Ukulele Effects - a Got A Ukulele guide

3 Mar 2021

Ukulele Effects - a Got A Ukulele guide

Following on from my push to feature more ukulele accessories on the site, and the recent (ish) review of an amplifier, this got me thinking about another very common question I get from electric ukulele players (or the electro curious). What effects pedals do you recommend?

ukulele effects pedal board


This is a tough topic to sum up in a short piece as the choices of effects on the market are HUGE. Therefore this is just a beginners intro guide for ukulele players and not intended to be definitive, but I hope it helps.

First up - what are effects pedals? Essentially they are a bunch of tricks created by electronic circuitry usually housed in a box that sits between your electric ukulele and your amplifier. They are usually operated by the foot (hence why people call them 'stomp boxes') and apply adjustments to your core ukulele output signal before it reaches the amplifier. Sometimes they feature onboard the amplifier itself (though I do personally prefer a good sounding base amp and then apply my choice of effects afterwards with external gear).  Do you need them? No, of course not. But many players, particularly those who have grabbed ukes with pickups are keen to dabble and experiment. And before the traditionalists go apoplectic, Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill and Brittni Paiva have been known to use them... 

Some apply utterly crazy effects to your tone, but equally they can be used for very subtle adjustments without getting too far out. Most pedals allow adjustment of the effect so they are not simply 'on or off' and can create quite a range out of single box.  The types of effects are almost endless, but the main 'key types' can probably be summed up in the following groups.

Distortions, Overdrives and Fuzz - these either increase the gain of the output and overdrive it, or clip and compress the sound. These can include lighter effects such as blues driver pedals to slightly dirty up your tone, through fuzz pedals, overdrives, to screaming sustain drivers that are common in heavy rock. They all essentially do similar things, which is to make the sound rockier and dirtier! How much depends on the pedal and how you have them adjusted.

Delays and echo - these act to repeat the sound coming from the ukulele and double it up (or more than double it) and repeat it back to you as you play. The simplest just repeat short bursts quickly or slowly but repetitively but can also include looper pedals which allow you to play back quite long passages over and over, and then layer up sounds on top. The most over-rated guitarist in the world, The Edge, would be nothing without a delay pedal. Rumour has it he sleeps with one.. (Yes.. I went there... sue me U2..)

Chorus - probably one of the most common effects and one you will often see built into an amplifier itself. The chorus pedal creates a thicker sound by doubling up the signal and adding it back to the mix, usually a little out of tune to create a shimmery effect. Think of it as the difference between one voice singing a lyric and another couple then joining in following exactly the same melody (hence the 'chorus' name).  This effect is often horribly over done creating a very artificial, spacey sound, but applied in limited amounts if can be very pretty. Heck even the really spacey tone can be used to great effect in the right hands, but it's a case of less is more for me.

Tremolo and vibrato - these modulation pedals affect the signal by creating a 'wobble' sound that warbles in and out slowly (to create a moody dark sound - think Twin Peaks theme music) or fast (think surf guitar sound). Tremolo pedals change the volume up and down, and vibrato pedals change the pitch. If you like some twangy wobble, these may be for you.

Reverb - probably the most used and most under-rated effect that can completely lift your sound and give it a much more professional edge. This is another effect that will often be built in to many amplifiers, and with higher end amplifiers, their reverb tanks can be really smooth and natural sounding. Pedals can be a lot more artificial sounding, but are still popular. Like chorus, they can destroy as sound if over-done, but in the right hands can turn a basic clean tone into something very professional sounding. A reverb effect creates an echo to your sound (not like a delay pedal echo) to give the effect you are playing in a bigger room than you are. They come in a variety of types such as spring reverb and plate reverb (mimicking the original analogue reverb systems). Light reverb is very subtle and like the echo from an empty room, but you can dial it right up and sound like you are playing in a cathedral or vast hall.

