There's a lot of uncertainty about using acoustic guitar distortion.
Does it work?
Will it mess up my amp?
What pickup or pedal should I use? Should I use an amp or go straight through a PA system?
Before answering these questions, I should point out that results are always going to be somewhat contextual. Since the main issue is eliminating feedback, the success you have, in that regard, can change based on a number of variables.
Thus, it's often a more subjective puzzle to solve.
But, we can still offer conventional wisdom and best practices that will allow you to do one or more of the following:
- Add a slight boost to your acoustic signal
- Use a moderate amount of distortion with an acoustic guitar
- Move back and forth between a clean and "dirty" sound on your acoustic guitar
- Avoid feedback when adding gain to your acoustic guitar's signal
There are a lot of questions to answer before we get to "declare" the best overdrive pedal for acoustic guitar, so let's cover those first.
(If you just want to see products, here's a quick list of what we'll recommend)
Does it matter whether I run my signal to an amp or PA system?
In most cases, it's better to run a distorted acoustic guitar through an amplifier, as opposed to going straight into a PA system.
Part of this is because feedback typically stems from a PA system monitor that is facing your guitar sending the source signal (your guitar) back into the source itself. While it's not a hard rule, it's a safe bet you'll have better luck getting your signal into an amp, distorting it via a pedal and then sending it to a PA system by putting a microphone on your amp.
Note however, that there are certain pedals and systems that can be setup to allow you to send an acoustic signal straight to your PA system, regardless.
Using a PA system with a distorted acoustic guitar doesn't automatically mean you'll be dealing with feedback issues.
Once again, experiences will vary, so there are a few different options you can try.
Is an acoustic amp necessary?
You don't need an acoustic amp to play a distorted acoustic guitar. In fact, we've found that regular electric guitar amps, particularly warm-sounding tube amplifiers, tend to work better.
The one caveat is that you'll tame feedback more easily if you get your distortion from a pedal and not from the amp itself.
Use a clean and balanced EQ on your amp as a base, then use a distortion pedal to add the higher gain setting.
What kind of acoustic pickup should I use?
In almost every case, a soundhole pickup is going to be the most effective way to amplify your acoustic guitar and add distortion.
For even better odds of staying feedback-free, use a pickup that covers the entire soundhole, something like the Fishman Neo-Buster.
Here are a few additional options, if you don't have one already:
- Seymour Duncan "Woody" Hum-Cancelling Pickup
- Fishman Neo Passive Magnetive Soundhole Pickup
- LR Baggs M1 Acoustic Soundhole Pickup
Also note that you'll get the best results with pickups that are magnetic.
Avoid trying to rig a distorted guitar signal with a piezo pickup, as it's going to be far less reliable when using distortion and difficult to tame from a feedback perspective.
What about using a second pickup?
Some players use a two pickup system where they'll actually add a second magnetic pickup, placing it on top of the guitar's body between the soundhole and the bridge.
Per the picture below:
Bridge pickup installed on an acoustic guitar. | Image via Matthias Waber
Done right, this produces some of the best-sounding acoustic guitar distortion we've ever heard.
The idea is the same as the soundhole pickup, but you would just have to try and figure out how to mount it yourself.
Here's the skeleton of the process:
- Mount a pickup between the soundhole and bridge
- Use that pickup for your "dirty" or distorted signal (further away from the soundhole means less feedback and better response to the magnets)
- Use the other pickup (the acoustic guitar's original preamp) as your clean signal.
From there, you could use a channel switcher like the Boss LS-2 line selector to route each signal to different places, allowing you to perhaps run the clean signal straight to a PA system and the dirty signal to a mic'd amplifier.
As far as the type of pickup, a magnetic lace sensor that fits underneath the strings is one of the more common solutions.
How important is a soundhole cover?
A soundhole cover, while you can get them in a pickup form, are more commonly found as standalone feedback reducers that are meant to work in conjunction with the pickup that's already installed inside the body of your guitar.
For example, if you had the Taylor 114ce and wanted to add distortion to it, you could reduce feedback by simply using the preamp that's already installed and adding a soundhole cover.
They're a nice solution to try first (if you already have the pickup in your guitar) because they're really cheap. In a lot of cases, they'll solve feedback issues entirely.
Planet Waves makes a soft rubber version (pictured above) that fits most acoustics.
Which overdrive pedal for acoustic guitar works best?
Now that we've burned through some of the technicalities and peripheral issues, what distortion or overdrive pedal for acoustic guitar will work best?
Before getting into specifics, let's cover some general best practices.
#1: Your distortion should not be heavy or overly saturating.
Perhaps this is an obvious point, but it's still too important to assume.
Overdrive for acoustic guitars should not be heavy or laden with a ton of gain. If it's too distorted, you'll have feedback problems no matter what kind of pickup arrangement you've pulled together.
Think smooth, simple overdrive.
You're looking for a light boost in gain as opposed to an over-powering saturation.
For example, a lot of players use the Boss BD-2 Blues Driver in this capacity.
#2: Volume levels between pedal and amp should match up
You don't want a huge jump in output when switching between your pedal and amplifier.
Since most distortion pedals have a level knob, which acts as the pedal's master output, make sure that this is set to roughly the same as the master volume on your amplifier.
In other words, when you turn on your distortion pedal, volume either stays the same or only increases slightly.
