Removable Ukulele Pickups - REVIEW

24 Feb 2021

Removable Ukulele Pickups - REVIEW

Here's a ukulele topic I have been to revisit for some time as I get asked about them so much. Are removable ukulele pickups any good?

external ukulele pickups

What am I talking about here? Well, for a lot of people, professionals included (who don't prefer to use a microphone), their choice of pickup for a ukulele in stage use (plugged in) will likely be a system that is installed inside the ukulele. That is to say it will likely either be a piezo strip under the saddle, a piezo spot (or spots) stuck to the underside of the soundboard, or possibly a small internal microphone. All of these are professionally installed and terminate to an output jack usually drilled into the base of the ukulele. Regular readers will also know that I don't rate most of the 'pre-installed' systems out there as they are done to a budget. You will get far better sound quality and reliability from an aftermarket passive pickup with less wiring to go wrong.  Readers do get in touch though asking for alternatives due to their fears of the full installation option.

I would say at the outset that a full installation is really not so hard to do, but if you don't want to start drilling, all good ukulele specialist shops can offer this service to you anyway. The result is something you then don't need to worry about, is always there and just works... neatly. It gives you a uke with a jack socket in the base and that's all you see or use. Plug in and go. Yet some don't want to make that leap, so what are the alternatives?

I've actually looked at two other examples of a removable pickup before, the first being the Kremona UK-1 ukulele pickup system. You will see that whilst I quite liked the tone, the noise the cable created in use rendered it useless to me. It was also extremely fragile and, in fact, snapped from the pressure of a case lid, so that was the end of that. I'd avoid them myself. They were also only usable if you have a tie bar bridge, so slot or pin bridge owners needed to look elsewhere. Still, they have their fans who are quite vocal about them, but I will be honest in saying that I really have no idea why! The other that I really did like, (though did not think it would stand up to 'gig use') is the iRig Acoustic Stage which is a microphonic pickup that hooks on the soundhole and has a really nice natural tone.

So what else is out there?  Well there are a couple of other contenders which come either in the form of a transducer you stick on the outside of the instrument with putty or tape, and there are those that you clip on to the instrument sound hole or, in some cases (uggghhhh) the headstock...  They come under a variety of brand names, but each do the same thing. And yes, I KNOW the boxes in the image above say 'guitar pickups' but they are marketed for all stringed instruments as the tech works the same... Here's a couple of examples and you can hear both of these in the video linked at the end!

KNA Pickups KNA-AP-1 - Cost - About £30

This KNA pickup (same company who make the saddle pickup I referred to above) goes with the 'stick it on the ukulele top' option. The concept is really the same as an internal spot pickup only the cable is not internal. In fact you COULD replicate this with a higher end spot pickup if you don't mind the external wiring.  It's a small plectrum shaped block of wood with a transducer pickup inside which amplifies vibrations from the top. They advise experimenting with position to adjust the sound, but around the lower bout behind or close to the bridge would seem best as this is the most resonant part of the top. You may find more treble on one side and bass on another, but that is entirely your choice.

KNA AP-1 Ukulele pickup

Inside the box, aside from the pickup itself, is a cable to attach to your amplifier and some items to attach the pickup to the top of your instrument. First you get a couple of double sided sticky pads for a more permanent installation and second a pot of blue putty for a temporary attachment which KNA say will 'not harm your finish'. My first gripes come in here already. I suppose it depends entirely on the value of your ukulele but I would certainly not be using a permanent sticky pad on the top of any of my keepers. I would go further and be cautious about the putty too, particularly on a satin or oil finished uke. I just don't trust it. Each to their own though and in the test video below I attached it to a cheap ukulele that will be given away to the local school so I am not too worried about it.

Next gripe - the cable. The input socket on the pickup is small so it uses a proprietary cable (though I guess could be replicated). My gripe though is with the cable length. It's only 8 feet long which, whilst likely fine for home recording, is really not long enough for playing on stage. You would need an extension cable for that.

Anyway, let's have a test of it. Fitting it is pretty straightforward and I kind of like how it looks too, with a wood finish under a glossy coat that suits fitment on a wooden instrument. It's hardly ugly. I fitted it to a laminate concert ukulele and it went on ok and looks the part. Plugged into the amplifier it doesn't need a lot of gain to be heard so it's efficient too. It's also quite natural sounding in use and I didn't notice too much colour on the (admittedly small) amp on a clean setting and neutral EQ. These are positives and to my ear it sounds similar to the KNA that slips under the strings. Sadly it suffers from the same problem as that one in that the cable (a good three feet of it in fact) acts as an extension to the pickup due to poor shielding and being quite thin. This means that if you so much as touch the cable with your arm you amplify the sound of the scratch you made against the plastic sheath. That alone rules it out for me as it did with the UK-1. Sure you might find a way of keeping the cable out of the way but you really need to know that you WILL need to do that to use it without any extra noise. Hmmm..


