Whilst a ukulele is, in the main an acoustic instrument designed to play anywhere, you will find times when you want a little more power to your sound - when playing in a band alongside other instruments for example, or on stage.
You will therefore find that many ukuleles come with pickups fitted - but what should you look out for?
Unlike an electric guitar, ukuleles use nylon strings, and therefore need a different sort of pickup than a magnetic coil type you see on electrics - those sort of pickups read the vibration of metal strings only.
For a ukulele, you are going to come across two types of pickup - microphonic or piezoelectric (piezo for short)
As the name suggests a microphonic pickup is quite literally a small microphone fitted inside the ukulele connected to a jackpin (the bit the cable plugs in to). They are usually fitted on the end of a bendy bit of wire allowing you to position them inside the uke body to find the nicest sound spot. These sort of mic pickups work, but they can give terrible feedback - I would personally avoid one unless you are spending a lot of money on a quality microphone
Piezo pickups are by far the most common and are made out of a sheet or strip of piezoelectric crystals that act as a transducer. Vibrations on the body of the ukulele are "picked up" by the piezo crystals and they turn this into an electrical signal that can be turned into sound by an amplified. Like all pickups, including microphonic pickups, they are connected to a jack pin for plugging a cable into, connecting to an amplifier.
Piezo pickups come in two main flavours:
- Soundboard transducers - these are a flat round plate of piezo crystals sandwiched between two very thin metal sheets around the size of a pound coin (or a nickel). A cable runs from the pickup to the jack pin, and the pickup is quite literally stuck to the underside of the soundboard, usually near the bridge where it picks up vibrations from the top of the ukulele. These pickups work well, but can also suffer from a little feedback - they are the only choice for ukulele's with fixed bridge saddles like Flukes and Fleas. If you are retro fitting one, you can experiment with placement to find the nicest tone. More expensive models may come with two pickup disks to allow for a broader sound. You can also fit these pickups on the outside of the uke, with the cable external also. This avoids drilling your uke, but I think they look messy and I would be concerned about the sticky pad damaging my external finish.
Soundboard Transducer pickup
- Under saddle transducers - these are thin strip of piezo crystals in a thin metal strip that come up through a small hole in the top of the ukulele bridge and lay flat underneath the saddle. They work in the same way as the soundboard transducers, but lie directly under the strings and can be better at controlling feedback. These are very common types of pickup though placing them flat and accurately is essential as a bad fitting can lead to differences in volume across the strings.
Under saddle piezo pickup
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
- Active or Passive - you will find that most pickups will come either active or passive. A passive pickup is connected directly to the jackpin and the amplifier does all the work increasing the sound. An active pickup is boosted by a small internal amplifier in the instrument, usually powered by a 9v battery, that gives the signal a lift and balance. Some say this provides for a better sound, but to be honest, I think all that depends on how good your amplifier is! Passive pickups will certainly need the amp input volume to be set a little higher. Active pickups also come with inconvenience of having a hole cut in your uke for the battery to fit into. They also stop working completely when the battery is flat.
- EQ's - higher end pickup systems will provide a set of EQ controls (volume, bass, treble) on the side of your ukulele allowing you to "shape" the sound as it leaves the ukulele. This is a nice feature to have, though not essential if you don't mind tweaking your amplifier instead. The nicest feature in my opinion is the ability to adjust the volume, and between songs, kill the sound completely if you want to. The downside is yet another hole cut in the side of your uke for the control panel. I personally find these overkill on an instrument like a ukulele
- Brands? - as with most things in life - you gets what you pays for. If you are investing in a pickup for a retro fit, then go for a decent brand and pay some decent money. Look for brands like Fishman, K&K, LR Baggs or Mi-Si. The Mi-Si pickups are very clever as they are active but use no 9v battery. They have a small capacitor fitted to the jackpin that you charge in 30 seconds on the mains, and it then remains charged for hours - very cool! If you are buying a uke with one already fitted, bear in mind that a great pickup will never turn a poor quality uke into something special - do the maths and work out whether its too good to be true. A pickup system is realistically going to start at about £50 and may run into a cost over £100. If you see a uke with a £50 pickup for £60, the uke is gonna be junk!!
- Amplifier is crucial - the sound you get from your uke is only going to be as good as the amplifier you are using - no matter how good the uke or the pickup, if you feed it into a poor amplifier you are wasting your time. It goes without saying that you want to look for an acoustic amplifier, and as I have posted before HERE I would struggle to recommend anything other than the Marshall AS50.
- DI Box - some people swear by using a DI box that you plug into before plugging into the amp - it is basically an external pre-amp and EQ that aims to improve the sound going in to the amp and give it a more natural sound (piezos can sound a bit harsh and bright). I've never used one, and rely on my amp, but many do. I'd say, try before you buy..
So, there you have it - I hope that was helpful. Pickups are not for everyone, and if you are not planning to gig, probably not required at all. Retro fitting one needs careful consideration as it involves drilling your uke in most cases - if in doubt, get it fitted by an expert.
Oh, and if you want to have some fun, once you have a pickup you can put it through effects pedals to create some weird sounds, or create a rock uke!