By Greg Olwell
Even if you’ll never fill auditoriums with adoring fans, the way Jake Shimabukuro does, you might find yourself in a playing situation one day that requires you to plug in to be heard.
Turning it up may be a one-time thing or something more regular, and there are several routes available to ukulele players who need to amplify.
The best choice of pickup for you will depend on your needs. Piezo, transducer, or soundhole pickup, no matter what it’s called, it’s still a pickup, and it’s meant to turn your picking and strumming into an electrical signal that you can amplify.
Piezos & Preamps
The most common type of pickup is the undersaddle transducer, a strip that sits underneath your uke’s bridge saddle. It works by creating an electrical signal when a string’s vibration changes the pressure on the bridge. Because of this pressure-powered system, this kind of pickup is often called a piezo (pee-EH-zo or PIE-zo) pickup, which comes from the Greek word for pressure.
This style of pickup is popular because it’s reliable and easy to use, even for players with no experience using pickups. Undersaddle pickups have a distinctive, bright sound that some players love, while others prefer an amplified sound that is more acoustic-like. They’re also the least prone to feeding back, the screaming scourge of every person who plugs in an acoustic instrument.
Piezos are usually factory-installed on a new ukulele, but you can retrofit your all-acoustic uke to something a little more stage-friendly if regular performance time is in your future. Installing one correctly takes precision and can be invasive, so leave it to a professional if you want to go this route. Piezo pickups are passive by nature, which means that they do not require batteries to create a signal, but the signal they produce is weak, so they are usually combined with a battery-powered preamp.
This device takes the pickup’s weak signal and makes it more powerful so that the amplifier or PA system can produce a better sound. Most ukes that come with a pickup also come with an onboard preamp—these include the Fishman Kula and the L.R. Baggs Five.O. Some uke manufacturers use their own house brand of preamp.
Most of these preamps feature volume and tone controls, though some have additional options like a chromatic tuner or an equalizer to adjust the bass, middle, and treble frequencies. Preamps are powered by replaceable batteries, often a nine-volt or a coin-sized battery; some, like the high-end Mi-Si Acoustic Trio, are built-in and rechargeable.
A soundboard transducer is another type of piezo pickup and a good choice for players seeking an amplified sound that’s a little closer to the acoustic sound of their instrument.
The soundboard transducer is a small disc, or series of discs, that attaches to your instrument and creates a signal from the vibrations of your uke’s top or bridge. Some, like the K&K Aloha Twin, should be professionally installed inside the ukulele and have an endpin preamp.
Others, like the Dean Markley Artist, attach to the outside of your uke’s top using a small dab of putty, which makes them a convenient choice for players who either aren’t ready or interested in a permanent pickup.
Since you can put them wherever you want on the ukulele, the transducer’s location becomes important if you’re looking for the best sound.
Finding the right spot on your uke can lead you to a rewarding, warm tone that can sound very much like a microphone.
Since soundboard pickups are so sensitive, they do a great job of amplifying other sounds you might not even realize you’re making with your uke, like your arm brushing the top or your shirt rustling on the back.
Soundboard pickups can also be a little more susceptible to feedback, so its placement on the top—and your placement on the stage—will be important if you want to avoid feedback.
Using a Mic
If the natural sound of your ukulele is important, you cannot beat a microphone for its ability to transmit all of the subtleties and an airy, warm, acoustic-like tone.
Standing in front of a vocal mic is a tried-and-true method and one that I’ve used dozens of times—from tiny open mic sessions to medium-sized rock clubs—but it limits your movement and starts to drain your fun after a song or two. The ability to move around the stage is where clip-on mics excel, and decent mics are available, from the high-end DPA d:vote clip-ons to an affordable lavalier mic.
Since feedback or other sounds bleeding into the mic can be an issue, they tend to work best in lower-volume situations.
Regardless of your needs, or budget, there are several reliable and good-sounding solutions out there for today’s amplified ukulele player.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.
Ukulele Basics – Learning and Practicing is a great resource for players just starting out, as well as those looking to build a more solid foundation of knowledge and skills. Get your copy today at store.ukulelemag.com.