This will help keep feedback at bay.
With that out of the way, let's get into some pedal recommendations.
The Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive MOD is the same pedal as the original Sparkle Drive, but with a few extra settings that allow you to choose from different distortion flavors based on EQ variance.
For example, you can dial in more of a bluesy midrange grind or opt for a thicker bass-heavy tone.
It's helpful to have the variety, as certain MOD settings might be more accommodating to your acoustic guitar.
The "CLEAN" knob
While the extra MOD settings are nice to have, the single most helpful feature for acoustic players is the knob labeled CLEAN.
This basically allows you to dial in a blend between your original clean signal (with a slight boost) and the distorted signal, which is an incredibly helpful tool for when you're using the pedal to distort an acoustic.
The benefit is two-fold:
- You can dial back in the natural tone of the acoustic guitar's clean signal and avoid losing its raw sound.
- Feedback reduction becomes much easier by simply changing the clean/distortion blend.
Check the following demo video around 45 seconds in.
He boosts the clean knob to about halfway which brings his guitar's clean signal back into the mix.
This is one of the few distortion pedals providing this luxury.
Pedals like the Boss Blues Driver and DS-1 distortion don't have that feature, and instead only allow you to control level (labeled VOLUME on the Sparkle Drive) and gain.
Other notable and acoustic-friendly features of the Sparkle Drive include the following:
- True bypass wiring
- Vintage mode with a tube-style drive (good for smooth acoustic distortion)
- 100% clean boost circuit
- Five year warranty
While distortion pedals without the blend control can still work, it's hard to recommend anything other than the Sparkle Drive Mod since it has both the smoothness and versatility we're looking for, in addition to this hallmark feature.
If you'd rather go with a pedal that was specifically designed for acoustic guitars, the BBE Acoustimax is a fantastic option, both for distortion and basic EQ controls.
Your distortion or boost will come from the GAIN knob that sits all the way to the left on top of the pedal.
Other acoustic-friendly features include the following:
- Line level out
- Pre/Post (switchable) DI output
- Ground lift
These features give you some additional options in terms of output and allow you to easily run your signal to either an amplifier or a PA system (via the DI output) which is a convenience that often benefits acoustic players who perform live.
The ground lift and notch filter will also help to reduce feedback and avoid any excess noise.
As a bonus BBE throws in the necessary power supply at no extra charge.
Better than the Sparkle Drive?
The Voodoo Lab distortion pedal, while probably the best acoustic guitar distortion as a standalone stompbox, only does distortion.
If you're in a situation where you want acoustic distortion and additional EQ controls for your rig, the Acoustimax is a more comprehensive solution that happens to offer a gain control.
Both can work and are somewhat contextual in terms of what situations they're designed for.
As far as overdrive for acoustic guitar is concerned, we can confidently recommend them both.
A Few Honorable Mentions
As with most guitar gear questions, answers are always going to be somewhat subjective.
The two distortion pedals highlighted are what we believe will be the most optimal solutions for the largest number of people. What it doesn't mean is that they're the only solutions or that other options don't exist.
A lot of what works for you is contingent upon your rig, how you play, where you play and how you have everything setup.
Thus, there are a few honorable mentions that could serve as working distortion pedals for acoustic guitar rigs.
What You Should Avoid
If you don't go with either of the pedals recommended:
You should avoid any kind of distortion labeled "metal" or "heavy," opting instead for lighter distortions and overdrives.
As we've mentioned before, too much gain or saturating distortions will overshadow your acoustic guitar's natural tone and make feedback an almost constant problem.
Keep this in mind as you pick out an acoustic guitar distortion.
There's a balance to be struck between adding a little bit of gain that enhances your signal or drowning out your acoustic guitar behind a wall of fuzz and feedback.
We want to hear from you...
Particularly if you've used the Sparkle Drive or Acoustimax with an acoustic guitar and have a war story to share, we'd love to hear about it. Leave such stories in the comments section or get in touch with us directly.
Most questions about the pedals or the setup should be shared in the comments section so others can benefit as well.
If you just want to drop a line about your acoustic rig or the pedal you've used successfully for acoustic distortion, we'd love to hear about that as well.
Keep the fire alive.
Resources used in this Post and Further Reading
Overdriving Acoustic Guitars Gibson Article: Some basic tips and best practices for using distortion with an acoustic guitar.
Monte Montgomery's Gear Page: Montgomery has long been known for using a distorted acoustic guitar, thus his gear page is a useful tool.
Monte Montgomery Guitar World Interview: Once again, an in-depth look at Montgomery's rig gives some good insight on distorting an acoustic guitar.
Nirvana playing "Man Who Sold the World" Live in New York: Kurt Cobain uses distortion on an acoustic guitar, which is a great example of the tone done right.
Other Acoustic Guitar & Effects Content
Best Pedals for the Acoustic Guitar: Recommendations for 10 of the best acoustic guitar pedals and stompboxes.
Pedals, Preamps and DI Boxes for Acoustic Guitars: Recommendation for a variety of acoustic guitar pedals, processors and PA system-related gear.
Best Acoustic Guitar Roundup: Listing and review of our favorite acoustic guitars under the $1000 price threshold.
Taylor 114ce Review: Bobby's full review of his own acoustic guitar.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Cogdogblog