Being able to plug your acoustic guitar into an amp, PA, or recording interface is something we take for granted. Most acoustic guitars these days come with electronics or have the option for it. And if they don’t, you can easily get a cheap aftermarket pick-up.
These electronics make life much easier for acoustic players. Struggling with volume? Run it through an amp. Need to shape your tone? Use the onboard controls or pedals. Want to record quickly? Just run straight into your interface.
Acoustic-electric guitars are essential these days, but where did they come from? How did we go from acoustics with no electronics to acoustics that have built-in pickups, tone controls, tuners, and more?
In today’s article, we’re going to take a look at the history of acoustic-electric guitars, how they came to be, and how the technology has evolved over the years.
Acoustic Guitars Pre-Amplification
The first acoustic guitars date back hundreds of years. Over time, the acoustic guitar was continuously modified, improved, and reinvented. However, acoustic guitars existed strictly as acoustic instruments. There was no way to make them louder, other than picking and strumming harder.
And for the most part, this wasn’t an issue. Music was played in smaller settings, and groups naturally balanced their sound. Guitarists didn’t need to make themselves louder. The guitar as an acoustic instrument produced enough volume on its own, but that wouldn’t be the case forever.
By the early 1900s, the guitar landscape was shifting. Country and western and jazz were both becoming popular, and the bands could be pretty large. As the music got more popular, the venues and crowds got bigger too. And pretty quickly, guitarists were struggling to keep up with the volume.
As a result, guitarists and luthiers started looking for ways to make guitars louder. The earlier attempts at this didn’t involve electronics, such as resonator guitars. While those things did help a bit, they still didn’t provide the volume guitarists needed. Soon though, acoustic guitarists would get exactly what they were looking for.
The First Electrified Acoustic Guitars
In the early 1930s, engineer Lloyd Loar split from Gibson to launch his own company, Vivitone. Soon after, he created one of the earliest acoustic amplification systems.
Compared to what we’re used to today, Loar’s system is almost absurd. It involved installing a removable drawer in the bass rim of the guitar, which the electronics were installed in. The vibrations were transferred from a wooden bridge to a metal plate, allowing for amplification.
While this system did work, it had drawbacks. Most importantly, it required a lot of work and modification to your instrument. Installing a large wooden drawer stuffed with electronics in your acoustic wasn’t exactly an easy, cheap, or convenient option. And as a result, it didn’t catch on. Thankfully though, it didn’t take long for a better solution to pop up.
In the mid-1930s, DeArmond introduced the first commercially available magnetic pickups. These were magnets wrapped in copper being used to create an electric signal. DeArmond made two models—the FH/FHC for archtops and the RH/RHC.
The biggest thing to note here is that these pickups could be added to a guitar with no modification. You didn’t need to add a drawer, drill a bunch of holes, or make a ton of modifications. You could quickly and easily add a pickup to any acoustic, making it an acoustic-electric.
Gibson also was experimenting with pickups and amplification at the time, introducing the now-famous ES-150 in 1936. Though it’s seen more as a precursor to electric guitars, it is essentially an archtop acoustic with amplification. These guitars featured a hexagonal pickup, now known as the Charlie Christian.
With numerous different amplification systems on the market now, acoustic-electric guitars were here to stay. And it wouldn’t be long until acoustic-electric guitars hit the market in greater numbers.
Mass Produced Acoustic-Electric Guitars
By the 1950s, the guitar market was a very different place. Solid-body electric guitars were being introduced, guitars were improving greatly every year, guitar was becoming a more and more popular instrument as well. Numerous guitar manufacturers were also entering the acoustic-electric market.
Gibson released the J-160E (made famous by the Beatles), a flat-top acoustic featuring a pickup and tone/volume controls. The pickup on the guitar was actually Gibson’s P-90, designed in the 40s as a replacement for the original Charlie Christian pickup. While not the most natural sound, the J-160E proved the acoustic-electric format worked.
