Hi James, I can understand your frustrations. I installed my first Piezo pickups back in the mid to late 1970's, and I'm still using them. Some undersaddle types are tricky to install and get a full even response. With cheap pickups the fitting is less demanding, but I find the sound less pleasing.
You get what you pay for.
There are many different styles of piezo pickups and the better the product the better the sound, and fewer the problems. CBG's being a homemade budget instrument the builder often goes for cheap disc piezo or undersaddle pickups [you get what you pay for]. In a small crude box there's not much room for placement options, and little acoustic quality for the pickup to read, so one is limited there also.
I have just played 4 guitars with piezo pickups through my amp and all had no issues I would really complain about, when keeping in mind the quality of the guitar and piezo.
I wont go through each of there different sound qualities, suffice it to say that the better the build materials used the better more pleasing the sound. The ones with a preamp sounded even better even though the settings were all set flat.
Have you thought of making magnetic pickups using old wall-wart transformers?
They're easy to hack together and sound pretty good. Maybe that's the sound you're looking for?
No, never heard of that. Please 'splain me....
Not that simple as François says, check induction-pickup-thread-reconstructed, ask him for some more pics...
In its basic form, you choose a transformer that doesn't contain a switching power supply (they're usually the very compact ones with strange shaped). I find that the 9-16 volt versions that look like a small brick are what you're looking for. Cut it open. You will see a small transformer and a few other components like diodes and capacitors. Take the transformer out. You will see the induction cage that goes through it. Take a ball peen hammer and break the cage off (it comes out as small strips) so you are left with the coil.
The coil will be made from 2 windings. One will have many turns and fine wire, the other will have few turns and thick wire. Unwind the one with thick wire (keep the wire on a spool). Cut the plastic winding holder to size. All that's left to do is drop a magnet in the hole and connect to the amp. You will get a basic magnetic pickup.
Now there are a ton of other things you will want to do to get a better sound like preventing the magnet from moving inside the coil, but you'll get something very basic that does work.
the first 50-60 builds I made, I made all with piezos, as soon as I tried a humbucker and a single coil flat pup I wont go back the a piezo, sounds so much better and they are "stage ready" meaning a piezo can pick up everything on a stage through a sound hole and that bugged me, try a single coil flat pup or a humbucker, they are cheap on amazon and even on cbgitty has some.
This is a related topic so I hope you don't mind me asking. Has anyone had any experience of these 'flat' pickups? CBGitty do the wickedbucker and there is also the boxbucker by MGB.
I assume they are better than a piezo but not as good as a genuine guitar pickup? I've searched for reviews but they are few and far between.
Edit: also MGB do this one too. micro pup.
I’ve built two with box buckers from MGB and they’re easy to use and they sound real good. I like them better than the Piezos l made
I've used both MGB's I like them.
I use the MGB micro pups and they work great, havn't had a problem yet and they sound good. The only thing I had a problem was the gold cover to the micro pups isn't the normal gold color that most guitars use so I will be off in color. I still like the humbuckers I can get on amazon for under $15 and sound even better than the micro pups but they there is a little more process in installing them, so I tend to stick with MGB micro pups, they are supper easy to install.
With the MGB how much routing do you have to do on your neck? They look a bit larger than the wickedbucker... or can you just stick them on?