12 June 2008

Do You Need An Electro-Acoustic Guitar?

A beginner guitarist recently asked me whether I thought they should get an electro-acoustic guitar. The guitarist wasn't sure what an electro-acoustic guitar was and how it differed from an acoustic guitar.

I wrote up the answers here because they might be useful to other beginners.

What is an electro-acoustic guitar?

An electro-acoustic guitar is an acoustic guitar with built-in electronics for capturing and amplifying the sound. The electronics are made up of two basic parts.

First, a pick-up that captures the guitar's sound. Unlike a microphone most pick-ups capture the guitar's vibrations rather than the sound it produces.

The second is a pre-amplifier. The electrical signal created by the pick-up is very small so it must be amplified a little before it is fed into a larger amplifier or recorded. A battery fitted inside the guitar body powers the pre-amplifier.

You can usually recognize an electro-acoustic guitar because it has some knobs in the side somewhere. These allow you to control the volume and tone of the amplifier. Some advanced models may include other sound controls or a tuner.

Why is an electro-acoustic guitar useful?

If you play with other instruments you will quickly discover that an acoustic guitar is not very loud. It is enough if you play for yourself at home or at a picnic with a few friends, for example.

But play with wind instruments, a piano or amplified instruments such as electric guitar and your acoustic will be drowned out. It quickly becomes necessary, then, to capture and amplify the acoustic guitar.

An acoustic guitar can be amplified by placing a microphone in front of it. This works generally works poorly for several reasons, though.

The first problem is that you have to keep very still to maintain the guitar close to the microphone. The second problem is the ear splitting feedback squeal that is easily produced by this setup. Another problem is that you have no control over the volume; you can't increase it for a solo, for example.

An electro-acoustic guitar helps solve these problems. The pick-up is inside the guitar so you can move freely without affecting the sound capture.

The pick-up is also creates less feedback, although it can still be a problem at high volumes.

Finally, you have the pre-amplifier's volume and tone controls at hand. With these you can easily adjust the volume while you play.

Are there any drawbacks?

The electro-acoustic guitar has some nice advantages for the guitarist. But does it have any drawbacks that make it unsuitable?

Electro-acoustic guitars are suitable for just about any thing that you might want to do with an acoustic guitar, but with the added advantages of the built-in amplification electronics. However, you will want to consider the following points.

The added features and electronics of an electro-acoustic guitar are not free. This means that you will typically have to pay more for an equivalent quality guitar. At a given price an electro-acoustic guitar is likely to have cheaper wood and may have lower construction quality.

You should also be aware that the amplified sound of the electro-acoustic guitar is not exactly identical to the sound of an acoustic guitar. With modern pick-ups and electronics the amplified sound is generally very good. But try out the guitar through an amplifier to check that the sound is what you want.

Should I get an electro-acoustic guitar or an acoustic?

Armed with this new knowledge on electro-acoustic guitars you are better placed to decide if this is the right kind of guitar for you.

If you plan to play in a large or noisy space, play with a group using amplified instruments such as bass or electric guitar, play with a drummer, or play with louder instruments such as wind instruments then you should certainly consider investing in an electro-acoustic guitar.

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