Cherub WCP-60G Clip on pickup - Cost - About £6 (!!!)

Don't worry so much about the name or model number on this one as it is clearly a re-badge of a pickup that comes in a multitude of names branded on to exactly the same thing. It's a piezo transducer set inside a plastic spring loaded clip to attaches 'somewhere' on your instrument..

cherub clip on ukulele pickup

Where exactly depends on your uke, but they are really designed for the edge of the sound hole of a larger instrument and I am not aware of clip styles that come smaller for ukes. The problem with a ukulele is those holes can be quite small making it hard to get this fairly chunky contact pickup in there. As you can see on this concert ukulele it would be impossible to use without touching the 1st string.

cherub ukulele pickup in sound hole

Cherub advise that your alternative is the headstock of the instrument or, with something like a banjo - on a tension ring or the pole piece in the back. The headstock option seems odd to me because any uke player will know that the headstock really is not where the sound  comes from! Still, this is picking up vibrations not sound in a microphonic sense so we shall see how it goes.

cherub ukulele pickup on headstock

So clipped on and ready to go. My first gripe is much the same as with the KNA pickup above, and that is that the cable is very short. Sure it would suffice for home use but absolutely no way on stage without an extension. The cable is also really thin and is never going to last as long as the KNA. It's also hard soldered into the pickup unit so when it breaks the whole thing is dead.

I clipped it on the headstock of the same laminate concert used in the video for the Kremona. With the same gain and volume on the amp.... nothing. Nothing at all. Perhaps the pickup was defective? Nope - a scratch of the plastic shows it is picking up, but the problem here is that the headstock doesn't really vibrate a great deal. In fact it's an utterly stupid place for a pickup to go. I turned up the gain on the amp. Still nothing. In fact I had to get the gain to about 85% of this amp before I could hear anything out of the speaker. Go too far above that and it's a fuzzy mess as the signal is massively overdriven. Roll it back and you lose volume. I wouldn't call what I found a 'sweet spot' as such, because it really doesn't sound sweet at all. It sounds thin, like the sound of an old telephone speaker and very fuzzy. And that is no surprise considering where it is clipped.  Add to that, there is also excessive cable noise with the gain up meaning you have the same issue as the Kremona.  Nope. This does not get ANY recommendation from me. 

All in all, are these a good alternative? Got A Ukulele says not really. The sound quality of clip in particular is pretty appalling, and both suffer from excessive body noise and even noise from moving the cable. That's fatal for me as no pickup should adjust the way you play your instrument to compromise. The Kremona has a nice enough natural tone, but you really DO need to be prepared to work to keep the cable away from your playing. It's all just too much hassle I think.  For me, the best option remains a professionally installed pickup of the flavour you prefer assuming you have ruled out the use of a microphone.  All the good ukulele specialist stores will fit them for you for a reasonable cost (or you could try yourself - it's really not hard) Either under the saddle or on a spot under the top - but either way, terminating to a dedicated jack socket on the uke rather than having trailing wires. If you absolutely MUST have a 'non-install' pickup, I would suggest looking at the iRig Acoustic Stage linked above myself. 

These though? At a pinch with the Kremona if you really must, but avoid the headstock clips like the Coronavirus...

Have a watch and listen!!

VIDEO REVIEW





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5 comments :

  1. I’ve got an I-Rig and the sound is good and the feedback eliminator on the pre-amp is useful and effective. But, the wire that goes from the mic to the preamp is way too long and worryingly thin. And the microphone naturally wants to sit at the bottom of the sound hole and gets in the way. I ended up with blue tack just to keep it in an unobtrusive place

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  2. I'm a happy iRig Acoustic Stage user and really appreciate the lovely, accurate sound reproduction. It's made for a guitar, so it fits somewhat loosely on a couple of my thinner-topped ukes. I ended up adding a couple of layers of painter's tape to the inside of the clip to take up some of the slack and it fits very securely now. Like you, I'm a little uncomfortable with the thin, fragile cable, but I'm not a stage performer and sitting quietly in my man cave doesn't pose too many risks.

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  3. Hi Baz, thanks for this. What are the advantages of amplifying an acoustic uke, rather than using a Risa stick? Pondering whether to get a Risa Stick or to get a Mi-si for my Ohana ...

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    Replies
    1. Simply that when you have unplugged the acoustic - you still have an instrument with good volume on it's own. Kind of a best of both worlds.

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    2. I agree about the Cherub pickup. I have tried the guitar version (they make others) and I found it useless. As you point out it picks up nothing from the headstock and when used on the body it is not much better but picks up clicks and buzzes when you move the instrument.

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