If you’re new to the acoustic guitar, you don’t need me to tell you there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to the terminology associated with the many different types of guitars available. From dreadnoughts, concert guitars, and parlors, to resonators, 12 strings, and short-scale guitars there’s a lot of different options out there that can be confusing when first starting out. One type of guitar, in particular, that seems to cause confusion amongst beginners is electric acoustic guitars. With that in mind, in the following article, I’m going to explain what an electric acoustic guitar is, what it isn’t, and the pros and cons associated with them.
But, if you are looking for a quick explanation: Electric acoustic guitars (aka electro-acoustic guitars) are simply acoustic guitars that feature a pickup system and preamp, allowing the guitar to be amplified when plugged into an amp or P.A. Because electric acoustic guitars require a 9V battery for the built-in preamp, most can also accommodate a 3 band eq with tone controls, volume control, and a built-in tuner.
How to Identify an Acoustic Electric Guitar
While it may seem fairly obvious that a guitar with an input jack can therefore be amplified, in many cases the model name will also feature an E in reference to ‘electric’ in much the same way as many cutaway acoustic guitars include the letter C to distinguish the guitar from the non-cutaway version.
For example, the Taylor 214CE featured below is a Taylor 214 cutaway electric.
If unsure, look for an input jack where the rear strap button usually resides. The strap button used on acoustic-electric guitars typically doubles as an input jack, known as an end-pin. In most cases, you will also notice a pre-amp embedded into the top side of the guitar or inside the soundhole.
Are Semi-acoustic and Electric Acoustic Guitars the same thing?
While the two terms are often used interchangeably semi-acoustic and electric-acoustic guitars are not the same. An electric acoustic guitar is essentially an acoustic instrument with a pickup system. A semi-acoustic guitar (aka Thinline, or hollow-body) is an electric guitar (featuring magnetic pickups) with a semi-hollow (e.g. chambered body) or hollow body that allows the guitar to resonate and sound louder than a standard electric guitar when not plugged in.
The Gibson 335 (the double-cutaway guitar synonymous with B.B. King is perhaps the best example. Other examples include the Fender Telecaster Thinline, both highly versatile guitars with aesthetic appeal.
Pros and Cons of Electric Acoustic Guitars
While it may seem a no-brainer to buy an acoustic guitar with the ability to be amplified, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. Below are the mains reasons why.
They will cost you more
Acoustic electric guitars, by virtue of the fact they include a pickup system and pre-amp will cost you more at the checkout. In most cases, the additional costs aren’t a great deal e.g. in the vicinity of $100 – $200 but it does depend on the manufacturer and more importantly, the pickup system included.
The pickup system isn’t the only additional cost, as you will also need an amplifier and cable to play the guitar plugged in. Not to mention you will also need to replace the 9V battery when it becomes flat.
Even at the lower end of the spectrum, a small electric guitar amp such as the Roland Micro-Cube will cost you at least an additional $100+, and the tiny 8-inch speakers tend to sound anything but warm. Add a decent cable and your costs start mounting up. A guitar bundle including both is usually more cost-effective but you are then limited to the amplifier included in the bundle.
Otherwise, if you opt for an acoustic guitar amp you will pay even more. Unlike standard electric guitar amps, however, they are the truest way to amplify an acoustic guitar, as, unlike electric guitar amps they are designed to faithfully reproduce the sound of the acoustic guitar, delivering a flat frequency response and low-distortion allowing the true character of the guitar to be amplified.
Acoustic electric guitars don’t always sound all that great
Depending on the pickup system in the guitar, electric acoustic guitars don’t always sound great. There’s a big difference between an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar in terms of amplification. Unlike the role of an electric guitar pickup, In most cases when amplifying an acoustic guitar the goal is to amplify the natural tonality of the guitar without coloring the tone.
Unfortunately, most electric acoustic guitars, especially entry-level options utilize an under-saddle piezo pickup. While these are cost-effective they certainly have their limitations in terms of replicating the natural sound of the acoustic guitar.
The reason for this is they reside under the saddle of the guitar located in the bridge. As a result they do not pickup up the natural resonance of the guitar’s soundboard and the influence imparted by the materials and shape and size of the guitar body, instead merely detecting pressure wave changes as a result of the vibration of the strings.
Secondly, they tend to sound excessively bright, which when amplified on a standard guitar amplifier (e.g. not an acoustic amplifier) especially a small practice amp with small speakers will often sound abrasive and tinny.
The reason for this is again the location of the pickup.
String tension is at its highest at the nut and the bridge of the guitar. While this does offer an advantage in terms of clarity, in most cases the higher string tension will produce a brighter, tinnier tone not reminiscent of the natural, acoustic character of the guitar. In many cases this will also have a noticeable effect on sustain as most of the string vibration will occur closer to the middle of the scale length of the guitar as seen in the diagram below.
If the guitar features a different type of pickup e.g. microphone pickup system or hybrid system (usually consisting of a piezo and microphone system) that’s a completely different story and in many cases will sound great. But keep in mind, this is not usually an option in the beginner guitar stakes and is the only option for classical guitars as the strings are not magnetic so can’t utilize a magnetic soundhole pickup.
I’ve written a detailed article on acoustic guitar pickup systems here including under-saddle piezo pickups, magnetic soundhole pickups, contact pickups, internal microphone pickups, and hybrid systems.
Acoustic-electric guitars when amplified also have a much higher chance of feeding back than an electric guitar. I’ve written a detailed article here on acoustic guitar feedback, but in simple terms, the problem is caused by the guitar’s ability to resonate.
