What is an Acoustic-Electric Guitar?

An Acoustic-Electric guitar is an acoustic guitar with a pickup system and preamp. This allows the guitar to be amplified, through a PA system or acoustic guitar amplifier. A 9V battery is used to power the built-in preamp, and because of this, most acoustic-electric guitars also accommodate a 3 band EQ along with volume controls and a built-in tuner.

In the article below we’ll cover everything you need to know about acoustic-electric guitars, including the pros and cons, and the type of guitar player they are best suited to.


How to Identify an Acoustic-Electric Guitar

You can tell an acoustic-electric guitar by the input jack placed where the rear strap button is usually found. The strap button doubles as an input jack referred to as an end-pin.

In most cases, the model name will also feature an E in reference to ‘electric’, in much the same way C is often included to indicate the guitar has a cutaway.

For example, the Taylor 214CE is a Taylor 214 cutaway electric.

In most cases, there will also be a pre-amp on the top/side of the guitar. Otherwise, it may also be found within the soundhole.

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 of the guitar or inside the soundhole.


Are Semi-acoustic and Acoustic-Electric Guitars the same?

While the two terms are often used interchangeably semi-acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars are not the same. Acoustic-electric guitars are essentially acoustic guitars with a pickup system. A semi-acoustic guitar (aka Thinline, or hollow-body) is an electric guitar (featuring magnetic pickup

Are Semi-Acoustic And Acoustic-Electric Guitars The Same Thing?

While the two terms are often used interchangeably semi-acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars are not the same. A semi-acoustic guitar (aka Thinline, or hollow-body) is an electric guitar with a chambered or hollow body that allows the top wood of the guitar to resonate and produce more volume than a standard solid-body electric guitar when played acoustically.

Gibson 335 Semi-Acoustic Guitar
Not to be confused with an electric acoustic guitar, the Gibson 335 – semi-acoustic guitar

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

electric acoustic pickup wires leading to battery pack
Pickup wire from the battery

While it’s handy having the ability to amplify your guitar, I wouldn’t recommend an acoustic-electric guitar for everyone. Below are the main reasons why.

They cost more 

By virtue of the fact that a pickup system and pre-amp are included, the cost will usually be higher at the checkout than for a standard acoustic.

In most cases, the additional costs aren’t a huge amount ($100 – $200), but it mostly depends on the manufacturer and pickup system included. 

Amplification

The pickup isn’t the only additional cost.

You will also need an amplifier, along with guitar cables.

Even at the lower end of the spectrum, a small acoustic guitar amp such as the Fishman PRO-LBT-500 Loudbox Mini will set you back around $300.00.

What’s the difference between an electric guitar amp and an acoustic guitar amp?
Acoustic guitar amps are the most authentic 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.

DI

Another, essential piece of gear if performing live is a DI.

A DI (Direct Input System/Box) takes the unbalanced, high impedance signal (line-level) from your acoustic-electric guitar and converts it to a low impedance (mic-level) audio signal.

Using a DI allows the signal to run through a balanced XLR cable into a mixing desk, or PA, reducing noise and interference over much longer distances. e.g. up to 300 feet. 

Acoustic-electric guitars don’t always sound Amazing

Unlike an electric guitar pickup, when amplifying an acoustic guitar, the goal is to amplify the natural tonality of the guitar without coloring the tone.

Most entry to mid-range acoustic-electric guitars are installed with under-saddle piezo pickups which tend to affect the tone of the guitar quite a bit.

While some do sound great (especially when blended with a mic), the biggest complaint about the plugged-in tone of acoustic-electric guitars installed with piezoelectric pickups is the ‘quacky’ piezo sound. Best described as dominant in the low and high ranges and hollow in the mids. 

The reason for this is the location of the pickup, located under the saddle.

Piezo undersaddle pickup

String tension is at its highest at the nut and bridge of the guitar. While this offers some advantage in terms of articulation, and responsiveness, the higher string tension is responsible for the ‘quacky’ tone and fast decay of notes. 

Using a DI is one way to ‘warm up’ a quacky piezo pickup’s tone, otherwise getting a great sound out of an acoustic-electric guitar usually requires a hybrid pickup system.

