Fishman Blackstack Pickup Review
Although guitarists who plug in have more pickup options than ever, one of the earliest amplification solutions—the magnetic soundhole pickup—remains a popular choice. Fishman, a pioneer of acoustic guitar amplification, recently introduced a new magnetic soundhole pickup designed to capture the magnetic pickup tone in an updated form as part of the “Larry’s Garage” series (named after founder Larry Fishman). Fishman has a variety of magnetic pickups in its acoustic guitar line, from the passive Neo-D to passive and active versions of the Rare Earth pickup, but the new Blackstack pickup brings a new sound and features to Fishman’s popular line.
Fishman chose to have some fun with the packaging of the Blackstack, playing on the connection between the stacked humbucker and a stack of black poker chips. The pickup arrives in a well-constructed metal “poker case,” decorated on the outside with a playing card motif. Opening the box reveals what looks like a blackjack table surface, with a deck of cards and a roll of heavily weighted poker chips flanking the pickup itself. The outside of the case also has a QR code, which, when processed by a QR-code reader on a smart phone, will take to you a video about the Blackstack.
After getting past the fun of the unexpected packaging, the pickup itself is fairly simple, consisting of a somewhat familiar-looking black soundhole bar pickup, along with mounting accessories and a five-foot cable. The pickup mounts in the soundhole, and it was easy to slip into place on my Martin OM without even loosening the strings, tightening the clamps with a Phillips screwdriver. Fishman warns that the clamps can potentially mar your guitar’s finish and provides a small sheet of cork that can be used for protective padding. Unlike many pickups that have a permanently attached cable, the Blackstack is equipped with a mini-XLR connector that allows the cable to be easily connected and disconnected. This can come in very handy if you want to remove the relatively heavy pickup before traveling, for example. The five-foot cable is meant to allow temporary installation, running the cable out the soundhole, but Fishman includes a traditional endpin jack with associated hardware for permanent installation, which involves shortening the cable and soldering the endpin jack before placing the jack in an endpin hole and securing the cable with the supplied wire clips (Fishman sells a shorter version of the cable for permanent installation without soldering through its web store).
Physically, the Blackstack is approximately one inch wide, making it larger than any of Fishman’s previous magnetic pickups; it’s roughly twice as big as Fishman’s Rare Earth pickup. Another important difference between the Blackstack and Fishman’s Rare Earth and Neo-D pickups is the adjustable pole pieces, which make it possible to fine-tune the string-to-string balance for different strings or guitars. Although Fishman says the Blackstack will fit guitars with soundholes at least 35/8 inches in diameter, my measurements indicated the soundhole could be as small as 33/8 inches (although it would be a tight fit and tricky to install) and as large as about 33/4 inches.
Once installed in my Martin OM, strung with phosphor-bronze strings, I found the Blackstack to be smooth, balanced, and quiet. Although the familiar magnetic sound is present, the Blackstack doesn’t sound overly electric, exhibiting a solid bass response as well as a clear high-end presence, without sounding harsh. Plugged into my AER Acousticube II, I was happy with the Blackstack’s clean tone on both strumming and fingerpicking, and I was able to achieve plenty of volume without feedback. Fishman is positioning the Blackstack as suitable for rocking out at high volume, so I wondered how the pickup might handle grittier tones. Running the pickup through a Boss Blues Driver pedal before going to the AER amp, I found it easy to get both a pleasing crunch and a fat lead guitar sound, and I could imagine that the pickup would work well with a traditional electric amp.
With its basic no-nonsense passive design and adjustable pole pieces, combined with a very convenient TA4 connector system for easy removal, the Blackstack is ideal for traveling musicians. I would be happy to trade the clever packaging for a ready-made shorter cable that would allow permanent installation without soldering, but it’s hard to deny the folks at Fishman their fun, and the metal box actually makes a useful accessory case. The pickup sounds excellent, and its humbucking design should please players in gigging situations with amps and lights that produce noise, while the Blackstack’s balanced tone and clear presence should be effective for everyone from gentle fingerpickers to roadhouse rockers.
SPECS: Passive humbucking pickup with individually adjustable pole pieces. Detachable five-foot cable with TA4 mini-XLR connector. Optional cork pads for protecting guitar finish. Fits soundholes at least 35/8 inches in diameter. Approximately 51/2 ounces. Made in USA.
PRICE: $385 list/$249 street.
MAKER: Fishman: (978) 988-9199; fishman.com.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar December 2011