So yesterday I got around to doing something that I have been meaning to do for some time. Fitting a passive ukulele pickup to my Kanile'a Tenor ukulele.
Being an expensive Hawaiian uke, this was a somewhat nervous process, but actually, if you go steady and carefully its not all that bad. Thought I would provide a kind of semi review and comment on the installation process to help others out. The model pickup in question was a Fishman AG series 094 ukulele pickup.
A quick word in advance on pickups. If you want to go down the electro acoustic route I will always recommend that you first consider the installation of a good quality passive pickup ahead of the on board pickups that feature on many entry level ukes. In my experience, these on board 'active' pickups are rarely of the sort of quality you can get with a passive strip, and often REALLY poor quality. If you think about it - there are electro acoustic equipped ukes on the market from about £100 or so upwards. The cost of this Fishman AG 094 alone is about £75, so what does that tell you about the quality of either the uke or the pickup on the ready to go models? The other advantage with fitting a passive pickup is that you can choose to fit one to any acoustic uke and not limit yourself to certain models. Stores will often offer to fit these for you for a bit of extra money, but as I hope to demonstrate below, its not actually that complicated to fit one yourself. This post is about the fitting of an under saddle piezo pickup but other types are available, most notably transducer spot pickups that stick on the underside of the top under the bridge. I prefer under saddle models myself though as they pickup less body noise.
So, whats in the Fishman box? Not a lot really - a thin ceramic pickup strip with a wire connected for connecting to the jack socket, and a jack socket itself. And that is it. The Fishman pickup requires that you solder the wires to the jack socket as part of the install process, but there are models out there, such as those from Shadow that come either ready wired, or with plugs to clip them in to the socket. I went for the Fishman as it was very thin, and that meant less work to do on the saddle, but I also found the soldering meant for a slightly easier install. You see, when the whole thing is already hard wired, you need to find a way of getting the pickup strip up through the bridge from the inside out. It can be done, but with the Fishman, you install the pickup strip from the outside in, then solder the wires to the jack socket before fitting that. Much easier.
So what is the process? Well, aside from the soldering, its really just a case of drilling two holes, and doing a bit of sanding.
First up we need to drill a small hole in the bridge to feed the pickup wire through to the inside of the body. I removed the strings and the saddle (after marking up the bridge for the string positions to allow me to line up the strip so it sits evenly under all the strings) then marked the wire location for the pickup. It's then a simple case of drilling a hole within the saddle slot right through the top of the uke. The diameter will vary depending on the pickup system, but in this case it was about 2.5mm. Go steady, and ideally drill a very thin pilot hole first to guide the drill, but its really not too complicated. With the Fishman, the pickup wire extends directly downwards from the end of the strip, so a hole drilled directly downwards was needed to ensure the pickup sits flat with no pressure on the wiring. Some pickup strips use a braided pickup and the wire will then need to go into the uke on a slight angle to avoid it stressing. In those cases, just drill on a slight angle towards the edge of the uke
|Hole drilled for pickup strip wire|
The second hole is the one that gets the pulse rate racing, and that is one right through the butt of the uke for the jack socket. In this case it was about 12mm, which is a chunky drill bit, but again I would recommend drilling a thinner pilot hole first to guide the drill. I didn't use a clamp or a vice to hold the uke (rather I had a wife to hold it for me!) but would recommend one if you have one. Again - go slow and steady and soon you will be through. Give the inside of the hole a bit of a tidy up with a file then hoover out the dust and wood shavings out of the uke before you continue. Another word of warning - if you are drilling this way, ensure that the instrument has an end block fitted to take hold the jack socket. This one does, as do most ukes, but if you cannot see one in your uke I would recommend an alternative system that involves a wire coming out of the sound hole to an external jack. Without an end block you are applying undue stress to the thin side pieces of the uke. I have seen an example of such a fitting where the instrument lead was pulled, and it ripped the jack socket out of the side of the uke leaving quite a hole!
