Acoustic guitars with built in pickups often sound wonderful unplugged but lose their natural colour and tone the moment they’re amplified. Worse still, your amplified sound may be noisy, distorted, sensitive to feedback, or just sound lacklustre compared to the guitar au natural.
The reason? Your pickup’s built in preamp isn’t fit for purpose. The guy who sold you the guitar might have said your preamp was the bomb – well, he was trying to sell you the guitar, right. If you don’t have a built in preamp (you have what is called a ‘passive pick up’) then you most certainly need an external preamp.
External preamps help to boost the signal before it reaches an amp giving a far superior signal going into the amp. They also give you a level of control over the sound that’s impossible to achieve in built in preamps.
In this article we’re going to cover what preamps do, the benefits to you the player, how to identify what type of pick up you have, features you’d expect to find on one of these gadgets and finally we’ll recommend some of our favourites on the market. If you want a quick glance at the products, here you go (but we suggest you read the whole article first).
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Acoustic Guitar Preamps on the Market
LR Baggs Venue DI Acoustic Guitar Effect Pedal
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BBE Acoustimax Acoustic Instrument Preamp Pedal
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Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Preamp Acoustic Pedal
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Tech 21 SansAmp Para Driver DI
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Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre Acoustic Preamp
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Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.
This is what we’re going to cover in this article. By the end you’ll be able to know whether you need a preamp or not, which type you have already if you have one fitted to your acoustic. Let’s do it….
What is an Acoustic Guitar Preamp?
An acoustic guitar preamp is a device that works as a pre-amplifier to prepare the signal from your guitar’s pickup to be amplified. They boost low level signals to reach the standard level for amplification, resulting in better sound quality. They also often have a feature to cut out unwanted frequencies, which gives you a cleaner sound.
They are available as foot pedals or as small, hand-controlled devices, and can be easily included in your on-stage set up.
Preamps also double up as DI boxes. A DI box is essential when you’re performing live as it transforms the high impedance signal into a low impedance signal. This is what allows you to run through longer leads – i.e. from the stage to the mixing desk – without sound interference. If you send a high impedance signal through a long lead, some frequencies can get removed before they even reach their destination, and your signal can also become victim to electrical interference.
Why Do You Need One for Acoustic Guitars?
The preamps that you find built into acoustic guitars are often limited and simplistic. They sometimes have a few EQ controls, but usually lack the additional functions of an external preamp. External preamps give you greater control over your EQ, boost the signal more, cut out any unwanted frequencies and can even add effects to your signal.
Benefits of Using One of These Pedals
There are several benefits to adding an acoustic guitar preamp to your set up.
Cleaning Up the Signal
Pre-amps include filter features which eliminate any excess noise from your signal, and also a gain trimmer to reduce any feedback. Once you get rid of these unwanted noises, your guitar will be closer to sounding like its unplugged self.
Adjusting the Signal
Sometimes, you might want to play around with the tone controls on your guitar. Preamps allow you to adjust the signal that’s coming through in terms of EQ. Want to sound a bit more boomy? Whack up the bass. Sounding tinny? Turn the high down. Want prettier sounds? Boost the mid and high a little bit, turn the bass down.
Blending Multiple Signals
Something else that a preamp can be good for is blending signals. You might want to use a pickup and a microphone on your guitar, and these will need to be in sync. A preamp can blend these two signals and create one output to send to your amplifier.
Boosting Low Signals
Boosting low signals is often the reason people turn to preamps. If the signal from your guitar is low, it’s going to get distorted and nasty-sounding as soon as you try giving it any volume plugged in.
A pre-amp gives you the option to increase the volume of your sound, so that it travels to the amp at a decent level.
Taking Back Control
It’s important to take responsibility for your sound. When you gig, your sound is controlled by sound engineers who may not be familiar with you or your guitar. Considering the differences in the tones of guitars, how could the sound man/woman possibly know what’s right for you? Carrying a small device which allows you to set your own EQ, reduces feedback and that will also boost your signal if necessary is the key to sounding how you should, when you step on stage at unfamiliar venues with your acoustic.
How Will a Preamp Work With Your Setup?
There are a few things to consider about your current setup, before you buy an external preamp.
What Kind of Pickup Do You Have?
If you have a passive pickup – the kind you attach yourself – the signal it produces will be lower than you’d require for a quality sound. You’ll need a preamp to boost this, and to reduce any feedback that it may cause. Look for a preamp with as many features as possible if you have passive pickups.
If your guitar has an active pickup, it’s likely that it also includes a preamp. As we discovered earlier, you can plug into amps straight away with these guitars, but many guitarists choose to include an additional, external preamp. The addition of an external preamp will increase your tonal options and reduce any unwanted noises or frequencies. Look out for something with 5 band EQ, to increase your tonal control.
Magnetic pickups are very similar to those used in electric guitars. This can also result in a sound that’s more similar to an electric guitar, so using a preamp will enable you to reshape your tone so that it sounds more natural. The more EQ and frequency settings you have here, the more you’ll be able to edit your sound until it sounds as you think it should.
