Written by Guitar Chalk Editorial
Parent article: Best Intermediate Acoustic Guitar
Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup
Fishman NEO-D Passive
Easy to install, no need for a battery and a great tone profile that accurately captures the natural vibe of an acoustic guitar's body, the NEO-D pickup is one of the best soundhole options for acoustic artists that want a convenient way to control their plugged-in tone.
Acoustic guitar pickups come in primarily two different forms:
First, you can have the installed pickup that is part of an onboard acoustic preamp, like the Taylor Expression system. The second type is the soundhole pickup that is installed externally, and often manufactured apart from the acoustic guitar it resides in. In most cases the installed pickups are also paired with some kind of onboard preamp and are "active", meaning they run off a battery (more on the difference between active and passive pickups below).
Those external pickups are what we'll focus on in this article. In most cases these pickups are added to an acoustic guitar's soundhole, via some kind of clip, adhesive or fitting. Just like a regular pickup, they contain some kind of magnetic strip that picks up the signal from an acoustic guitar and transfers it to a preamp where the signal is then amplified. In most cases - not all - these are passive pickups that don't require a battery to run.
The question we're looking to answer is: Which of these external pickups are the best for acoustic players and in what contexts? Specifically, what features are we looking for and how are we assessing quality?
Best Acoustic Guitar Pickups: Top Four Options
Fishman NEO-D Passive Acoustic Pickup
Seymour Duncan Woody HC (Hum Cancelling pickup)
EMG ACS Soundhole Acoustic Pickup
Fishman NEO-Buster Soundhole Pickup for Acoustic Guitar
A good acoustic guitar pickup should have both a low (or at least affordable) price point and be able to meet some of the criteria established earlier in this article.
For example, if an acoustic guitar pickup is priced reasonably and is strong on feedback prevention, it would be a great candidate for this list. Similarly, if a pickup does a good job of capturing the natural vibe of an acoustic guitar, is strong against feedback but a little pricey, we'd still consider it because of the value you would get in return, even at the higher price tag.
In short, we're looking for value based on a convergence of price and quality features. We'll start with our favorite: The Fishman NEO-D.
1. Fishman NEO-D
The Fishman NEO-D is the "value version" of the the Rare Earth pickup, which is another, more expensive yet extremely popular, Fishman design. We've left the Rare Earth out of this list in favor of the NEO because the NEO is just a far better value in our opinion, giving you a comparable product for a massive discount. Part of the reason it competes so well with its older brother is that they share a similar magnet structures, both amplifying a clear and balanced signal across each string.
Since it's a passive pickup design, there's no need for a battery. As expected, it takes less than a minute to install (or remove) from the soundhole. Some dislikes would include the lack of a volume control and the cord hanging from your guitar's soundhole.
Use an amp, external preamp or volume pedal to control your signal then wrap the hanging cord around the strap connector and those problems are both easily solved. External preamp (BBE Acoustimax), acoustic amp and direct to a mixer all sounded great and were noise-free.
Price and Value
The low cost is one of the NEO-D's most attractive features. However, Fishman gives a lot of quality in return, especially in the areas of sound projection and tonal clarity. It's a well-balanced, simple design that keeps noise down and sounds just as good as far more expensive acoustic guitar pickups.
It's easily the first one to cross the finish line.
IDEAL FOR: Acoustics without an onboard preamp
2. Seymour Duncan Woody HC
Like the NEO-D, the Seymour Duncan HC "Woody" is a passive pickup design that requires no battery and fits directly in the soundhole. The padding on the sides (the black fuzzy substance) makes it an even simpler install/uninstall process than the NEO, in that it can basically be clipped in and out of your acoustic guitar's soundhole (no wrenches or screws required to tighten).
What does it sound like?
The tone of the Woody is warmer and sounds more compressed than the NEO-D, which makes it a better fit with acoustic amps or going directly into a PA system. On our electric amps, there was some occasional - though subtle- noise and hum. We also noticed that it's not nearly as loud as other pickups on this list, which can be easily remedied by turning up amplification volume.
However, there's no volume control on the pickup itself (passive) and you've got to deal with a cord coming down from your soundhole. We like the Woody far better in a live performance context, especially if you run a simpler setup.
If you're looking at acoustic guitar pickups for a recording or studio-related scenario, we'd recommend going back to the NEO-D or checking the other two options in this list.
Price and Value
The price is low and the value is certainly there, but the usefulness of this pickup is a bit limited by context, since it doesn't function as well as a recording tool. We'd recommend it to live performers who run straight into an external acoustic-specific preamp or mixer and PA system.
IDEAL FOR: Live performing and pairing with an acoustic pedal preamp
3. EMG ACS Acoustic Guitar Pickup
EMG ACS is a more expensive option, but does actually contain its own internal preamp, which requires some modding to install. You can go over the install process in the user manual. Here's the finished product:
After the initial installation, it's easy to remove the pickup and put it back in within a minute or so. There's also no soldering involved. However, it is a far more permanent solution than the NEO and Woody.
As a consequence this is a more expensive pickup, designed to be a physical upgrade to the body of a guitar more so than an add-on accessory. Its tone is both brilliant on the high end and warm with plenty of bass on the low end. Feedback and noise are unnoticeable, even in more intense playing and high-volume situations.
Price and Value
The EMG ACS is a better pickup, but also a more permanent upgrade that does require some slight modding of your acoustic. If you don't mind that, we like it for folks who need their acoustic guitar to be amp-ready on a regular basis, both for recording and performance scenarios.
