How to EQ Acoustic Guitar

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The acoustic guitar is an instrument that stands proudly at the intersection of tradition and the present. This instrument can very easily trace its lineage back hundreds of years, to guitars in Spain and lutes throughout Europe. From Spanish flamenco to Brazilian bossa nova to American folk, the acoustic guitar made its way around the world. And the acoustic guitar still proudly rings out on modern radio. It seems to experience a revival every couple of decades, most recently with indie-folk acts like Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.

The acoustic guitar has a lot in common with the shark. They’re both ancient designs that have endured, because they got it right the first time. The shark is a streamlined apex predator, and the acoustic guitar… well my metaphor is starting to break down, but acoustic guitars are inherently amazing in their design.

An acoustic guitar has a rich, shimmering tone. They can sustain, or be played percussively and rhythmically. They can provide bass, harmony, rhythm, and even melody. And best of all, they are so primitive to play. No electricity, no mallets, no complex mechanics. You push the frets, strum the strings, and off she goes.



Basic Acoustic Guitar EQ Tips

Acoustic Guitar PlayerWhile the acoustic guitar has a naturally beautiful tone, EQing it can be a complex task. The right EQ can really bring out its best side, but the wrong EQ could actually make it sound worse than reality! How to apply EQ properly to acoustic guitar depends on what other instruments or vocals are present. Certain fundamentals depend on arrangement, regardless of whether you are in a live or studio context. Is acoustic guitar just one rhythm instrument? Do you have bass, other instruments, and percussion? Or is acoustic guitar fulfilling all those roles too?

I will start by sharing a couple of examples. My absolute favorite EQ job on acoustic guitar comes from the obscure critic darling Big Star, on their track Thirteen. That’s an acoustic guitar-driven ballad with few other instruments. Also check out the acoustic guitar EQ in the beginning of Wonderwall and Yesterday for more approaches.

Acoustic Guitar Frequency Range

Low Frequencies

The acoustic guitar’s tone spans the frequency spectrum more brilliantly than most instruments. Its fundamental frequencies mostly sit in the 100-500 Hz range, but its sound extends all the way upwards to 15k-20k Hz, especially when it is strummed with a pick. This is the reason an acoustic guitar can easily accompany vocals on its own, and still sound like nothing is missing!

If a tune is using the acoustic guitar to provide pretty much all the instrumental tone and structure, like in Thirteen, consider a boost in the 100-300Hz range. This is the lovely warm tone of the acoustic which is criminally underused in my opinion. It’s got a warm, bassy feeling that anchors the accompaniment, and can interact beautifully with vocals too. However, if you are playing with bass, drums, and other rhythm instruments like electric guitar and piano, you will want to cut this range.Too much competition in this range will lead to a muddy and messy-sounding mix.

Mid Frequencies

The 500-1000 Hz range is also quite warm. If you are cutting 100-300 Hz to make room for other instruments, try a boost in the 500-1000 range to add acoustic mid tone. Be careful not to center the boost over 500 because this range can sound boxy and wooden when abused.

The 1000-2500 Hz range is delicate. A small boost in this range can add an incredible amount of presence in just about any instrument. Yet usually acoustic guitar acts more as an accompaniment than a lead, so this range is usually cut. If the acoustic guitar has a lead section, or a section where it’s given the “center stage” try a slight boost here.

The 2500-5000 Hz range is also tricky. I find a lot of the unpleasant aspects of the acoustic’s sound tend to group here, such as harsh strumming textures and bumps and clicks. I nearly always cut here. If the acoustic is very high quality with great strings, and is being played finger-picked, this area may sound great.

High Frequencies

Finally, the 5000-20000 Hz range is very airy and textured and percussive. This is the area where the acoustic gets its “shimmer” and “brilliance.”

Applying EQ to Different Contexts

Acoustic Guitar and PlayerGoing back to my examples. If you record an acoustic guitar with a good mic, boost the 100-300 and 500-1000 range, cut 1000-5000, and boost 7500 and above, you will get a gorgeous tone that resembles that of Thirteen. This tone sounds lush and warm and brilliant, and is ideal for acoustic-driven tracks accompanying vocals.

