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Let’s Get Louder: Amplification Solutions for the Classical Guitar (Part One)

Classical Guitar Amplification

The contemporary guitarist is destined to encounter performance situations in which amplification is necessary—from the vast majority of orchestral concerti to TV and radio shows, in addition to less formal (but equally lucrative!) settings such as weddings and background-music gigs. Fortunately, technology has improved considerably in the past dozen years or so, leading to a variety of viable choices that will enable you both to be heard and to be proud of the sound you’re producing. Let’s look at some of the options on the table, starting with some of the most popular internally mounted amplification solutions.

The first choice to make is whether to use a dedicated guitar for plugged-in performances, or to have only one instrument. In this latter case, and especially when dealing with expensive concert guitars, the installation of any internal pickup must be weighed against its impact on resale value (guitarists and collectors are after all a picky bunch) as well as any effect on acoustic/unplugged tone.

Underwhelming Undersaddles

I’m afraid I’m not the biggest fan of undersaddle (piezo) pickups for a number of reasons. Through the years, I’ve found that installing anything under the saddle runs the risk of altering a guitar’s tonal response. In addition, the vast majority of piezo pickups are designed to work with preamps installed inside the guitar. This requirement is an additional deal-breaker for me, as I have found that even the lowest-profile preamps, with their batteries and dangling wires, adversely affect an instrument’s resonance and responsiveness. To top it off, most (but not all) piezos produce somewhat of a compressed and “quacky” sound which is a far cry from the natural tone of the classical guitar.

To their credit, piezos are relatively feedback resistant, and their tone can be greatly enhanced by digital modeling systems such as the Fishman Aura and D-TAR Mama Bear: in this light, a dedicated stage guitar with a newer-generation undersaddle piezo pickup can be a satisfactory plugged in solution for anyone but the most demanding of tone freaks. As an added bonus, piezos work great in solid body, nylon-string guitars, yielding a serviceable “gigging” instrument that is almost completely impervious to feedback.

A Less Invasive Option

Soundboard Transducers (SBTs) are a family of pickups which are also installed inside the guitar—but they are attached to a brace or to the underside of the bridgeplate. In comparison to undersaddle pickups, they offer a more natural sound at the expense of an increased sensitivity to feedback. SBTs can be either active (with an internal preamp and batteries) or passive—these latter ones should be plugged into an external preamp using a cord no more than three feet long. SBT installations, when done well, leave the guitar almost unscathed except for the addition of an endpin jack—the transducers are negligibly light, and the lone wire can be run along the side of the instrument—thus offering a reasonable solution with regards to their effect on value and unplugged tone. Companies like K&K and McIntyre produce extremely natural-sounding and reliable SBTs.

One final word about preamplification: there is a saying that goes “your amplified guitar sound is only as good as the weakest link in your signal chain.” Choosing a clean, quiet, and powerful preamp is as important a step as the choice of a pickup system. Passive pickups in particular require extremely high input impedances (generally greater than 1MOhm, sometimes as much as 10MOhm). There are several excellent commercial choices to be had; I recommend looking for preamps that offer variable input impedances and a flexible EQ section—“sweepable” or parametric midrange controls are especially useful. We’ll talk more about EQ and other amplification solutions, including removable and external ones, in the next installments of the series.

Image by JimK

9 Responses
  1. 2011 October 17
    Flora permalink

    In case your looking for some ideas and inspiration for amplifying your guitar, you may have a look at the system by Leonardo Gallucci:
    (It is used by Gallucci himself and guitarists such as Roberto Fabbri.)

    Here’s some gear endorsed by John Williams:

    Here are some photos of John Williams’ setup:


    • 2011 October 17

      Hey Flora,

      hadn’t heard of the Gallucci system before. I use a system that’s remarkably similar, although made up of separate components. I am going to talk about it in more detail in the next article.

  2. 2011 October 17

    I like to use the Lr Baggs I-beam or K&K pure classic. Both are transducers and weigh next to nothing. They require a external preamp and the only modification to the guitar is an 1/4 inch input jack. External preamps are better because you do not have to cut a huge hole in you guitar. Transducers are vastly superior to Piezo under saddle pickups. Piezo works by being compressed by the bridge and saddle leading to a “quacky” sound. Transducers move with the top leading to a more natural sound. There are systems that blend a piezo or transducer with a small internal mic. Buy the best preamp and guitar amp you can afford, these make a huge difference is the quality of sound. I like AER, Schertler, and Fishman. Preamps choose Radial technology or LR Baggs. I have a dedicated gig classical that I installed transducers in, it beats having a mic that picks up wind noise and people talking. Internal electronics also allow for greater volume before feedback.

  3. 2011 October 17

    If you want an amazing pickup, look up
    Totally transparent sound. It sounds just like not having amplification, just louder.

  4. 2011 October 23

    Do you really need a pickup or can a good mike work well?

  5. 2011 October 24
    Joseph permalink

    I agree with Holroyd Hammond. I have always believed a good mike is the best way to go. Anything else could distort the sound of a really good guitar.

  6. 2011 October 30

    I’ve been messing around with amplification since the early 70s, because I play jazz as well as classical and flamenco music on my nylon-string guitars. The Shadow nanoflex pickup is an under-saddle piezo that doesn’t need permanent installation, has its own preamp, and sounds remarkably good, especially with an external modeling device such as a Zoom A2. Personally, I think that the RMC system is far superior to any other built-in system, but it is destructive, so one wants a dedicated instrument.

    The other end of this discussion is the amplifier: for classical guitar, the Bose L1 series is the way to go. The new Compact model is amazingly portable, easy and quick to set up, and very high fidelity. The player can utilize both a built-in pickup and a microphone; the system sets up behind you, so no monitors necessary, it’s very feedback-resistant. No matter if you use a piezo, a transducer, a mic or a combination, it’s difficult to find a better system, expecially for the money.