Hybrid systems usually consist of either a piezoelectric pickup and internal microphone pickup, or a combination of piezo, magnetic soundhole pickup, and an internal microphone.

A hybrid system provides the best of both worlds in terms of frequency range. The magnetic pickup will mostly detect the strings without much influence from the body, the piezo will capture both the strings and vibrations in the body and the mic will pick up the harmonic overtones and natural character of the guitar acoustically.

This type of hybrid setup isn’t usually seen on anything up to mid-range acoustic guitars but can be purchased after-market if replacing or ‘electrifying’ a standard acoustic guitar. 

If you’re interested in learning more about acoustic guitar amplification I’ve written a comprehensive guide to acoustic guitar pickups here.

Feedback

Acoustic-electric guitars when amplified also have problems with feedback.

I’ve covered feedback in an article here, including how to prevent it. In simple terms, the problem is caused by the guitar’s ability to resonate.

When not plugged in, an acoustic guitar produces sound when the top of the guitar (the soundboard) vibrates in response to the strings. The vibrations are transferred via the bridge to the soundboard and body of the guitar.

However, the soundboard will also occasionally resonate in response to the output from the amplifier or P.A. system you are playing through creating a feedback loop. This can vary based on the characteristics of the guitar e.g. body size, woods, and shape.

One way to limit this is to use a soundhole dampener.

This closes off the internal cavity of the guitar and the additional weight reduces the movement of the soundboard. 

Batteries

acoustic electric guitar preamp featuring eq and inbuilt tuner

Acoustic-electric guitars require batteries as a power source for the pre-amp. Despite being an annoying consumable, changing the batteries can be a nuisance if the battery is contained within the body of the guitar.

If this is the case the battery will be contained within a small satchel usually attached by velcro to the neck block of the guitar. Depending on the size of your hands, you will probably need to remove the strings or loosen them enough to allow your hands to fit within the soundhole.


The Pros of Acoustic-Electric Guitars

Don’t let me put you off. It’s not all bad news when it comes to acoustic-electric guitars.

Recording

While I would always recommend recording with a microphone if you own an acoustic-electric guitar you can also record by running both a microphone and pickup into two independent tracks and then blending the two with panning and volume.

Quickly Recording Ideas

An electric acoustic guitar is also great for quickly getting down ideas when inspiration strikes.

While positioning a mic and finding the right location within the room is important to capture a great recording if you are just trying to capture an idea it can save a lot of time having the ability to plug directly into your audio interface and using the guitar’s tone control to dial in a workable tone. 

Playing Live

Of course, if performing live you will probably need an acoustic-electric guitar. 

While one can conceivably play in front of 1 or 2 mics,  it’s not always practical, and maintaining a consistent volume is difficult as you are otherwise required to remain glued to the spot. 

It’s Still An Acoustic Guitar

Lastly, an acoustic electric guitar is still an acoustic guitar.

It’s versatile and able to be played acoustically or amplified.  While purists may disagree, you would be hard-pressed to hear any discernible difference acoustically due to the additional weight of the electronics, and the built-in digital tuner and EQ controls are super handy.


Can you convert an acoustic guitar to acoustic-electric?

Acoustic electric guitar endpin
Endpin

Acoustic guitars can be converted to acoustic-electric guitars by installing a pickup system.

The simplest and least destructive way to do this is by installing contact pickups.

Contact pickups as the name implies are connected to the top, or underside of the guitar’s soundboard and are therefore in direct contact with the soundboard.

I like contact pickups, they pick up more of the character of the guitar and are easier to install than piezo and soundhole pickups as they use adhesive to connect the contact sensors.

I’ve used and recommend Schaller ‘oyster’ contact pickups. They are passive (power isn’t required to boost the signal) affordable, easy to install, and above all else sound warmer than similarly priced under saddle piezo systems. 

Other options

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 easily, as required.

Summary

Acoustic-electric guitars are great, offering a lot of additional versatility. But, personal preference aside, at the end of the day, their ability to harness the natural sound of the acoustic guitar will ultimately come down to the quality of the electronics and how much you are prepared to spend.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my guide to acoustic guitar pickups.

Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.