In previous posts I have extolled the virtues of playing unamplified and it is a great experience – the sound that you are making comes from your guitar and not a box somewhere remote from you, to play quieter you play softer, to play louder you play harder and all the members of the band can hear each other. However in the real world of strange venue acoustics and non-concert conditions amplification is a necessary evil. What is the best method of amplifying gypsy jazz guitars?
Microphones – if you have a full PA system with main speakers pointed away from you, plenty of monitor speakers facing you and preferably a sound engineer then using an external microphone for amplification is possible. There are still problems – you mustn’t move in relation to the microphone (not too much of a problem when seated) and it can be difficult to get sufficient volume without feedback. There is also the problem of transporting a big PA around – until you reach superstar status and festival organisers do everything for you.
Magnetic pickups – not a good solution for most players as the sound becomes too much like an electric guitar, some older players did use the Stimmler pickup which fitted in the soundhole but the sound was an acquired taste.
Contact pickups – these are pickups that acquire and transmit the vibrations from the guitar itself (rather than the air around it) and are much less prone to feedback. They are usually based on a piezo crystal system, sometimes with preamplifiers in the guitar, sometimes without. They are often mounted in the bridge but can be a tape which is stuck onto the body of the guitar (cosmetically better on the inside). These pickups tend to produce a crisp quite trebly sound which is very good for projection but which might lose some of the mid-range mellowness of the guitar.
Hybrid microphone/contact pickup systems – this is the method that we have been using for live gigs for the past seven years and it has worked well. The guitars we used to use had two separate pickups in the bridge and the body of the guitar and the sound from these could be mixed using the on-board preamplifier (they were Yamaha APX models). We then had a condenser microphone on a small boom stand pointed at the upper end of the fretboard at get the ‘air’ sound of the guitar. Most of the volume came from the contact pickups but the microphone input definitely enhanced the sound. Now that we use our Gitane guitars with Bigtone pickups in the bridge we use a slightly different system with a small clip-on condenser microphone fitted to the edge of the soundhole. This has the advantage of not requiring heavy microphone stands and we don’t have to worry about moving away from the microphone.