What Are You Looking to Play Through?
Mixing Desk / XLR Connection
Mixing desks, with XLR inputs are what we plug into at gigs. In situations like these, a preamp will act as a DI box, to change the high impedance signal of from your guitar into a low impedance signal, and to convert the connection to an XLR which can go into a desk.
When you’re plugged in, you can then use the acoustic preamp to shape your tone in a way that the mixing desk alone cannot do as effectively, as it’s designed with a broader range of instruments in mind.
Even when mixing desks have a vast amount of features, they’re often controlled by somebody else.
Acoustic Instrument Amp
If you’re plugging into an amp that’s designed for acoustic guitars, you don’t necessarily need an external preamp. These amps are specifically designed with acoustic guitars in mind, and have an appropriate internal preamp.
Even so, many guitarists still choose to use an additional preamp, to give a higher level of controllability over their sound. Also, if you’re using a passive/piezo pickup, you’ll still require the signal boost of a preamp before you send your sound towards the amp.
Buying Guide – What to Look for in an Acoustic Guitar Preamp
EQ for Tone Shaping
EQ is one of the main features on a preamp. There are usually several dials, including low, mid, hi, and sometimes hi-mid and lo-mid. ‘Presence’ is also sometimes included, which boosts upper-mid range frequencies to produce a more intimate sound. The more EQ options and tone shaping capabilities you have, the less reliant you will be on a venue having a top notch PA and doesn’t leave you completely in the hands of the sound guy for your gig
Gain is what controls the volume of your guitar. This is what we use to prepare the signal for its output, and the trick is to turn it up as high as possible, without it losing its sound quality. Then, a high volume, high quality signal will be leaving your preamp.
Boost controls can enable you to suddenly increase your volume at the flick of a switch. This can be really handy in performances, particularly when you have a chorus that you want to bring out. If you play as part of a group this can be useful for emphasising different instruments or swapping in and out of lead and rhythm roles (or for cutting out a blast of feedback)
Built in Tuner
Having an on stage tuner is obviously useful. Many preamps come with one included, so you can check or adjust your tuning discreetly, using your feet.
Many preamps include a ‘phase’ button. If there are no problems with your sound, then the effects of using this button may be inaudible. However, if something sounds inexplicably out of time, try clicking it. It reverses the signals, which sometimes needs doing to put things in place.
If any of you have even plugged an acoustic guitar into an electric amp, you’ll know how hellish the feedback can be.
Preamps often include a ‘notch’ filter, that reduces the narrow band of frequencies causing feedback, whilst keeping the rest of the signal audible.
Compression is sometimes included in acoustic preamps, to give your sound more consistency.
These work well for reducing dynamic range, as there is a filter which reduces any input above a certain level.
Extra Stuff That Takes Your Preamp to the Next Level
There are some features which make preamps stand out as a cut above the rest.
LED Meters can be really handy on pedals like these. They enable you to see, at a glance, how strong your signal is. If it’s approaching the red, it’s time to turn your volume down to avoid a distorted sound.
5 Band EQ
EQ controls are normally 3 band: hi, mid and bass. However, some pedals offer extra controllability by having 5 options. This enables you to really fine tune things. Some pedals don’t have 5 band EQ, but they do have a mid range shifter, which means you can adjust the frequencies that your controls are directing.
A lot of these pedals offer feedback suppression at the click of a button. This is easier and more convenient than a notch knob, as you can do it mid-performance without crouching to the floor.
If you intend on gigging with this pedal, which we assume that you do, it’s worth ensuring that it’s in sturdy, metal casing and that the buttons aren’t flimsy. Particularly the ones you are going to be stamping on.
Having battery power as an option is absolutely essential if you want to play outdoors and is useful for keeping your setup as simple as possible
Product Round-up & Mini Reviews
So, now you know what to look for in an acoustic pre-amp pedal, let’s have a look at some of the best ones out there.
We’ve taken a look at the most popular acoustic guitar preamps and found some which combine all of the desired features, reliably. Here are our mini reviews, to help you to decide which one is right for you.
Best Acoustic Guitar Preamps
1. LR Baggs Venue DI Acoustic Guitar Effect Pedal
This is a professional level preamp which combines preamp, EQ and DI box functionalities. It also has a chromatic tuner for your convenience, phase inversion to ensure everything is in sync and a feedback suppressor to give you a clean sound.
One of the best features of this pedal is its LED meters, which allow you to keep an eye on your levels easily when you’re on stage.
- Contains all of the features you need to sound good on stage, including 5 band EQ settings, phase inversion and a feedback suppressor.
- The volume boost switch allows you to easily bring out choruses or take the lead role in solos.
- Can be either battery or DC powered.
- The tuner shuts off automatically after too much time has passed, which can make it irritating to keep cycling back through if you get distracted.
- It’s an expensive piece of gear, but due to the combination of functions it has it’s cheaper than buying multiple mid-range pedals that only do one thing each.
2. BBE Acoustimax Acoustic Instrument Preamp Pedal
This pedal has 3 band EQ, and a processor button to get your sound ready for further amplification.