IDEAL FOR: More permanent upgrades, recording, and performance
4. Fishman NEO-Buster Soundhole Pickup
All of the best acoustic guitar pickups on this list are quiet, but the NEO-Buster from Fishman is completely noiseless. It's basically the NEO-D in a soundhole cover form, which means the Rare Earth, NEO-D and NEO-Buster, are all sharing a lot of the same quality standards. The tone from the NEO-Buster is warmer and sounds a little more compressed than the NEO-D, like what you'd expect when crossing the NEO-D with the Seymour Duncan Woody. However, clarity didn't suffer and the string balance was still well proportioned across all the strings.
High volume and even high gain situations seemed easily-handled by the NEO-Buster as it consistently evaded all noise, feedback and ground hum issues.
It makes sense, since feedback happens when sound goes back in through the soundhole and is re-amplified. The soundhole pickup design is just ideal for keeping that noise out. While it might be fair to say you lose a little bit of the acoustic's natural resonance, it's not enough to significantly downgrade the sound quality. It's still thick and full-bodied, not at all the tin can effect you get with cheaper acoustic guitar pickups.
Price and Value
We don't mean to purposefully double up on Fishman, but they're simply one of the best companies when it comes to acoustic electronics and amplification. The NEO-D and NEO-Buster are both top choices for us; for tone, ease of use and price point.
IDEAL FOR: Permanent upgrades, recording, and performance
What to Look For
- Not a modded install (avoid preamps that are to be housed or "cut into" your acoustic guitar
- Helps to prevent feedback or acoustic reverberation
- Projects a tone that faithfully reproduces the natural resonance of the acoustic guitar's body
Most third party external acoustic pickups do not have any kind of preamp capability. This means we'll avoid having to cut or "mod" an acoustic-only guitar that we might want to preserve as-is. Many of these pickups can simply be pinned into the soundhole and removed within seconds.
In addition to focusing on pickups that allow us to avoid heavy modding, we'll look for units that help prevent noise and feedback (a hallmark requirement of acoustic pickups) and that help to maintain the natural resonance of an acoustic guitar's signal.
Surprisingly, there aren't many good options that fit these three requirements.
Most acoustic pickups are some kind of preamp kit, which would have to be installed. While we wouldn't mind some basic modding (our third recommendation requires you drill a soundhole), those preamp kits are not what we're looking for. We're also not looking for the super-cheap interior microphones or magnet strips, since they don't do a good job of capturing and reproducing a good tone.
Pickups and Preamps are Not the Same
We need to be careful not to confuse acoustic guitar pickups with acoustic guitar preamps.
This article is dealing only with standalone pickups as a third-party add-on. This usually means that the best candidates for this type of purchase are people who own an acoustic-only guitar without any electronics installed. With the exception of the EMG ACS, the pickups mentioned in this article are all passive and do not include a preamp. Even the ACS is just a specialized interior preamp that doesn't provide as much control as something like the Taylor Expression system.
Just a quick review for those who missed this in the intro: Active pickups are paired with preamps and usually require a battery to operate. Passive pickups will not have any kind of preamp capabilities, meaning you'll need an additional device if you want any of the preamp benefits like volume or basic EQ control.
What if my acoustic guitar already has a preamp?
If your acoustic guitar already has a preamp, that means it also has a pickup installed, as the preamp does no good without the pickup. You can have a pickup without an internal preamp, but not a preamp without a pickup.
Acoustic guitars that are already equipped with these elements don't need a pickup installed unless you just want a different sound than what your onboard pickup and preamp can provide. In rare cases, an onboard preamp and pickup might just be really low quality or not functioning correctly, in which case you might want to have the soundhole pickup as an option.
Generally speaking, if your acoustic is already equipped with electronics, it's best just to use them.
Don't Confuse the Two
To summarize: When shopping, make sure you know the difference between passive/active pickups, preamps/pickups and how they all relate to one another.
What if I want an acoustic guitar pickup with no modification, but I also want the preamp?
As you probably noticed with the EMG ACS, there is always some slight modification involved with an acoustic guitar and an onboard preamp. Let's say this was your situation:
- You have an acoustic-only guitar that you like and want to amplify
- You have a passive acoustic guitar pickup installed
In this situation, your best bet is to go with an external pedal-based preamp, something like the BBE Acoustimax. We'd also recommend the following:
The beauty of passive acoustic guitar pickups is that they don't require a battery and they almost never require any kind of body drilling or modification to install. A small Allen wrench is probably as technical as you'll need to get. If you can pair one of these pickups with a good external preamp, you'll be able to use any acoustic-only guitar for the long haul.
Is a microphone a better option?
What about microphones? Is it better just to use one of those instead of the pickup? It depends on the pickup you're comparing it too, but for recording, microphones are often a better option, just because they capture a more natural resonance and are simpler to setup and capture your guitar's signal from different angles. For example, this graphic from Music Tech shows all potential mic placement locations when recording an acoustic guitar.
An acoustic guitar pickup, passive or active, cannot do this.
Thus, it's common for artists and session musicians (and their clients) to prefer a mic'd acoustic over an onboard pickup. Now, none of that is to say that pickups can't work in that environment. Many of them can. However, it's generally accepted that an acoustic pickup, especially when it's installed on an acoustic-only guitar, is more for performance than recording purposes.
The best acoustic guitar pickup options have some major advantages for live rigs. The ideal context is the following:
- An acoustic-only guitar that you don't want to mod (cut on)
- A simple amplification solution
- An external pedal-controllable preamp
People in this situation will get the most value out of this purchase. If you need something that will handle both recording and performance duties, we'd recommend the upper-tier Fishman pickups (maybe checkout the Rare Earth) or the EMG ACS.
For those just looking into a performance piece, any of the four we mentioned here will do the job effectively. If you have questions or comments about these acoustic pickups, please leave a note in the comments section below.