by Dexter Weir
Setting the scene
I dig my guitar collection - I've got single coil and humbucking electrics, MIDI guitars, acoustics from dreadnought to double-aught, a classical nylon-string, an electric bass, plus a resonator, ukulele, lap steel, and a couple of home-built models "in production." In the studio, all these guitars have their place, but when the gig is live, the beat is fast, and the audience is paying, there's no time to switch guitars between songs - let alone between verse and bridge! Up until today, I thought I had to compromise - draw out the time between songs to grab my acoustic guitar (and hope it's in tune) - or just skip the acoustic guitar sound altogether. Not much of a choice!
Then Musician's Friend dropped off a beautiful custom-made quilted maple Strat equipped with the GHOST Pickup System from Graph Tech, and asked if I would like to write a review. Does a bag of flour make a big biscuit? I agreed in an instant, signed the receipt, and got to work.
The nuts and bolts
The GHOST System consists of a set of Graph Tech's String Saver saddles with custom-engineered and individually calibrated piezo pickups, connected to their AcousticPhonic guitar pre-amp inside the guitar. A switching jack replaces the standard output jack on the guitar, and provides a very cool feature: the guitar's magnetic pickups feed one side of the jack, and the GHOST feeds the other. A normal guitar cord will carry both signals, and simply adjusting the volume controls adjusts the overall balance. Plug in a Y cord (stereo plug to two mono plugs), and the signal splits in two, with the magnetic signal on one cable while the GHOST signal is on the other. Plugged into two amps, or a stereo rig, this makes for a big, impressive sound!
The installation looks to be uncomplicated, and the instructions are very clear and informative. It even includes a step-by-step guide to setting up your guitar for proper intonation! There are a number of options, including a three-position QuickSwitch that lets you go all-mag, all- GHOST, or blend, all at the flick of a mini-toggle switch. Additional tone contouring is provided with the MidBoost option that pads the low and high frequencies and, like the name implies, boosts the mids.
Wired for sound
The most important feature is, of course, the sound, so my next test involved critical listening. For comparison, I used a Martin HD28 fitted with very nice acoustic guitar pickup. First, I plugged the Strat into my vintage Harmony tube amp, and while it sounded really good - very crisp and bright - it didn't have a lot of acoustic character. A quick check with the Martin yielded very similar results. Clearly, 40-year-old guitar amps were not designed with 21st century electronics in mind!
The next step was to plug into my recording system. Using a Y cord, I fed each side into a pre-amp for gain balancing, and then into the board. I started with the magnetic pickups muted, and the GHOST signal panned to the center. And that's when I heard the real character of this pickup system! The tone was rich and full-bodied on the low end, bright and clear on the high end, and remained remarkably balanced in both tone and volume across the entire range of the guitar. It did this all without the "quack" or distortion often heard in other acoustic pickup systems.
Next, I panned the GHOST signal to the left, brought in the magnetic signal on the right, and was treated to a truly lush sound. No artificial stereoizer ever sounded THIS good! As the different harmonics from each pickup system mixed with the other, the notes burst like fireworks inside the stereo field - but coming from the same guitar, they blended beautifully. This alone sold me on the GHOST system, and I will be adding it to my own (not quite so deluxe) Strat as soon as possible!
Meet the heat
Despite the fact that I was suffering from love at first sight (or sound), I felt it was only right to compare the GHOST system to the Martin in a recording situation. I patched both the GHOST output and the Martin output into a MOTU 2408, and with the Martin, recorded a few passages into MOTU's Digital Performer. On a separate track, I repeated the exact same passages with the GHOST system. Finally, I played a basic blues rhythm pattern with each guitar, copied and pasted so that they took turns on rhythm, then overdubbed a lead line with each - trading 12's, if you will.
On playback, the differences were evident, but not radical. While the Martin had a rich, pronounced mid to low end, it tended to thin out on the high notes. The GHOST system had a very strong bottom end as well (that will adapt very well to 7-string or drop-tuned guitars), and had a more even response all the way up the neck. On the extended passages section, I "blind soloed" the board so that I didn't know which guitar I was supposed to be listening to at any given moment, and found they both shared that super-clean acoustic sound. I would expect anybody who hadn't compared each guitar would be hard-pressed to tell which was the Strat, and which was the Martin! During the blues jam section, the complementary tones made it easy to get lost in the music - which is really what we're all after, right?
For my final test (OK, just for fun), I recorded one of my songs with the Strat's dual output panned left and right; drums and keyboards panned across the stereo stage; and my vocal, bass, and solo guitar dead center. I had previously recorded the same song recording the acoustic part on one pass, and the electric on another pass. While I liked the way it turned out, this new way - with both acoustic and electric being played absolutely the same - sounded incredible! It had a tightness that added real punch to the rhythm section, kicking the song to a whole 'nother level!
And, in the end...
The GHOST system sounds great, and not only adds a level of convenience - it delivers a whole new sound to your guitar! In the studio, it opens up new possibilities, and for live use, GHOST rules! Imagine not having to juggle your set list (or your arrangements) to accommodate your guitar! And though I focused on the acoustic sounds for this review, I must mention the StringSaver saddles themselves - they're not just a housing for piezo pickups. They're made with a Boron/Teflon compound that gives you more sustain than brass or steel saddles, and increases string life dramatically! The GHOST system not only deliver great acoustic tone, it makes the electric part of your guitar sound better, too!
I've only got two thumbs, but they're both up!