It features a ‘sonic maximizer’, which automatically adds clarity and definition to your instrument, and a phase reverser which can fix any out-of-sync sounds.
This is a sturdy and reliable pedal that’s easy to control.
- Tightens up the frequencies easily and accurately due to its large selection of controls.
- Not too expensive
- The ‘sonic maximizer’ feature produces a boosted, clear sound easily at the switch of a button.
- Doesn’t have a tuner
- It’s takes up significantly more space than some other preamp pedals.
3. Fishman Aura Spectrum DI Preamp Acoustic Pedal
This pedal has not only EQ knobs, but also a large amount of modelling capabilities that allow you to transform your sound completely.
There are presets from 12 string to orchestra to bluegrass, so it’s the perfect acoustic preamp for those people who play guitars which aren’t standard 6 string acoustics.
There’s a tuner built in for your convenience, a built in compressor to further tidy up your sound, and an anti-feedback button to save your speakers and your ears.
This is an astoundingly multi-functional pedal.
- Incorporates the Aura Acoustic Imaging technology that allows recreation of the tonal qualities of various acoustic guitars and other instruments.
- Includes a chromatic tuner and compressor, as well as EQ controls.
- Easy to control/eliminate feedback with one push of a button.
- Using the Aura imaging can take a lot of tweaking to get a good tone. In a live situation, this might not be ideal.
- Some of the components are a little fragile.
4. Tech 21 SansAmp Para Driver DI
The Tech 21 is perfect for those who are playing through passive pickups. It actively balances out some of the weaknesses of piezo pickups to give a warmer and more natural sound.
This is a versatile preamp, which combines 3 band EQ with a mid shift control for extra equalisation options.
There’s also a drive option on this preamp, should you want a bit of an edge or a full on dirty sound. Also, as well as working as an acoustic guitar preamp, you can use this for your electric guitars or bass guitars, making it a more versatile piece of kit.
- Can boost and cut 12db with dedicated buttons for quickly switching between lead and rhythm.
- Can also be used with solid-body instruments, making it potentially more useful and versatile.
- There’s a full range of tone shaping knobs including a mid shift control, so you can set your own mid range for extra controllability.
- Adds quite a lot of colour to your tone, which won’t suit those who are aiming for the most natural sound.
- It’s a bit pricey.
5. Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre Acoustic Preamp
The Radial Tonebone preamp is an extremely popular unit among many well known guitarists. It’s purpose built for use with acoustic guitars and has a lot of functionality for a single piece of equipment.
There are pre and post-EQ outputs and an effects loop send and return, which makes it ideal for combining with other pedals.
There’s also a boost option, a notch knob for feedback control and three foot controls for boost, toggle and mute.
- Very transparent, it allows your guitar’s own sound to come through whilst tweaking it slightly through the EQ settings, filters and additional DI features.
- Has two channels for making the most out of your pickups or a pickup plus a mic, although it’s not designed for use with multiple instruments at once.
- There’s a tuner included.
- Comes at a very high price, making it one of the most expensive preamps.
- It has a 15v power supply, which is nonstandard in guitar pedals.
So Which Acoustic Guitar Preamp Should I Buy?
So, which acoustic guitar preamp is right for you?
Only you can decide, and it will largely depend on your performance requirements. Are you looking for something with a lot of features packed in, or something with the largest amount of EQ controllability? Do you need a battery power option, and a small pedal, or are you after something sturdy and substantial, that you’re happy to plug into the mains?
Our top pick of the above preamps was the LR Baggs Venue DI. Its impressive amount of features enabled us to significantly reduce the number of various pieces of equipment we were carrying back and forth to every gig, and the quality of the tone shaping options was excellent.
However, if you like to get a little more variety in the kind of sound you produce, rather than just tightening up the frequencies here and there, the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI gives the most versatility. It’s well worth trying out, just beware that many of the different ‘images’ have novelty value and it’s unlikely you’ll use them all. You might want to consider the value for money in terms of which features you actually use.
Since many of the best acoustic guitar preamps are also quite expensive, it might be worth checking out the BBE Acoustimax if keeping the total cost as low as possible is your main priority. It does what it does well, but it’s not an all in one box like the LR Baggs Venue or the Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre. The cost may seem cheaper, but you’re getting less functionality.
As a final note, some preamps are designed with multiple instruments in mind. This usually isn’t a problem, and may indeed be a benefit to you, but some of the subtler nuances of acoustic amplification can be lost in a preamp that isn’t purpose-designed. If you want to be absolutely certain that you’ll get the right tone shaping properties for your acoustic guitar, the Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre – designed with acoustic guitars in mind – gives you the most fine tuning control. As well as having multiple EQ controls, a feedback suppressor and boost options, this pedal has multiple inputs and outputs, which can massively increase your fine tuning options.
The Tech 21 is perfect for those who need to boost a weak sounding piezo pickup, as it eliminates the unwanted harmonics which can sometimes be associated with piezos.
Whichever preamp suits you and your setup the best, we hope that you enjoy the newfound controllability and the peace of mind that that brings.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.