In Wonderwall, it sounds like 500-1000 Hz and 7500+ Hz are boosted, and everything else is cut. This sounds percussive, with enough midrange that its not too “empty” yet it easily fits in with the vocals and other instruments once they enter.

Yesterday is meant to be a gorgeous ballad. There are no bass or other rhythm instruments, so 100-300 and 500-1000 Hz are boosted. 1000-3000 Hz is cut, and it sounds like everything above that is left alone.

Yesterday is kind of an outlier, it uses a production trick that has gone totally out of vogue. The strings section also has a warm, low- to mid-heavy tone that should turn to mud when combined with the acoustic guitar. But the acoustic guitar is panned hard to the right channel and the strings hard left. The two tracks can occupy the same frequency section without clashing. This was common in the early days of stereo, but had gone out of fashion by the end of the 60s. If you were recording a song with the same arrangement today, I would recommend cutting 100-300 Hz and a slight cut in the 500-1000 Hz range once the strings enter.

How to EQ Acoustic Guitar Live

Live Acoustic Guitar PlayerAcoustic guitars present an interesting challenge to EQ live. The whole point of an acoustic instrument is that it naturally projects, but it doesn’t project enough for most live environments beyond very small rooms, so technology has to step in to bridge the gap. There are two common ways to do this: plugging an acoustic-electric guitar into a PA or amp, or miking the guitar. The type of amplification used affects the guitar’s tone, and therefore affects the PA needs of the instrument.

In fact, I find live acoustic guitar to be one of the most difficult instruments to nail. This comes down to personal taste, but to my ears, most acoustic-electric guitars sound absolutely awful when plugged in to a PA or speaker. There are a few types of pickups common in acoustic guitars, and you can check out the differences in tone and mechanics in this excellent Reverb video if you are not sure what you’re working with. In my humble opinion, most of these pickup types sound very disappointing compared to the natural rich tone of an acoustic. They sound thin and “plastic.”

 

Avoiding the Plastic Tone

There are two exceptions to this. A soundhole pickup does not sound great when run directly into a PA, but when plugged into an electric amp, you can get excellent dusky “Americana” type tones. Very blues and very roots. It doesn’t sound much like an acoustic played naturally, but the tone is very unique and rich in its own way. Otherwise, some acoustic-electrics have a mic pickup (which is really just a small microphone) inside the guitar. These are known to be the fussiest types of pickups, as they are prone to feedback and somewhat expensive. But as you can hear in the Reverb video, they are far more natural and rich sounding. The texture sounds wooden and organic, not plastic and thin.

Internal acoustic guitar pickups aside, another option is to play the guitar acoustically and mount a mic pointing at the acoustic. Again, this is generally considered to be more of a fuss, as the player is limited in their range of movement. But the tone sounds much more natural to me as well.

EQ for the Plastic Tone

So, keep the typical advice from above in mind, but also consider the method of amplification. If you are EQing live guitar that is plugged into a PA and is not a mic-style pickup, then you will be dealing with the plastic tone that I was referring to. Here, my advice may differ from the mainstream, because I think this tone bothers me more than most. But I recommend cutting in the 2500-10k Hz range. Boost this range a bit in vocals and other instruments to compensate. This will help diminish the plastic, artificial-sounding tone.

Furthermore, the 100-500 Hz range is the only range that does not sound artificial to my ears. I would boost here as well, and cut any other rhythm instruments a bit to compensate.

Conclusion

There are as many ways to EQ the acoustic guitar as there are opportunities to do so. Every acoustic, every player, every pick, and every set of strings sound a little different, so really, there is no substitute for experimentation and experience. But with this guide, you should have a starting point about the different frequency ranges of the acoustic guitar and how they contribute to the overall sound. Get acquainted with the different aspects of the acoustic’s tone and you will be able to hear what is needed in every new situation you encounter. If you are struggling, consider investing in a professional mixing and mastering service. These services can be more affordable than you’d expect, while also being a powerful tool to learn by example. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!