I’m sure this will be a bit of a touchy subject, but that’s why I’m writing about it. It’s not just regards to resonator guitars, if you have any guitar- any instrument at all- and you also play for people this applies to you.
Even though resonator guitars were built to be loud even they eventually needed amplification to compete in the never ending Race to Loud. I’ll cut right to it- taking into consideration sound quality, ease of use, live mix, cost- while standing on my funeral pyre of piezos scientifically engineered ribbons and optic light wave technology, if you are looking for the best acoustic representation of your guitar:
Just use a damn microphone.
Here’s an example. I walked into a show for some friends of mine, I had heard them play probably 50 times. Acoustic act with four guys. They were doing a sound check and about one minute in I was coming to grips with what I was hearing. I was hearing THAT guitar. Not ‘a’ guitar, or a guitar sound, I was hearing THAT guitar. Same with the fiddle, and the bass, and mandolin. What was happening here? I asked them after the sound check. “We switched to DPA’s” they said. DPA makes $600 clip on condenser microphones. It was awesome. My previous experience was that guitar pickups sound ridiculous and this was the nail in the coffin.
Pickups are inherently a compromise. Soundboard transducers? They are physically designed to get their sound from the top of the guitar and not the strings/body/room. Is that how we hear? Have someone sing and then put your ear on the table. That is how contact pickups work. How good can that actually get? This compromise is always at the cost of sound quality for ‘ease of use’ (more on that later). I once walked into a small coffee house to play a show. I had my two dynamic mics and one guitar. The sound guy asked me “Don’t you have a pickup in that?” I said I did but I didn’t use it. Just about ruined his night. Putting some extra time in to EQ and position a microphone was the arch-nemesis to avoided at all cost. That means compromising- compromising sound quality. And what is a huge part of listening to live music? Sound Quality.
This happens more frequently than I can point out. Check out any awesome guitar players who have been around forever, pre-pickups, via some old youtube videos. John Prine, Leo Kottke, even Jimmy Page playing an arena with a 57 jammed in the sound hole. You hear guitar. Then pickups, and those guys plug in and all I hear is buzzsaw line in speaker tone. It’s horrific. All that time learning an instrument, buying a nice instrument, writing the song, driving to a gig, setting up- saving time by using a pickup is not the place to save time.
I’ve heard plenty of reasons why a pickup is needed- “bleed” -“volume”- “ease of use” and although these things are actual things, I’ve never heard a reason why your tone is the thing to sacrifice. Bleed? I’m not there to listen to a recording give me YOU, give me THAT guitar. The audience isn’t listening for the mix, they are there for the experience. Volume? I saw Gillian and Dave play to 1000 people with just their 57’s. I’m not a fan of 57’s, but it worked. It was awesome. If the crowd in your smaller space is too loud-guess what they aren’t listening anyways. It happens.
Putting a p90 on the Mules is a really popular option. It will get you awesome electric tone. Having a real p90 in a huge steel body makes for a really great sound. At that point its an electric guitar to me and its great. If you are looking for acoustic tone use a mic. Those DPA’s are awesome. Spend the $600 and be done with it. They clip on so you can stage dive if you want and still get a good mix. I love the dynamic Heil Pr 22’s I have. I think they were $100/piece. Really low proximity effect- no ‘boom’ when you get close like with the 58’s- and they have a broader field than most dynamics so you don’t have to be positioned super consistent.