In the world of guitars, a pickup, what it is, how it works, and the different types are all fairly common pieces of knowledge. Cross over to the fun loving, strumming Ukulele crowd though, and all of a sudden, we need to answer the question, what is a ukulele pickup?
An Ukulele pickup is a small device that amplifies the sound that the strings make when strummed. By converting the vibrations from the string into an electrical signal pickups are able to increase the volume through a speaker.
There are multiple options for pickups. Before you’re done with this article, we’ll explore your options and the benefits and drawbacks of each. Finally, we’ll give you a few recommendations to help you find the best ukulele pickup for yourself!
Types of Ukulele Pickups
The first way to distinguish between pickups is where they are positionally placed. This is a very important decision because it will affect how easy the pickup is to use, they type of sound it produces, and possible installation difficulties.
Under Saddle Transducer (UST)
Otherwise known as Piezo pickups (from the Greek word for pressure), this type of pickup is a thin strip that is installed your ukulele’s bridge saddle. When a string vibrates it changes on pressure on the bridge, and these changes are turned into electrical signals.
Most of the time you’ll see an under saddle transducer paired with a preamp. Preamps enhance the signal that the pickup produces, resulting in a better sound when it reaches the amplifier, speaker, or PA system.
Preamps also feature volume and tone controls, equalizers, and tuners. These units are powered by batteries, so you’ll want to do some research into the size and type as it varies from preamp to preamp.
The combination of piezo pickup and preamp is very popular among professional players because it is generally both very reliable and easy to use. While the preamp does give you some control over the sound, some don’t like the fact the sound is easily distinguishable and looses some of it’s natural acoustic appeal.
Possibly the biggest drawback to piezo pickups is that if you didn’t buy a Ukulele that had them factory installed than you’ll likely want to seek professional help to install one.
Soundboard Transducer (SBT)
If you don’t like the bright, overly obvious electric sound that most under saddle pickups produce than a soundboard transducer may be your best bet. A properly installed soundboard pickup results in amazingly warm tones.
Placement of these pickups actually varies quite a bit. They appear to be one to five small metal discs and will be either placed inside or outside the sound hole. The sound quality that is produced can be drastic different depending on where they are placed, so we always recommend you get a professional to help you with the best setup.
One downside of soundboard pickups is they tend to be more sensitive to feedback than the under-saddle variants.
Lastly, they tend to be extremely sensitive and can pickup unwanted sounds. Things like a button on your shirt sleeve hitting the Uke’s body can be amplified if you’re not careful!
Drummers and lead singers stand in front of mics to amplify their sound all the time, why can’t a uke player?! This is also the best way to get a true, acoustic ukulele sound amplified.
Vocal microphones are the most common method you’ll see in this style, but clip on lavalier mics have really increase in quality and give you the option to roam the stage.
Differences between Active and Passive Pickups
Now that we know the difference between an SBT and a UST pickup we can talk about the other properties that distinguish pickups.
If you think of the SBT and UST as differences in where and how the sound is picked up and converted to electric signals, then active vs. passive pickups include everything that happens between the pickup and the speaker.
Passive Ukulele Pickups
Passive pickups were the first pickups ever used on electric guitars and because of the way they transmit sound they send what is known as a ‘raw’ signal to the output jack.
Because of the state of the signal, you will always want to use a preamp, or a guitar amplifier with built in preamp, with a passive pickup. This is due to something called impedance mismatch (point #2 in that post), which is way over our heads.
Just know, if you go passive, you’ve also got to get a preamp.
Now, especially when paired with a good preamp and speaker passive pickups do have a lot of benefits as well. They have a huge dynamic range and tend to be warmer than their active counterparts.
Active Ukulele Pickups
Active pickups amplify the signal immediately in or on the ukulele, before it travels down a chord or into a speaker.
These pickups tend to have a lower natural output so they add much less background noise than their passive counterparts.
Many people feel the biggest drawback to active pickups Is that their dynamic range will be lower and are sometimes described as produce a “cold” tone.
They will also add a little bit of weight to your ukulele. These pickups are powered by an external battery, often a 9v or 3v watch battery. Make sure to always keep an extra battery in your carrying case because if you don’t you’ll surely find a time where you need one!
What is the Best Ukulele Pickup?
By this point in the article, you hopefully have a good idea which type of pickup you’d like to buy and install in your ukulele! So the next question we always get is; Which ukulele pickup do you recommend?
The first thing we’ll say is that all of the pickups we’ve chosen are designed specifically for ukuleles. There might be better options that were designed for guitars that would work better, but that would have expanded our search and made it difficult to give educated, well researched recommendations!
To help your selection process we’ve come up with a handful of options, a few in both the passive and active categories. Remember that in most cases we recommend grabbing a pickup online (cheaper that way) and heading to your local music store to help with installation. In many cases you **can** install them yourself, but is it really worth damaging your favorite Uke trying to get it right? Didn’t think so!
Best Passive Ukulele pickup
Our first recommendation is the Kremona KNA UK-1. Possibly the biggest benefit to this unit is that it is removable when not in use! Simply slide it under your strings near the bridge when you need it, and put it in your bag or carrying case when you don’t. We also really enjoyed the sound this
Next up is the K&K Twin Double-sensor pickup, which is a Soundboard pickup unlike the Kremona. When using without a preamp this is still sensitive enough to practice with, but the output can really be increased for stage performances by using one onstage.
K&K is a brand known for both their guitar and their ukulele pickups, and as long as you don’t mind the permanent installation of this pickup it is hard to beat!
Best Active Ukulele pickup
When talking about active pickups for ukuleles you almost have to start with the LR Baggs Five.O pickup system. Baggs developed an award-winning undersaddle pickup element, that was then tuned and customized specifically for ukuleles.
The miniature endpin preamp helps to keep weight down, and the volume control is mounted near the soundhole and is powered by a 3volt battery.
This pickup is really in a class all it’s own when it comes to active ukulele pickups. Even the second recommendation we have, the MiSi Acoustic Trio pickup, was designed to work with the undersaddle element from the LR Baggs unit.
The Sound of Different Pickups
Now that you know the difference between UST and SBT and active and passive pickups, the next thing we recommend is going to a local music shop, or ukulele club, and listening to the difference! What sounds good to your ear and your preferences may be different than ours.