What acoustic strings are best for a magnetic soundhole pickup?
When it comes to making your acoustic guitar louder, there’s a whole host of pickup options available on the market including magnetic pickups, microphones, soundboard mounted, piezos and in some cases a combination of two or more of these things.
A magnetic soundhole pickup is a popular solution for many acoustic players (We’re sure you would have all seen these before… these are the ones that are mounted across the soundhole and sit just beneath the strings). Due to their relatively simple design, many are priced well and can be fitted and removed with ease. This also makes them an ideal choice for players who don’t want to get the Black and Decker drill out to make any modifications to their guitar, particularly on more delicate vintage instruments. In principal, they work very similar to an electric guitar pickup. When the strings are played, the magnetic field around the pickup is disturbed which sends an electric signal down the pickup’s cable towards an amplifier or PA system.
In previous blogs we’ve discussed the various types of acoustic wrap material available and how they sound. However, because soundhole pickups rely on magnetism, is one type of string better than another when using this type of pickup? Which part of the string needs to be magnetic?
In this blog we’ll be taking a look at the most popular acoustic string options out there and offer up some thoughts and observations to see if some are more compatible with a soundhole pickup than others?
Let’s dive in….
First up we’ll be looking at 80/20 Bronze sets. The term ‘80/20’ refers to the ratio of Copper to Zinc in the outer wrap wire of the wound strings. In this instance, the ratio is, you guessed it, 80% Copper: 20% Zinc (pssst! This particular ratio and combination is technically brass not a bronze ally, but let’s not go there).
80/20 Bronze strings are known to deliver a bright and zingy tone and can really help give your guitar a ‘bigger’ voice. They’re particularly well suited to guitars that are naturally mellow and their brighter tone can really help warmer sounding instruments cut through the mix, especially when you’re competing with other instruments in a band setup.
It’s worth noting that the 80/20 bronze wrap wire itself is not magnetic so the pickup is actually only ‘picking up’ the central core of the string which is magnetic. Despite this, when tested with the sound hole pickup, the 80/20 bronze worked perfectly fine. They really retained their zinginess and crispness and combined well with the sound hole pickup to give a healthy amount of volume too. It really didn’t feel as though there was any struggle with output on these strings so they’re perfectly suitable for a sound hole pickup.
Along with 80/20 bronze, phosphor bronze is another ‘go-to’ wrap material choice for many acoustic players, and is arguably the most popular acoustic alloy out there.
Phosphor bronze sets give a well-rounded and warm tone, and tend to be less ‘zingy’ than their 80/20 bronze counterparts. These make them a perfect choice for mellowing out brighter sounding acoustics.
Much like 80/20 Bronze sets, the Phosphor Bronze wrap wire itself is not actually magnetic, whereas its core is, so again the pickup is only really ‘picking up’ on the central core of these sets.
Despite this, when tested with the LR Baggs M1 Active pickup, the phosphor bronze set had no issues interacting with the pickup and also produced a healthy amount of volume making them another suitable choice to be paired with sound hole pickups.
Silk and Steel Sets
Standard 80/20 Bronze and Phosphor Bronze strings are wound in a very traditional way with the wrap wire travelling around a central steel (often hex shaped) core.
However, Silk and Steel strings are constructed slightly differently. Whilst they are designed to be used on steel strung acoustic guitars, the materials used give a nod to classical guitar string construction. Silk & Steel sets use plain steel strings as the top two treble strings (just like normal acoustic sets), however, the wound bass strings use silver-plated winding around the core (similar to classical strings).
As well as a different wrap material, these sets have a thin layer of silk filament sandwiched between the core and the outer wrap wire. Tonally this gives a ‘softer’ sound and changes the feel of the string, making them more comfortable and with less tension present in the string.
So with the inclusion of a different type of wrap material and the silk filament, does this affect a sound hole pickup’s ability to interact with the central steel core?
In actual fact, no, there is no glaring negative impact at all. We tested these sets on our acoustic fitted with the LR Baggs M1 Active with the same volume settings on the pickup and the amplifier as before and there was no detrimental effect on the output and no need to boost any levels to improve volume.
As a side note, if you haven’t tried Silk and Steel sets before, they’re certainly worth a try. They’re not as ‘in your face’ as traditional bronze strings, however, they give a warm and mellow tone that’s certainly well worth experimenting with.
Nickel Plated Bronze
Nickel plated acoustic strings? Sorry, say that again? Yes indeed, you heard us right. Whilst not as popular as bronze sets, there are a few string brands out there who produce pure nickel or nickel plated acoustic guitar strings. John Pearse have some pure nickel set and DR Handmade make the Zebra sets which use alternating windings of nickel and phosphor bronze. D’Addario are the latest big hitters to introduce a nickel wound acoustic string to the market in the form of their Nickel Bronze sets which are wrapped with a nickel plated phosphor bronze wrap wire.
So does the nickel plating enhance or detract anything when playing with a sound hole pickup? No, not at all. Whilst the outer wrap is not magnetic, the central core is. The nickel plated winding didn’t lack any projection in volume or tone and certainly doesn’t make these strings sound any less “acoustic-y.” In fact they were probably the most natural sounding of all the sets tested, sounded great and combined extremely well with the soundhole pickup. They were warm, bright and had plenty of output and projection. A great option whatever pickup system you’re using.
Standard Electric Guitar Strings
For the sake of completeness, we also tested normal electric strings (with a wound 3rd) on our acoustic guitar. In theory, these strings should do the trick just fine, after all, they work perfectly well with electric guitars with magnetic pickups. Both the winding and the central core of nickel wound electric strings are magnetic, meaning our sound hole pickup would be picking up on both parts.
Played acoustically, these strings sounded a little ‘tinny’ and ‘brittle’ in comparison to bronze strings and lacked the warm character many players want from their acoustic, but still perfectly useable when amplified. Granted they didn’t have that traditional resonant, bright acoustic tone you get with bronze strings, but you could definitely get away with using them with a soundhole pickup if you needed to. They gave a suitable amount of volume and projection, however, it’s no surprise that tonally they didn’t really sound the part.
So after testing out these 5 different sets, it was clear to see that you can pretty much use any string so long as it has a steel core, regardless of the wrap material used.
Several of the sets that we tested had outer wraps that simply weren’t magnetic and regardless of this property, they were still able to be produce a healthy output. There wasn’t one particular set that stood out as having considerably ‘more’ volume than any other set. Despite the wrap material not being picked up on some of the sets, we were still able to hear the tonal characteristics of each set shine through. This is a really pleasant thing to discover as it means you can still experiment with different acoustic sets and wraps allowing you to coax different tones from your guitar without having to resort to using one set that only works with your sound hole pickup system.
Just as a side note, if you are in the market for a sound hole pickup and if your budget allows, we’d certainly recommend sourcing one that allows you to adjust the height of the pole pieces. This helps particularly when trying to balance the output between the wound strings and the plain strings.
Often with magnetic pickups, the plain steel strings can sound as though they “jump out” quite a bit in comparison to the wound strings. The reason for this is that despite the wound strings being thicker in gauge, the pickup is usually only ‘picking up’ on the central core, which in some wound strings may in fact be smaller in diameter than the plain steel strings in the set. Another reason is that the plain strings are more exposed allowing the pickup to pull more on the string, thus creating a higher output. Adjusting each individual pole-piece gives players the scope to tweak this and create a more even output across all strings.
We really hope that this has helped some of you out there. Once again, thanks for reading and as always, if you have any comments, feel free to pop them in the box below. We love to hear from you guys especially if you’ve had any particular experiences with certain types of string (or brands) and how they fared with your own pickup system.
We’ll see you next time.