We’ve talked a little about how piezo pickups work. I want to stay on that subject but focus on one particular pickup and one particular task.
The task is lowering the action on your acoustic guitar — something that may players want to do.
Without getting too tied up in the details, adjusting action on an acoustic guitar is typically accomplished by removing some material from the bottom of the saddle, thereby reducing its height. Obviously, a lower saddle will mean a lower acton.
But, as there’s always a spanner/wrench that can be thrown in any works, things aren’t always that easy.
Take the Takamine G-Series, for instance… And that particular pickup I mentioned.
Many Takamine guitars* often come fitted with what’s called an integrated pickup (I’m not certain if that’s a Tak name or if it’s just a name that’s become commonly used — sorry).
Anyway, the ‘integrated’ part doesn’t refer to the fact that the pickup is integrated into the guitar. Instead, it refers to the fact that the saddle is integrated with the pickup.
Most of the time an under-saddle pickup is just a strip that sits… well, under the saddle. The integrated pickup, is quite different.
The Takamine integrated pickup has a narrow metal housing — a U-Channel shape. The walls of this channel are higher than the ‘basic’ piezo pickup we discussed last time and have a curve from one end to the other.
Inside the channel sit six piezo pickup elements which are embedded in a flexible plastic strip that serves as 'spacers. On top of these pickup elements is a copper strip (that’s what grabs the signal and sends it to the preamp).
And, on top of all of that is the saddle. The saddle is very precisely shaped to slot into the metal housing.
The saddle sides have a recess to accept the high, curved walls of the U-channel which ‘key’ it and hold it in place. The bottom of the saddle has ‘notches’ cut from it — it’s shaped like a castle wall. The protruding notches are what make contact against the piezo elements.
In essence, those sticky-out notches transfer string vibration to the piezo element and that turns the vibration into electricity. The copper strip picks up this electrical signal and sends it off to the amp.
The problem adjusting action on an integrated pickup
If I remind you that lowering the action on an acoustic guitar usually means removing material from the bottom of the saddle, you can probably start to see the problem.
That integrated saddle is machined to very close tolerances. It slots snugly into the pickup channel and the protrusions on the bottom touch off the piezo elements perfectly.
If you make the mistake of removing material from the bottom of one of these, you’ll probably end up with
(a) A saddle that’s exactly the same height when strung up because the U-channel walls won’t actually let it sit any lower,
(b) A pickup that no longer works properly — if at all — because the notches don’t reach the piezo elements.
At that point, your only real option is to buy a new saddle. Until relatively recently, that wasn’t as easy as you’d imagine it should be. For a Takamine saddle, you usually have to go through a Tak dealer or distributor.
There are now some knock-off saddles available around the net and on Ebay so it might be possible to get something there. There are even some sellers offering real bone saddles that are machined to fit the integrated pickup. That said, I’d advise against bone for this purpose. I’ll explain why in a later post but, for now, just look for man-made materials in your integrated saddle.
So how do I adjust action on these Takamines?
First thing to do is to look under the pickup. Carefully lift the U-channel out of the saddle slot and check underneath.
Takamine, knowing this action thing is an issue, will usually have secreted one or two shims beneath the pickup. You can remove some and that will allow the whole pickup/saddle assembly to sit farther down in the slot, lowering the action.
Note: You're likey to be lifting the saddle/pickup unit as a whole but, the saddle can separate from the pickup pretty easily so it's useful to make a small pencil dot at one end of it to indicate which way it goes back.
And if there are no shims?
That’s less easy.
We know that we can’t remove material from the bottom of the saddle. That leaves us two options:
The obvious route is to remove material from the top of the saddle. That’s definitely possible but it comes with complications. The radius on top of the saddle must be maintained and, after it’s been shortened, the compensation shape will need to be cut into the saddle top again.
If you’ve got a split saddle (separate saddle for the first and second strings), keeping a consistent height and radius is tricky.
If you feel you can handle this, go for it. Otherwise, chat with your trusty guitar tech.
It may be that deepening the saddle slots in the bridge is a better way to go. This has a similar effect to removing shims in that it allows the pickup/saddle assembly to sit lower in the bridge.
Accomplishing this is trickier again, though, and requires routing the bottom of the slots. It’s very easy to screw up and goes much easier when you have the correct tools and jigs. It may be one for your trusty tech.
The bottom line
Don’t modify the bottom of these saddles.
Don’t buy bone saddles for integrated pickups.
Hope and pray there are shims under your pickup.
That’s it. 😉
* Actually, you’ll find similar pickups on other guitars too but the Takamine is the most likely place you’ll come across them.