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When I was buying an acoustic guitar, I was told there were different types of wood and construction principles that gave guitars different flavors. You choose this wood for a softer and rounder tone, you choose this wood for a bright crisp tone, etc. I've also heard that you should avoid cheap, low quality woods like laminated tops because they don't provide as rich a tone. And five minutes in a guitar store would confirm that theory.

However, if you route the sound through electronic pickups, my understanding is that the only thing that matters is the strings' vibrations interacting with the magnets. There would be no way for the "flavor" of the guitar to get through the magnets.

If I'm playing an accoustic guitar through the pickups, is there any difference between the wood types in terms of sound and overtone?

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    The strings aren't isolated from the body of the guitar - they're connected to it at the nut and bridge, as well as through the air. So there is certainly a way for the characteristics of the guitar body to affect the vibration of the strings. However, although I'm not an expert on acoustic guitars, I'm generally suspicious of people telling you that more expensive is better - trying for myself and finding something that fits my tastes (which may or may not be expensive) always served me well. – topo morto Feb 17 '18 at 7:27
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    @topo morto more expensive isn't necessarily better, but better always seems to be more expensive... – Bob Feb 17 '18 at 12:47
  • @bob Indeed :) In general being able to pay more money gives you more choice, which often opens the door to the possibility of getting something closer to what you really want. – topo morto Feb 17 '18 at 15:52
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I've mixed many, many different acoustic guitars with pickups through many, many PA systems, and in my experience, everything matters.

As everyone else has pointed out, the most popular kind of acoustic guitar pickup isn't magnetic at all, it's piezoelectric. But even with magnetic pickups that are sometimes used for acoustic guitars, the overall quality of the guitar comes through.

As I mentioned in my comment to Tim's answer, even with electric guitars, the choice of materials, including tonewoods, is a factor in the final tone.

Getting back to acoustics with piezoelectric pickups, the pickups are turning many aspects of the sound of the guitar into an electrical signal, including the body resonances. There are pickup systems that are more sophisticated that do a better job of converting the guitar's natural tone (e.g., the Taylor Expression System), and obviously in those cases the types of woods used is even more apparent.

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    I was going to write something very similar and realised you had covered all my points. Everything matters - for tone, sustain, resonance etc. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 17 '18 at 22:05
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Pick ups on acoustic guitars aren't necessarily the same as those on electrics. On electrics, yes, mainly the string vibrations are picked up - one reason why steel strings work far better than any others.

On acoustics, there are pups which attach to the bridge, and pick up vibrations from there. Others may have pups attached to the body itself. Both these will pick up vibrations also from the surrounding body, so yes, the structure and material will play a part in producing a different sound. Can't say better or worse, necessarily, as that's in the ear of the beholder, but certainly different.

  • Funny, to me the inaccuracy of your first paragraph is missing an opportunity to provide a more compelling answer. Even on electric guitars, the choice of woods matters! An alder body definitely sounds different from swamp ash. Also, many of the non-wood materials matter, such as the pick guard and/or bridge plate. Taking a pickup from a Les Paul and mounting it in a Strat will do nothing to make that Strat sound like a Les Paul - it will just sound like a Strat with a humbucker. – Todd Wilcox Feb 17 '18 at 12:48
  • @ToddWilcox - not disagreeing completely, but the opportunity wasn't missed, it wasn't going to be part of my answer. I agree to an extent on the electric guitar wood issue, although I have put pups on different wooded guitars and achieved a pretty good original sound, so it's not absolute. Worth -1, obviously! – Tim Feb 17 '18 at 12:59
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The resonances of an acoustic guitar of course remain coupled to the string vibration picked up by any pickup. The harmonics in the sound of the acoustic guitar are directly coincident with the harmonics in the strings and thus are also picked up by the pickups.

Now it of course depends on position and characteristics of the pickup whether the fine details aren't completely blotted out by whatever harmonics the pickup itself adds: for magnetic pickups, additional harmonics are significant and may well mask most effects of the instrument's acoustics. For pickups that are basically microphones and deliver a mostly linear response, any harmonics in the result are also present in the string vibration.

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We can all discuss our personal favorites in pick-up design and use but I found the most important thing a musician can do to find the sound he or she prefers is to try as many different methods as possible and then choose. One thing that generally fails to get mentioned is that very few of us play in exactly the same way and the way we sound is partially determined by that fact. Therefore I'm not aware of a one size fits all pick-up or guitar wood for that matter, and it puts the ball back in your court. The final decision is your responsibility.

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There are two main types of pickup: magnetic and piezoelectric. Electric guitars use magnetic pickups, in which small coils react to the movement of the metal strings. Magnetic pickups can also be used on steel string acoustic guitars, but won't work with nylon strings, so many acoustic guitars (and all nylon stringed ones) use piezoelectric pickups, in which a small disc of piezoelectric material picks up vibrations directly from the body of the guitar (usually somewhere on the back of the soundboard).

People using steel-string guitars sometimes like to use both, either by using a soundhole-mounted magnetic pickup in addition to a sounndboard-mounted piezo, or by using a hybrid pickup which combines the two technologies. This can be essential if you're playing in a percussive style - a traditional magnetic pickup won't react to body slaps (though there are "floating" designs around now which do).

With a magnetic pickup the choice of wood etc. will only affect the sound very, very indirectly and will probably not be discernible. With a piezo pickup you are recording the vibrations directly from the wood, so if there is a difference between different tonewoods (and that's a big if...) and if your pickup has a good enough frequency response then you should in theory be able to hear it in the output.

A good pickup can produce a pretty nice sound, but it still won't pick up all the subtleties of an acoustic guitar's sound because it's only listening to one spot on the body (or sometimes two). I have heard some very nice recordings of acoustic guitars through pickups, but in my personal experience you get a better result with a couple of good mics, or preferably just your ears.

FWIW I have a very expensive luthier-made nylon string which has a lovely rich sound but sounds completely dead through its relatively high quality pickup.

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