BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
There’s nothing better than playing a ukulele. Well, maybe playing two ukuleles could top it. Or three. Imagine being your own one-person band, comprised entirely of ukuleles! You don’t have to imagine, because this is actually possible. It only takes one small tool: a looper.
Whether you want to record covers of your favorite songs and play all the parts on the same instrument, add some backing band feel to your live gigs, or experiment and create something totally out of the box, there are many reasons a looper might be a good fit for you. There are also many reasons why you might want to keep things simple and play and hear one uke at a time.
Loopers are used by many ukulele players, from top pros to amateur enthusiasts. Some rely heavily on them for live performances and recorded videos; some use them more behind-the-scenes as a tool for songwriting and arranging. They can even be combined with other effects to create the components of a full band.
However, this awesome power requires considerable knowledge and finesse. Loopers have a lot of features stuffed into a small package, so they take time to learn and master. In fact, it’s fair to say that it can take more time to get started with a looper than it does to get started strumming on the ukulele in the first place.
Then, once you’re up and looping, you need to decide what and when to loop. It’s easy to run the risk of becoming a “one-trick pony” with the looper, where every song you play has the same structure because you have to build the parts one by one. And if you don’t have your timing down, the loops you create might make the performance sound “off”—you can’t fix a loop once you’ve recorded it; the best you can do is stop the loop and record a new one. So using a looper is not without its challenges.
Here are three artists who use loopers—and one who never does—to give you an idea of what they do and don’t do.
Victoria Vox released her first album of ukulele music in 2006 and wrote her first song that used a looper in 2012. For years, “Out the Back Door” was the only song she performed with a looper, and it wasn’t easy. “I would sweat bullets during the entire set until I played that song,” she says by video call from her Southern California home. “I would have to breathe really deep, and get into the rhythm in my head before playing.” Now the looper is a major tool in her shows, as evidenced by a Ukulele Sessions video she recorded for this magazine featuring two songs from her 2022 Nirvana in REM album.
The arrangements in that video are vastly different from the album. That’s because the recording has layers and instruments and sounds that can’t be easily re-created live, which is part of the reason Vox uses a looper live these days. “A lot of what I do with a looper is out of necessity,” she says. “What do I want to hear, and how do I achieve that?”
The looper helps her translate the songs on her albums to solo performance. “It allows for some different musical textures than just having regular ukulele all the time,” she says. “Part of it is I only play ukulele [during the performance], so if I’m playing a two-hour show, it helps break up the songs.” Still, it’s not as easy as she makes it seem. “It’s something that is rehearsed and thought out in terms of arrangement,” she says. “For every song, it’s kind of like writing out a road map.”
Eems hails from Kansas City, where he combines ukulele beatboxing and fast-paced rap lyricism to write and perform his own songs using a looper and other effects pedals. Many of his songs use repetition as a tool to drive home the message, sometimes ending with a crescendo of previously looped parts coming back to intensify emotion.
He took his moniker from Charles and Ray Eames, who are known mostly for their furniture design but also worked in film, architecture, and many other creative arenas. After learning about them in high school, something struck a chord. “I thought, I do a lot of different things in music… I’m like the Charles Eames of music.”
Eems started out rapping in high school, “but it never really felt like that was me,” he says. “I just started doing it because it was the thing to do.” He found a ukulele on sale at a big-box music store and “thought it would be something cool to walk around the house and do.” So he buckled down for the next six months and taught himself how to play.
The looper entered the picture when his inner producer could no longer be contained. “I wanted to do this live and wanted to make the beat onstage, in the moment,” he says. He started out with a looping app on his iPad and was encouraged by positive feedback at local open mics. Now, his self-contained, battery-powered setup of pedals, microphone, and ukulele allows him to play everywhere from sidewalks to festival stages.
Ukulele Simon is a UK-based multi-instrumentalist specializing in looper-based covers of popular songs. He uses the ukulele and some vocal beatboxing to create the components of a song live in a matter of moments.
Simon got into looping as a teenager, when Ed Sheeran was just starting to get big in the UK using a looper with his guitar. After Simon finished his music studies in college, “I came back to ukulele because it was making me money,” he says. But when finding reliable bandmates proved difficult, he replaced the flaky whims of humanity with the reliability of a machine. It turned out that his experience using a looper with guitar largely translated to the uke and allowed him to arrange and perform entire songs on his own.
His set at the UK’s Winchester Ukulele Festival in June 2022 had hundreds of uke lovers of all ages jumping and dancing like they were at a ’90s rave. “Nothing wrong with a bit of George Formby, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes people just need to have a good old dance,” he says. “The thing I want to do is show off what the looper can do and challenge the preconceptions of what the ukulele is capable of, even if I do manipulate it with loops and so much technology.”
Using a looper, he says, “allows me to make a full, thick, textural piece of music that you can’t always achieve with just the instrument. Unless you’re James Hill and you have a million limbs.”
James Hill nods affirmatively when asked if people sometimes assume he uses a loop pedal. “Yeah, that happens all the time,” he says via video chat from his home in Canada. “But that’s kind of the magic of it; that’s sort of what I was going for.”
To ukulele enthusiasts, Hill needs no introduction. His skill and innovation on the instrument are the stuff of legend amongst players and listeners alike. It’s even more impressive when seeing him play, when the realization kicks in that he never uses a looper to achieve these otherworldly uke feats.
In particular, his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a big hit on YouTube, has percussion, bass line, and chords—all played on ukulele, with Hill singing the melody at the same time. Upon first listen, it’s hard to believe he’s not using a loop pedal, due in part to how precise the parts are and how long he keeps playing them all in perfect time. The popularity of that performance led to him create a video for his Ukulele X course breaking down the parts and explaining how they’re put together.
