficult, and grows more so as the SPL (sound pressure level) rises.  

Since my guitars are designed to be powerful and sensitive, and shake lots of air without amplification, it is my goal to sneak in a usable pickup without compromising the acoustic output of the instrument.

My guitars are built for bronze strings, and the selection of electromagnetic pickups voiced for these strings is very small. 

Happily, there is one available that works beautifully with bronze wound strings on the new guitars.

The pickup was developed by Mike Vanden, a fine archtop builder in Scotland, for his own work. 

Mike approached Larry Fishman with his superior design, and the result is the Fishman Rare Earth soundhole pickup, pictured below.

FishmanPickupAvailable in both single coil and humbucking versions, the stock unit is a drop - in DIY installation for round or oval hole guitars, and is, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the competition.




I prefer the tone and (extremely) low noise of the humbucker.  In order to fit the pickup on my carved guitars, I separate all the component parts, cover the coils in ebony veneer, and hide the batteries, circuit board, volume control, and 1/8" output jack in and under the pickguard.  I like not having wires or other foreign things in the guitar body (tone temple) , and I use an 1/8" jack instead of the usual 1/4" connector.  The jack is light, small, and attached at a very strong part of the guitar.  Also, the jack points straight down, and so eliminates the chance of damage in the event that the cord is yanked from the guitar.


I feel that this is a no compromise success.  The only downside is an additional 100 grams, hardly a big deal.  The bits and pieces all hide away under the pickguard for a clean look. The pickup sounds full bodied and punchy, with lots of detail and upper partials.  It sounds great through either a Fenderesque guitar tube amp, or a high-fi rig designed for acoustic guitars, such as the award winning Fishman SA220, pictured left.

Just as automobiles are designed up from a set of tires and wheels, guitars should be designed to maximize the potential of the best available strings. 

Almost always, acoustic guitars are fitted with bronze strings, and electric guitars are fitted with nickel strings.

Although it is well known that nickel strings do not flatter acoustic guitars,  archtop guitars are usually strung with nickel strings to correctly drive a standard magnetic pickup.

This works well because the nickel wire wrapping on the wound strings is magnetic, meaning that each string is composed of all magnetic material, and so the magnetic mass is nicely proportioned across the set.

Because of this nice magnetic balance, all the pickups designed for electric guitars are voiced for nickel strings.  However, using nickel strings on a good acoustic guitar for this benefit is, in my opinion, an unacceptable compromise.

Bronze wound strings have a much better acoustic tone.  They sound louder, warmer, more complex, and, well, just better. However since the bronze wrapping has no magnetic properties, the magnetic output of the wound strings is very low in comparison to the plain strings, which are 100% steel, and therefore 100% magnetic.  This is why a specially constructed pickup is required to evenly balance the outputs of the strings.

BTW, In my opinion, D'Addario EXP
Phosphor Bronze strings are unsurpassed. 
I use their .012 - .053 set exclusively.

About Piezo Pickups:

So far as piezo pickups go, for my purposes, I’ll admit that I’ve given up on them, probably forever. The only exception is for a flat top guitar equipped with an undersaddle piezo through a Fishman Aura. This is a great choice for live performance. Unfortunately, due to the low angle that the string makes over the archtop bridge, a bridge - mounted piezo doesn’t “see” enough load on an archtop to behave properly. I have never heard a soundboard - mounted piezo pickup that I liked.

I worked with Larry Fishman as his experimental machinist and collaborator in the 1980’s, and helped him develop a variety of piezo pickups. I probably have more experience in this area than any other guitar builder.

The way a piezo crystal senses vibration is problematic. It’s very challenging to filter out the unwanted (and unmusical) “thump” that is part of the piezo behavior. Sadly, I’ve concluded that piezos are not flattering to carved guitars.

I have two more magnetic pickups under development right now by good designers. Both are passive, and with any luck I’ll have at least one of them as an option early next year.

For now, I am very happy with my current pickup, details of which are on my website. This is a very capable system, and can be played at high volume. This summer I had the pleasure of hearing Larry Coryell sit in with a local blues band on Stella, very loud, through a Fender Deluxe, and he tore it up.