Types Of Mountain Dulcimer Pickups
There are two broad classes of pickups - piezo and magnetic. There are benefits and disadvantages to either kind of pickup, and they produce distinctly different sounds.
You can watch this video to see and hear the differences, and we've provided some more information towards the bottom of this page.
Piezo (Piezoelectric) Pickups
Pronounced "pea-EH-zoh". In a nutshell, these types of pickups convert mechanical movement (of the strings, through the bridge, then into the pickup itself) into electricity. This kind of pickup gives the most natural (dulcimer-like) tone of the pickup varieties. To get the most accurate rendition of a dulcimer's sound, choose a piezo pickup.
We offer two varieties of piezo pickups - one is a "passive" pickup (no batteries or electronics) made for us by the LR Baggs company. Our LR Baggs undersaddle (the location of the pickup, when installed, is "under the saddle/bridge") pickup is the best passive piezo pickup on the market. The Baggs company makes pickups specifically for our instruments, optimized for our string spacing.
Our other piezo pickup is made for us by Fishman. This is a two-part system - there's the pickup itself (under the bridge) and a separate preamp. This unit runs on a nine-volt battery, and takes the tiny amount of electricity from the pickup, and amplifies it just a bit. This gives a quieter (as far as background noise goes) pickup, and also allows for an on-board equalizer and volume control. We're using one of Fishman's stock preamps, but Fishman custom builds the pickups for our instruments, in a variety of sizes. This isn't an inexpensive pickup, but it is totally worth the money - most of Folkcraft's endorsing artists choose this pickup for the versatility and sound quality.
The photo below shows the Fishman preamp mounted in the side of a dulcimer. If you look closely, you can see a glint of metal underneath the bridge - that's the actual pickup that Fishman makes for us. The LR Baggs pickup is also visible as a glint of metal beneath the bridge (brass-colored metal, for the Baggs), but the Baggs pickup does not have volume and tone controls mounted in the side of the dulcimer.
If you don't choose a piezo pickup, you'll have one option left - a magnetic pickup. This one relies on the steel dulcimer strings oscillating just above a magnet. We've wrapped about 800 feet of very fine wire around the magnets, and the string/magnet/wire combination creates electricity. But since there's no mechanical vibration being converted to electricity (strictly the oscillation of the strings!) the sound of the pickup is dramatically different. It is a more pure, bell-like tone. Less dulcimer-like. But really handy if you're doing a lot with effects pedals, loopers, or other modern devices.
The photo above shows one of our NT-11® pickups mounted in the fretboard, between the sound holes, just left of the strum hollow. The photo below shows the NT-11® pickup's volume and tone controls mounted in the side of the dulcimer.
Our magnetic pickups are made in-house, under the NT-11® brand name. They aren't "undersaddle" - they sit just between the strum hollow and the last fret.
Which one should you choose?
This is a tough question. They're all great pickups. If you want just "one" pickup, for the most traditional sound, I think that the Fishman Matrix pickup with the Prefix Blend Pro preamp is the most versatile. If you're on a budget, the Baggs pickup is amazing. And if you're playing a bass dulcimer, or want to use pedals of any variety, I'll suggest the NT-11® pickup for the smooth, round sound.
And definitely consider a dual-pickup instrument - we can install Fishman and NT-11 pickups (both!) in the same instrument. This adds to the cost, but gives you the ultimate versatility in tone.