Acoustic guitars produce sound by virtue of the fact that the top of the guitar (the soundboard) resonates when the strings are plucked. The vibrations are transferred via the bridge to the soundboard which displaces a large number of air particles (at least compared to the strings alone) which allows the acoustic guitar to be considerably louder than an electric guitar when not plugged in.
However, the soundboard will also resonate with the output from the amplifier or P.A. system you are playing through creating a feedback loop.
One way to limit this is to use a soundhole dampener. This closes off the internal cavity of the guitar and due to the additional weight affects the movement of the soundboard. Otherwise, it’s also wise to ensure the guitar is not directly facing the speakers.
Under most circumstances, electric acoustic guitars require batteries to power the pre-amp. I’ve already written a detailed article on why some acoustic guitars require batteries which you can read by clicking on the link above, but in simple terms, electric acoustic guitars require a pre-amp to boost the electrical signal produced to a professional audio quality standard, known as line-level (4dBu).
The problem with using batteries, especially when performing live is they will eventually run out and when this occurs the output from the guitar is affected, and sounds terrible. In most cases, if performing live the guitarist will be required to install fresh batteries before each performance.
Changing the batteries can be a nuisance also. While it’s a relatively simple job to replace the 9V battery if installed in the preamp on the side of the guitar.
If the battery is contained within the body of the guitar the battery will be housed within a small holder usually attached by velcro to the neck block of the guitar. If you have big hands, you will usually need to remove the strings or detune them enough to allow your hands to fit within the soundhole.
The Pros of Acoustic-Electric Guitars
While the cons listed above are fairly compelling, it’s not all bad news when it comes to acoustic electric guitars. I personally own two myself and like having the option of plugging in as needed. Below are some of the pros associated with electric acoustic guitars.
While I would always recommend recording with a microphone if you own an electric acoustic guitar you can also record by running both a microphone and pickup into two different tracks and then blending the two.
For example, as previously mentioned a Piezo pickup while sounding very bright does also introduce more clarity to your signal and if blended with a track recorded via microphone can be tailored to whatever tone you see fit.
Quickly Recording Ideas
Also from the recording world. An electric acoustic guitar is great for quickly getting down ideas when inspiration strikes. While positioning a microphone and finding the right location within the room is important to capture a great acoustic guitar recording, if you are merely trying to capture an idea it can save a lot of time by having the ability to plug in directly to your audio interface.
Of course, if performing live you need an acoustic guitar with a pickup system.
While one can conceivably play by positioning oneself in front of a microphone it’s very difficult to maintain a consistent volume as you are otherwise required to remain glued to the same position through the performance.
I’ve done this a few times myself and it’s essentially a recipe for disaster in terms of inconsistent volume, tonality, and projection. Not to mention the threat of intermittent feedback as a result of the angle of the guitar changing and lack of stage presence.
It’s still an acoustic guitar
Lastly, an electric acoustic guitar is still an acoustic guitar at its heart. This means it’s versatile and able to be played acoustically as well as amplified and electric acoustic guitars are available in the same body styles and shapes as a standard acoustic guitar.
While purists may disagree, I have heard no ill effects as a result of an acoustic guitar having a pickup system when played acoustically.
Can you convert an acoustic guitar to acoustic electric?
Acoustic guitars can be converted to acoustic electric guitars by installing a pickup system. In my experience, the simplest and least destructive way to do this is by installing contact pickups.
Contact pickups as the name implies are connected to the underside of the guitar’s soundboard internally and are therefore in constant contact with the soundboard.
As you might imagine this means more of the character of the guitar is captured and they are easier to install than piezo and soundhole pickups as they use adhesive to connect the contact sensors.
I’ve performed this task myself and recommend Schaller ‘oyster’ contact pickups (as featured below). They are passive (meaning no power source is required to boost the signal) affordable, easy to install, and above all else sound considerably warmer than an under saddle option.
How to Install Contact Pickups
The best way to go about installing these is to first find the ideal location on the guitar.
Resonance can differ based on the location of the pickup, and there’s really no tried and true ‘ideal placement’ as the majority of acoustic guitars vary considerably in terms of resonance and the guitarist’s attack on the guitar, including any percussive elements to your playing which will also heavily influence the ideal location of the sensors.
In most cases, the best starting position is on the underside of the soundboard between the soundhole and front of the bridge, directly beneath the strings. If you have the model with two sensors place one sensor aligned to the treble strings and one for the bass, if you have one sensor place it closer to the treble strings. Other positions to try include just in front of the bridge and just behind.
Lastly, you will need to remove the lower bout strap button and replace it with the endpin. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations in terms of the diameter of the hole required which will need to be drilled using the placement of the strap button screw as a center point.
There are other non-destructive pickup options including the Seymour Duncan magnetic soundhole pickup pictured below that fits inside the soundhole and can be removed as required.
I hope the information above helps explain what an acoustic-electric guitar is and how they differ from a standard acoustic guitar.
For all intents and purposes, they are essentially acoustic guitars with pickup systems included, but as you can see above there’s a lot to consider in terms of if they are a worthwhile acquisition especially if just starting out and of course the actual pickup system included in the guitar and if it is likely to reproduce the natural sound of your acoustic guitar.
If you are happy to spend the additional money, electric acoustic guitars can be a very handy option for the more experienced guitarist but if just starting out, I’d recommend spending the extra money you might spend on the guitar itself and amplifier and starting out on a better guitar which will help speed up your progress and generally provide a more satisfying experience in terms of tone and playability.