No matter how good you are at playing guitar, the initial set up of your live rig can be a pain. If you’re just starting out playing live acoustic music and trying to figure out what you need, it’s a bit of a daunting task. We’d like to make it a little easier on you. From top to bottom, Sam Ash can walk you through what you’ll need to successfully setup a complete, professional live rig. Here’s the foundation:
Your guitar — we have to start there. Clearly you need an acoustic guitar. We wouldn’t say any old 6-string will do, but once you enter the intermediate range, at a modest price point, the quality should be enough to play live.
Many acoustic guitars are already outfitted with a pickup and preamp system, so you can literally plug in and play anytime, anywhere. Intermediate guitars like the Martin GPCX1AE and the Gibson G-45 Studio include onboard electronics, as do some high-end models like the Taylor 314ce. Getting an acoustic-electric will certainly make the process of amplifying your guitar easier and is worth some serious consideration.
Those guitars which do not come equipped with onboard electronics will need an additional acoustic pickup. There are a number of add-on pickup systems that easily attach to your guitar. L.R. Baggs makes The Anthem, a great amplification system which includes a sweet pickup soundhole mounted preamp for easy fine-tuning. They also make one specifically for classical guitar. While these options are always available, unless you have a particularly affinity for an electronic-less guitar, this will add some expense and complication to the process that you can avoid with an acoustic-electric.
The last option (and perhaps the least functional) is to place your guitar near a microphone. It’s a bit of a tough maneuver to keep your soundhole near the mic — and it can be really limiting when it comes to your personal mobility and the clarity of your sound. We’d only recommend this if you have a really expensive acoustic without electronics, which you do not want to modify at all. That being said, there is still probably a better option in the “Add-On Pickup” department.
Of course, no matter what type of pickup you have or mic you’re aiming into, it needs to be plugged into an amplification system. There are plenty of different amp and PA options out there today. Some are made for smaller venues, some for larger. Some are for both microphones and guitar inputs, some just for guitars. Whether you choose an acoustic amp, a comprehensive PA system, or put some random pieces together, there are plenty of ways to make it work for you.
Acoustic amplifiers are a bit different than your standard electric guitar amplifier. They’re geared to the sound of an acoustic, and thus made with the usual acoustic pickup/preamp in mind. You won’t find a drive channel on most acoustic amps, but you will find some great EQ, and possibly other functions, to help your sound stand out a bit.
Many acoustic amps are pretty affordable, like the Fishman Loudbox Mini 60-Watt, which also gives you an input for a vocal mic. There are plenty of mid-range options as well, which give you a bit more EQ and tone shaping capabilities, such as the Boss ACS-PRO Acoustic Singer 120-Watt, which features separate adjustment knobs for each channel, plus a looper. Of course, if you want to go for broke, there are professional level acoustic amps which afford you all you could reasonably want, like multiple inputs, internal effects, DI, FX loop, optical recording, headphone output, and onboard tuner. The Hughes & Kettner Era 250-Watt Acoustic Guitar Combo amp fall into this category.
Acoustic amps are great for projecting your instrument, but are not always wired to handle multiple instrument/vocal inputs — and that might be something you need. In that case, it may be helpful to check out PAs.
PAs come in many shapes and sizes. There are mixer/speaker combos and all-encompassing stacked systems called “line array.”
The more traditional mixer/speaker combination PA system gives you the opportunity to customize a lot. The basics boil down to having a mixer to plug your guitar (and potentially microphone) into which connects to one or two speakers. Depending on your equipment, you can also add a monitor to the setup, so you can more clearly hear yourself. This configuration also requires speaker cables, and possibly speaker stands, to be complete.
There are a few great PA systems which give you the full set up out of the box (though you might need a few cables). On the inexpensive end of the spectrum, there are options like the Tourtek PA210. The PA210 design allows you to click together the 200-watt 6 channel mixer and the two 10″ passive speakers, for convenient travel. It’s Bluetooth enabled and each channel has dedicated reverb and 2-band EQ—plus there are monitor outputs if you decide to add additional speakers. In the midrange you’ll find the Peavey Audio Performer Pack which is centered on a 4 channel mixer and dual 10″ premium speakers. It also comes with two PVi dynamic mics, mic cables, and two speaker stands. At the very top of the game, you can find packages like the EV EKX15P. This one encompasses dual 15″ active speakers with high-efficiency 1500-Watt class-D power amplifiers, a Yamaha MG12XU 12-channel mixer with top-notch effects, a Samson mic, cable, mic stand, and speaker stands.
If you decide to use a line array system, all you’ll have to do to setup is plug into the mixer interface on the unit and connect (stack) the speakers. This type of PA is a great option if you like to keep it simple. Line array systems are easy to transport and take up less space when set up. They also have a nice sonic range despite having physically smaller speakers. There are fewer options in this sphere, but two excellent ones are the JBL EON and the Boss L1.
If you think heavy, electric guitar when you hear “pedals,” we understand why. But, contrary to what you may presume, there are a number of pedals and preamps geared toward acoustic guitar. Many preamps are particularly useful when going directly into a mixer—especially one without a lot of tone shaping options.
Take the Session pedal from L.R. Baggs for instance. This pedal adds a tone and character to your sound which makes you think you hired a live audio guy to smooth out all the bumps. Then there’s the Fender Smolder Acoustic Overdrive, which creates an awesome overdriven tone for your acoustic.If you want it all in one powerful pedal, you may consider the Boss AD-10 Acoustic Preamp, a dual-channel acoustic preamp/DI pedal with premium audio quality, deep sound-shaping options, and flexible connectivity.
The Bottom Line
You can do a lot live with an acoustic guitar. Regardless of your preferences, some combination of the equipment analyzed here can surely suit you. A guitar, amplification, and some pedals for extra sonic excellence, and you’ll be on your way to live acoustic supremacy.