“I’m trying to think of why I didn’t just use a looper,” he says. “I think I just liked the challenge and partly the flexibility of not having one, because when you turn on the looper it’s like putting on a harness or a seatbelt. Like, now you’re stuck in that rhythm, that tempo, that phrasing.” That’s not to say he holds any ill will toward those who use them. “It really doesn’t matter to me if a person is using a looper or not. I think it completely depends on how it’s done. It’s not what you’re doing, it’s how you’re doing it.”
How to Loop
First, you’ll need a uke with a pickup. Then, you’ll need to run a cable from the pickup jack to the looper, and then use another cable to send the signal to the amp, PA system (in live performance), or recording device.
Loopers all do their thing in different ways. Most of them involve different sequences of tapping buttons on a footpedal. For many basic models, tapping once starts the loop recording, and tapping again stops and plays back the loop. For more advanced units, operation can involve a combination of holding down various buttons for varying lengths of time, quickly double-tapping, or using multiple taps to cycle through stored loops.
Most pedals allow you to record multiple loops and stack them on top of each other. This allows you to build a song by recording a component, looping it, and then moving on to the next component, and so on. If you are arranging a cover song, for instance, you can start by laying down the percussion, then bass, and rhythm ukulele parts to the looper. “There are a million four-chord wonders out there that are awesome for this,” says Simon. He suggests starting out by making a drum beat by thumping on the body of the uke as the “bass drum” with a muted strum as the “snare.” A simple bass (1), snare (2), bass (3), snare (4) rhythm will work much of the time.
Once you’ve got that track looping, you can play a bass line and loop it on top of it (a low-G ukulele works best for this). With this foundation in place, you’re free to strum along with your “backing band” looping behind you. You might also record a rhythm part as yet another loop so you can play a melody or take a solo. This can be great for soloing over a 12-bar blues, both for practice and performance.
Avoid the Pitfalls
For all the cool tricks and creative opportunities looping can unlock, there are also some downsides. “It is so easy for looping musicians to fall essentially into the same rhythm,” Hill says. “Here’s the bass, here’s the snare, here’s my chord. It’s very hard to break out of that performance rhythm.” Hill has always preferred the spontaneity of unlooped performance and has honed his playing style to work apparent feats of magic in real time, like using chopsticks and a comb to play something that sounds like a hard electronica drum ’n’ bass track, or cover a tune in a way that sounds like a full-band arrangement.
Looping can also get expensive. Eems and Simon both spent a lot of time and money trying out loopers before settling on the ones they use today. Pro-level loopers can range from $300 to more than $600 for models that include additional effects.
No matter how confident or tech-savvy you may be, don’t just plug in without learning how your looper works. “The first absolute must-do thing with a looping pedal is to read the manual,” says Vox. Functionality can vary greatly between models. She suggests treating the looper as if it is an instrument itself, which means not gigging with it until you’ve had time to practice with it—a lot.
Hill says it’s also important to keep in mind how the audience experiences your performance. “I don’t really want to sit around and watch you build the thing,” says Hill. “So many performances I saw from friends and good musicians and people who I really love, the first three and a half minutes of the performance was them just getting their ingredients together—all the things that I figured should have been invisible, like when you’re watching a cooking show.
“I saw Victoria Vox play at the NAMM show with her looper and she just crushed it. I told her after the show, ‘I know you’re using a looper, and I didn’t even notice.’ It was just about the music and it was so transparent. But it takes a long, long time to get there. I think you really need to devote yourself and really want to master it as an instrument.”
While looping may be a fairly recent technological innovation, the desire to do it with ukulele may stem from a longstanding musical idea. “I think fundamentally, what the looper taps into is a fascination with counterpoint. It’s the idea of multiple voices, conversing with one another,” says Hill. “This is kind of an outgrowth of something that we’ve been fascinated with, at least in Western music, for hundreds of years. And now we have this box that—‘Wow, I don’t have to play all the parts simultaneously like a piano player would or a guitar player would, or an organist, or whoever, and yet I can explore that fascination.’ And that’s what loopers are doing.”
Pro-grade loopers can cost several hundred dollars, but inexpensive models can be purchased for under $100. One popular model traditionally has been the now-discontinued (but still available used) Boss RC-30 Loop Station. Vox uses an RC-30 to loop her singing and harmonize vocally, while Eems primarily uses this for beatboxing to create percussion parts. These days, the Boss line is topped by the RC-500 ($417) which features two loop tracks, mic, and stereo instrument inputs, rhythms, and special loop FX, and the RC-600 ($685), which boasts six stereo tracks, 32-bit sound, and nine assignable footswitches among other features.
One of the least complicated and affordable models is the one-button TC Electronic Ditto ($89), which uses different foot commands to record, undo/redo, stop, and erase loops. There is also a two-button version ($300) with more functionality that allows for “unlimited” overdubs and contains programming to keep loops from drifting out of sync. On the other end of the spectrum, some loopers— like the Line 6 DL4 MkII ($300), and the Boss RC-505 MkII ($650)—also have multieffects processors, which can be used for looping and effects such as octave shifting, reverb, delay, and chorus.
How do you loop a bass line on ukulele and get it to sound like, well, an actual bass line? And what about making that “bass drum” thump really move some air through the subwoofers in a club? That is often achieved with a pedal called an octave shifter. These can bring the lowest notes of the ukulele down one or two octaves to make it sound like a whole new instrument.
Many companies make standalone octave shifters, but they’re also often included in multi-effect pedals. For example, the Boss ME-25 multieffects processor (now re-branded as the GT-1, $240) contains an octave shifter effect, while the Electro-Harmonix Pitchfork ($200) functions as a standalone unit. —NG