|Hole drilled for jack socket|
And that is it for drilling, so on to the installation. Feed the pickup wire through the top of the uke and into the body. As I say above, if your pickup system is pre wired, then you need to feed it the other way as everything is connected and I would recommend doing this with either some cotton or thin wire through the body and connected to the end of the strip to feed it back through, but I warn you, that is fiddly!. So with the pickup strip seated in the slot, you can now reach into the uke to grab the loose wire and feed it out of the sound hole.
|Pickup strip seated in saddle slot|
Solder the wires to the end pin jack and we are almost there. In the case of the Fishman AG, it comes with a clever multi use jack pin that allows the soldering of secondary pickups, or mic pickups to share the jack, but in the case of this passive strip, its a case of soldering the central 'hot' wire to the tip pin of the jack, and the ground wire to the the sleeve. All instructions with diagrams are on the Fishman website. Another tip here - you will find that you have more wire than you really need, so before moving on, coil the wire a little and either secure the loop with tape or a cable tie to ensure you don't have loose wire flapping about inside the uke. You can also attach the loose wire to the inside back of the uke with some tape for extra security. With that connected its time to attach the jack socket.
To do this, I fed an instrument cable with a jack that was thin enough to go through the hole in the base of the uke and plugged it into the jack to feed it back out. This takes a bit of fiddling and trial and error as you need to ensure it protrudes through the uke enough to take the locking nut. On the shaft of the jack socket are a bolt, washer and star washer designed to sit inside the uke, and then it is attached with another washer and bolt on the outside to hold it in place. This took a few goes of adjusting the inner bolt to the correct depth to ensure I had enough to work with outside but it didn't take too long. With the socket passed through the uke and enough protrusion to work with it is then simply a case of attaching the outer washer and bolt and tightening it. The jack socket has a hole drilled through the side to allow you to insert a pin or allen key or similar to keep it from turning whilst you turn the bolt. Tighten it up firmly, but not enough to damage the uke finish. With the Fishman, the jack socket comes with an outer bolt that screws over the jack to provide you with a strap button. Handy!
|Jack socket bolted in place|
And we are almost there. The last adjustment is to now go back to the saddle. The installation of the pickup will naturally raise the saddle higher so your action will need to be adjusted downwards. I actually picked the Fishman as it was thinner than many other pickups meaning less to do here. You have a couple of options. First you could rout the base of the saddle slot down a little so the pickup sets in a recessed chamber but this would be a very delicate process with tools I don't possess. If you go this route you will need to be absolutely sure that the base of that saddle slot remains totally flat as efficient use of of a strip pickup requires even contact with the saddle and body of the uke. It is also essential you don't go too deep as well as you risk damaging the underlying top of the instrument. The alternative (and the option I took) was to sand the base of the saddle down a little to return the uke to the original action. Again, it is totally essential that you sand the base completely flat, but with this pickup strip it took only about 1mm to take the saddle down.
And that is it really. Re-strung the uke and gave it a test and the volume across the strings is nice and even as it should be. A sign of an uneven saddle or slot base would be one or more strings ringing louder than the others, but no such problems with mine.
As for the quality of the pickup tone itself, well, any passive pickup will perform best through an external pre amp box as they can otherwise sound a little thin. On this one, even without a pre amp it sounded clear enough, but really really nice through my Fishman Pre amp that I usually use on stage. It sounds remarkably natural in tone, like a uke in fact. That may sound like an odd statement, but that is my other complaint about cheap on board systems that run off batteries as I find they make the uke sound too 'electric'. No concerns on this score with the Fishman AG.
There are better and worse pickup strips out there, and you can spend considerably more if you want to, but I am delighted with the ease of installation with the Fishman and with the sound it creates. I accept that for many the process of drilling instruments may be something that scares them, but it's really not all that complex if you are careful and give it time.
As for the Fishman pickup - recommended!