Anyone who’s ever tried to amplify any acoustic guitar can tell you that standard magnetic pickups or a piezo under the saddle don’t even come close to reproducing a natural or credible acoustic guitar tone. I’ve struggled with this my whole life as a guitarist. You take the time to pick through every cedar-topped instrument in the store and compare it to the Sitka spruce tops. Then you have to decide whether you like the sound of the maple back or the rosewood. Which one cuts better? Which has better low end? The options are endless. Then, when you run it through a PA, it ends up sounding like you made a last minute impulse buy and grabbed the first boxed-up guitar and amp combo that had a rockin’ picture of a pop star on it as you were going through the checkout line at your local Wal-Mart.
Feeling the agony of the acoustic player and always striving to build a better wheel, the people at Taylor created an innovative new way to amplify their acoustics by combining a magnetic pickup under the fingerboard with two sensors attached to the underside of the soundboard. This system, known as the ES or Expression System, flipped the reproduction of an acoustic instrument’s live sound on its ear. When Taylor first came out with the ES system they sent me one and confidently told me that this would change the way I felt about playing acoustic guitar live. By removing the traditional piezos from under the bridge, the ES has uncovered more of the genuine warmth the instrument naturally produces. My sound man noticed the difference right away and has commented to me that it was the best sounding acoustic he’s ever mixed. I’ve even found that I don’t need to use any sort of feedback buster, or “tone buster” as I lovingly call them, in the sound hole to curb potential feedback issues. That helps to capture the true full, rich tone of my guitar, and it’s not just a high-end jingle as it lays buried in the background.
Taylor followed the ES system with its K4 preamp. It’s designed to help acoustic guitar types survive in the real world of ear-splitting amps, maxed-out stage monitors and the constant threat of feedback. This unit is voiced specifically for acoustic guitar and works particularly well on my Taylor 610, which has the ES system built in. It has a tuner out and a mute button, so I can check tuning without disrupting the show. When I build my EQ setting on it, I’ll start with the headphone output as a guide reference before tweaking it in the main sound system or monitors. The High and Low EQ’s are set specifically for the needs of an acoustic guitar. When I tweak my tone I’ll start with everything flat and dial in low end, then highs before messing with the midrange. The parametric mid contour is what really brings out the color of the guitar and helps to notch out any potentially pesky feedback-inducing frequencies. With years of experience, and no doubt input from players over the years, Taylor even included an effects loop. When I talk about the unit it’s always one of the first features that I mention. I don’t use it with my current setup but I’m always glad it’s there, just in case. Although they were clever enough to design the K4 with two main outputs, a balanced mic level (XLR) and a standard guitar jack, I just run the XLR and think of it as a fancy direct box. I’ve known other players to run the outputs simultaneously so they could send one signal to the front of house and the other to an on-stage monitor amp. Personally I’ve never been much for running an acoustic through any type of amp, but that’s fodder for another issue. I’ve always run my K4 via A/C power, but one of its really cool features is that the power light on the front glows green until the batteries start to run down. When it turns red you’ve got about 30 minutes of battery left. That should be enough to get you to your next break. If it’s not, it may be time to have a talk with the club owner about your breaks! I’d like to see that feature on all my floor effects. That way I’ll know before I try to break into a bastard version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” if my wah is gonna operate or not! Whenever I hook into the K4, I’m always impressed with what it can do and how much it helps my guitar sound like… well, a guitar! It smoothly expresses the full dynamic range of the instrument, enhancing anything from a sensitive, fingerpicked version of “Dust In The Wind” to full on guitar assaults à la Michael Hedges. I’ve only used my K4 live, but I imagine that it would record great too, if ever mic’ing weren’t an option.
Till next time, keep jammin’!
Rich Eckhardt is one of the most sought after guitarists in Nashville. His ability to cover multiple styles has put him on stage with singers ranging from Steven Tyler of Aerosmith to Shania Twain. Rich is currently playing lead guitar with Toby Keith. His new album Cottage City Firehouse is available at his website and CDBaby.com.
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