Martin also joined in, releasing the D-18E and the D-28E in the late 50s. These guitars had two DeArmond pickups, three tone controls, and a toggle switch. The electronics were mounted to the soundboard, which had a negative impact on tone. Despite that, these odd-looking guitars still have fans. Kurt Cobain famously used one for MTV Unplugged.
With multiple acoustic-electric guitars on the market, it was clear they were here to stay. Acoustic players were still around, and they would continue to need amplification. And as a result, acoustic-electric guitars would continue to be improved in the coming years.
Making Improvements in the 70s and 80s
As with electric guitars, the 70s and 80s were an era of refinement for acoustic-electric guitars. The industry was bigger, meaning there was money to spend on innovation. And with new technologies emerging constantly, there was ample opportunity for improvement.
Two notable pickups from the 70s are the FRAP and the Barcus Berry. Arnie Lazarus developed the FRAP (flat response audio pickup) in the early 70s, which was a piezo-based pickup. Neil Young famously uses this pickup, and many still claim it is one of the best available.
Barcus Berry pickups came out in the 70s as well, and they were also a piezo-based pickup. These became very popular at the time due to their affordability and ease of installation. While they weren’t the best-sounding pickup, they got the job done.
Ovation also made strides in the 70s. Glen Campbell asked Ovation for an electric model in the early 70s, and they came up with their own solution. They used crystal-based piezo pickups on their fiberglass acoustics. Their set-up had a more minimal look and allowed for better soundboard vibration.
Besides the bigger names, lots of smaller companies and individual luthiers/inventors had solutions as well. Sunrise pickups came about in the early 80s, and they offered a ceramic humbucking pickup for acoustics. Luthier Ken Donnell also worked on early flexible soundhole mics, focused on the idea that a mic will sound better than a pickup for acoustic.
The most important innovator though was Takamine. In the late 70s, they decided they wanted to enter the acoustic-electric market and got to work. The result was their palathetic pickup, which utilized a piezo transducer for every string and a bridge plate to improve clarity. To this day, it is the most used acoustic pickup design. And they didn’t stop there.
In the 80s, Takamine continued to push forward. Their biggest innovation of the decade was the active acoustic pickup. The active pickup allowed for an onboard preamp, which they supplemented with sliding EQ controls. Mounted in the guitar’s bass bout, it allowed for better control over the guitar’s tone while amplified.
If you’ve played a modern acoustic-electric guitar, you know that this system is widely used today. Most acoustic-electric guitars feature active pickups with an onboard preamp and EQ. While it’s easy to see that and think nothing has changed since the 80s, that is not the case.
Modern Acoustic-Electric Guitars
Though many innovations from the 70s and 80s are still standard on acoustic-electric guitars, there are tons of incredible new pickup systems coming out today.
For example, Fishman’s Ellipse Matrix Blend showcases how guitar technology has come. It features an under-saddle piezo-style pickup and a miniature microphone mounted inside the body. These can be blended to create a more natural sound that still has clarity and cut. The Anthem by LR Baggs also works similarly.
There are even more complicated systems out there as well. Cole Clark, an Australian luthier, takes the Fishman concept even further with a three-way system. It has six piezos under the bridge for low-end, a soundboard transducer mounted on the braces for mids, and a condenser microphone for high-end.
And like with everything in the guitar world, these new solutions exist alongside the past options. Some players love the new technology, while others prefer the classics (like Neil Young and his love for the FRAP system). There are plenty of options out there, providing you with any sound you could want.
The budget offerings have gotten better too. Many low-end electric acoustics feature Takamine-style pick-ups and onboard electronics, providing tones that would’ve cost thousands in the 70s. And with countless easily installable aftermarket options too, turning an acoustic into an acoustic-electric is easier than ever.
Acoustic Innovation: The Story of Acoustic-Electric Guitars
Acoustic-electric guitars are standard these days, and it’s easy to forget they haven’t always been around. From the earliest pickups from Lloyd Loar and DeArmond to the ingenuity of Takamine in the 80s, it took acoustic-electric guitars 50+ years to become what they are today.
So next time you’re throwing some Stringjoys on your favorite acoustic-electric, take a moment to remember all the history and innovation that made amplified acoustic guitars possible.