In the midst of researching the HRH guide to recording acoustic guitars, I ran across this question on Quora. How apropos. Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer.
When you’re recording acoustic guitar, the quality of the guitar is one of the biggest variables. You can’t get a great recording without a great instrument, among other things. So, what do these two choices have to offer?
The acoustic guitar has the full-bodied sound that it’s name implies. It’s good for strumming around a campfire and informal jam sessions. Less well suited for playing with a full band, particularly if it doesn’t have a pickup.
A semi-acoustic, or hollow body electric, has a resonant chamber like an acoustic guitar, but is intended for a completely different purpose. They are more or less electric guitars with a special color to them.
Another option is an acoustic guitar with an electric pickup, which is perfect for trying to get something like the sound of an acoustic guitar in a loud musical context. I say “something like” because you need a high quality (expensive) pickup do really do justice to the sound of an acoustic guitar.
An inexpensive pickup is no simple path to clean acoustic guitar recordings. Instead, you get a recording that is somewhere in between an electric or acoustic, while failing to match the sound of both of them.
You need to match your instrument to your own style and the genre you are playing. If you want to play folk music, get an acoustic guitar, with or without a pickup. When you record it, focus on recording it well with a microphone.
If you are playing rock or metal, get an electric guitar and an amplifier. Turn it up to 11 and record that. I have yet to experience an accurate software guitar amp emulator, but they’re out there. If you’re satisfied with that sound, software is a great option.
If you appreciate the sound of a hollow-body, or you play jazz, go for a semi-acoustic, but I would steer away from the notion that it is the best of both worlds.
So what about this acoustic pickup business? Unless you have a super expensive pickup, handcrafted by angels, don’t count on getting a faithful recording of an acoustic guitar. I’m not saying there is no place for these in your recordings (Alice in Chains Jar of Flies has an overt acoustic pickup sound on many songs), but just know that you’re going to get a particular sound.
At the end of the day, you’ll be much better off recording what you have. Then again, there are some great exceptions to these rules: the rhythm guitar for “Last Splash” by the Breeders was accomplished with an acoustic guitar and a distortion pedal. Remember, there are no rules but the best results usually come from the simplest techniques.