Einstein is reputed to have said, “The downfall of this generation will be in a perfection of means and a confusion of ends.” It was a comment about technology, of course; and one of the best examples of the perfect confusion of means and ends Einstein warned about is right in our laps (literally), in the technology of sound reinforcement for acoustic guitars.

‘Gotta get this off my chest… It’s time to lash out one more time against that bad old argument about acoustic guitar pickups. It always cloaks itself in the sanctimony of “acoustic” vs. “electric” instruments. Every time I think we’ve beat this one to death it comes out in print one more time. I’m sure you’ve heard the acoustic-er-than-thou sanctimony that makes a plugged-in guitar unrighteous, inauthentic, and evil: “When y’all plug in the git-tar, that electrocutes the music, right there!”

There’s a big-ol’ flaw in this, my friends: When we side-up on either side of this debate we’re discussing the wrong question. What we’re really talking about isn’t about “acoustic” vs. “electric” at all, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because the acoustic guitar is dead… it doesn’t exist anymore. Okay, okay, before you get too mad, and now that I have your attention, I’ll back off that, but please hear me on this important point: Nobody hears the steel-string guitar played professionally in a real acoustic performance anymore, because virtually all public, professional performances of acoustic guitar are played either over pickups or that other method of plugging-in, microphones.

So you go out to the average music gig and hold your beautiful acoustic guitar up to the average little dynamic microphone. Ten years ago the mic cost 90 bucks, it’s been out there in the wind and rain with rock ‘n roll singers screaming and spitting into it these ten years, the windscreen is dented and scratched from falling and getting knocked around, and inside it the filament’s corroded and warped. The audience does not hear your guitar “acoustically” at all, they hear it mediated by that electronic device called a “microphone” which uglifies the sound of your guitar in a different, but equally distorting way, just like that electronic device called the “pickup.” Both of these electronic devices amplify and distort your guitar in different but equal ways, and if you use a mic, you’re just as “plugged-in” as if you used a pickup.

Now, to give the acoustic righteousness folks their due, let’s admit one thing: the average time you’ve heard a lovely acoustic played over a pickup, it sounded terrible, wretched, awful. Am I right? Yes I am. That’s not an indictment of pickups per se, but it’s the stone truth, and we players must shoulder some of the blame. But on the other hand, in most gatherings of guitar folks, I guess I would be the guy who, since playing my first pro gig forty years ago last spring, would have heard more guitars played “acoustically” over more microphones than just about anybody else in the room. So help me, 95 times out of a hundred, guitars I’ve heard played over microphones (so-called “acoustically”) also sounded terrible, wretched, awful. It’s a different kind of awful, but most microphones sound bad, real bad.

Here’s the point: We’re never going to solve the problems of pickup systems until we realize that “acoustic vs. electric” is a useless argument, when virtually all acoustic guitars are plugged in, either through a pickup or a mic, and we won’t solve them until we call a truce in the “acoustic-er-than-thou” wars. Maybe if we got on one another’s side, we could realize that the real debate is, what sound do we want and how can we use pickup and microphone systems to achieve it? That one, my friends, would be a righteous cause we could collaborate on.

Dan Crary, October 2001

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