Author: Poling, Chuck

The Pickup Line

I’m considering buying a guitar and a mandolin with pickups. Jeanie and I often drag our instruments around as we travel around the state and beyond, and we find open mics or some kind of music showcase at a restaurant, bar, or café. We’ve learned that most of these events will usually have one or two mics and a couple of direct boxes for patching instruments in to the PA.

We’re not big fans of pickups – nothing can make a $3,000 guitar sound like a $300 guitar like a crappy pickup – even a “good” pickup has severe limitations. We love our old Martins and Gibsons for their unique voices and historic provenances, and we would never think of defacing them by installing electronics. But increasingly we’re finding more venues where playing acoustically into a microphone is problematic, if not impossible.

Bluegrass music stands out as one of the final bastions of true acoustic music. No doubt there have been major advances in sound technology since Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys gathered around one big old microphone in the ‘40s, but it’s still rare to see performers at a bluegrass festival or concert using pickups on their instruments.

I’ve heard pickers rhapsodize about tonewoods, tap-tuning and x-bracing as if they were discussing poetry. Well, it is poetry of sorts. The awesome volume and clarity of a pre-War D-18 is something to behold. Gibson’s coveted Lloyd Loar–era mandolins continue to rise in price, as nothing has come along since the ‘20s to match their sound. When I hit a big “E” chord on my old J-45, it sets off a symphony of harmonics that make the guitar a joy to play.

But if you’re playing in front of a crowd, you need sound reinforcement. There are a few local, capable sound techs who have experience with bluegrass music and understand that the goal is to amplify the acoustic instruments without compromising the integrity of the tone. All too often, especially here in San Francisco, you encounter venues with PAs set up primarily for rock bands or DJs, and, regrettably, someone at the controls whose chief qualification is his friendship with the club’s owner and/or the bar tab he’s working off.

One memorable evening we were booked at a new bar along with six other bluegrass acts. The sound tech looked young enough to be asked for ID at the door and was not prepared for seven bands of four to six musicians each, all playing acoustically. The feedback issues were not helped by an underbraced, bouncy stage that acted like a big resonator for a string bass.

By the time we played – I think we were on fourth – the poor sound guy was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. We had a four-piece band that night, and we followed a five-piece act. So we just stepped up and took over the last band’s setup without moving the extra mic. He did a quick check on each channel, and for some reason my instrument mic wasn’t working. “How about I use this extra mic here?” I asked, pointing to my left. “Don’t touch anything,” he barked back. So I left it at that while he frantically checked the board, the cable connections, the cable, and the microphone itself until he looked at me and blurted in exasperation, “Why don’t you just use that extra mic to your left.”

“Great idea,” I replied.

It was a veritable festival of feedback, with lots of distorted vocals, horrible mixes and, of course, rock and roll volume. Afterward the sound guy told the promoter of this demolition derby that there wouldn’t have been so many feedback issues if the musicians just used pickups and patched into the board. When the clueless promoter – not a musician himself, of course – relayed this to the bands, the musicians bemoaned the fact that they go to great pains to produce a certain sound with certain instruments, and it’s not their fault that someone who claims to know about live sound can’t handle it.

A little bit of web-based sniping followed this incident, with one wag accusing the bands of being overly fussy and tradition-bound.

So are bluegrass musicians prima donnas because they feel their music is too authentic to bend to the demands of contemporary technology? Do they think that just because they were crazy enough to spend five grand on a vintage guitar that they’re exempt from physics? Do they play that way simply because “that’s the way Bill did it”?

Hardly. Sound techs and musicians have their opinions, but let’s not forget about the fans. Bluegrass fans want to hear certain sounds from certain instruments. Many fans may not know anything about sound reinforcement, but they know what they like. Maybe this is the most important point – bluegrass musicians play the way they do because that’s what their audience expects. Bluegrass fans are, for the most part, fanatically loyal, thoroughly knowledgeable, and very respectful of the music’s traditions.

One of the most exciting bluegrass stage experiences is watching a band work the one big mic. Right now, I can’t think of any combo who does it better than Windy Hill. Stepping back and forth to sing, taking their breaks or just punching in a G-run, the guys look great in their crisp white shirts, neckties, and straw cowboy hats. It’s more than music – it’s a show!

But most importantly, they deliver a very clean, acoustic sound that bluegrass audiences eat up like tri-tip. Unfortunately, big condenser mics are very difficult to use in most venues. They pick up ambient noise and usually can’t work with monitors without feeding back – and I mean screeching, howling, mommy-make-it-stop feedback.

So, with the understanding that compromises must sometimes be made, we’ll shop around for cheaper instruments with pickups. They’ll come in handy on the road, but it’s nice to know that there’s a whole world of people like us who appreciate the wonderful acoustic sounds that come from quality stringed instruments, old and new.

Posted:  1/23/2012

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