Compressor / Sustainers - A compressor is a clever effect which evens out the signal, making loud parts quieter and quiet parts louder. It's a much used effect on electric guitar lead solos to give them a bite / edge. A sustainer often comes with a compressor pedal and lengthens (or sustains!) the signal being played. Think David Gilmour's sound in a lot of Pink Floyd or choppy funk riffs.

Others - the list is endless - flangers, wah wah, phasers, octavers, harmony pedals and pitch shifters - these can make your instrument sound like something else entirely!! This article cannot possibly include them all!

Within each of these categories are a multitude of pedal designs and brands, some doing multiple things at once, some pushing the boundaries of even these categories. Some are cheap using basic circuit boards and some are eye wateringly expensive relying on tube circuitry and boutique hand wiring.  You could spend a small fortune covering all bases with individual pedals (and many people do!) or if you want to just dabble you can buy multi effects pedals which offer hundreds (or more) simulations of individual pedals in a single box. The sound quality and versatility of individual pedals will usually be far better than with multi effects boxes, but multi boxes are not without their merits on cost and space grounds. Words on a page can't really describe what they all sound like of course, so I have put together the following short video to give you an idea of how the most common effects sound. In the video I am using a solid body TinGuitar tenor, fluorocarbon strung with a piezo pickup into a Zoom multi effects unit. PLEASE ignore my shonky use of the loop pedal... Ughhh... And, no, this is NOT a review - it's just to give you an idea!




The question that remains though is 'what is best for ukulele?' I don't like any 'best' lists on websites, because it's usually totally subjective. Generally speaking, any of them can work in the right hands, and equally many can sound awful if over-done or clumsily applied. Sadly the latter is more common than the former. The other part of the answer though depends on what sort of electric ukulele we are talking about.

ukulele effects pedal board messy

Firstly, steel strung electric ukuleles that use magnetic coil pickups will handle pretty much any pedal with ease. Most, if not all of these effect types I describe above were designed for electric guitars and these sort of ukes are really mini electric guitars in how they work. So feel free to experiment with all of them. Nylon / fluoro strung ukuleles use different sorts of pickups though, usually a piezo strip or pad. In my experience whilst these work well for making an acoustic uke sound like an acoustic uke (but louder), they can only amplify the core signal - and regular nylon strung ukes are not very big on sustain! For this reason I have found that compressor and sustainer pedals, as well as some distortions that rely on natural sustain can sound very artificial and, at times, woeful and digital. That is not me saying you CANNOT use them, and as I say, in the right hands they can work, but it can be hard trying to apply a sustain effect to an instrument with little sustain to start with. When using effects on this sort of ukulele, I tend to stick to the simpler distortions, delays, chorus, reverb and tremolos only. Your mileage may vary of course and I did used to enjoy using a wah wah pedal with a uke. The thing to remember of course is - if you are making sounds that are enjoyable, however you do it, you are doing the right thing. Experimentation is the fun bit.

I hope that gives you something of a flavour in this area, and maybe encourage you to do a bit of dabbling. Don't let anyone tell you that you SHOULDN'T experiment, but equally if you prefer the natural acoustic tone of the ukulele, then of course that is absolutely good too. If you do want to dip a toe into effects -  beware though - it can get addictive... and very expensive! 

Such is life.. Have fun!



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4 comments :

  1. I've recently completed a small pedal board that I play a Godin Mulituke into a Fishman Loudbox mini. Also have access to my son's Vox and Fender amps when I want to try them out.

    Like you said having fun with the music is what it is all about.





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  2. Hi, I have a TinGuitar solid/honeycombed body soprano (made from a utile seat saved from going into a skip in Wigan !). Useful tip: I’m going to connect it to GarageBand as the app has dozens of simulated amps and pedals to try out before buying the real thing to play live. Do you have any experience to share in a future item on using radio transmitter dongles instead of cables when playing live ? Freedom-wise, they ought to suit ukulele playing, especially when using small tabletop combo amps.

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  3. Really enjoyed your pedal post - however one question = how does your solid body uke work with standard strings - what sort of pickup does it have for non metal strings? Thanks!

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