Electric Steel-String Ukuleles

There’s a fair bit of confusion surrounding electric ukuleles since “electric ukulele” can mean several different things. In the traditional sense, an electric ukulele is simply one that you can plug into an amp. It has a pickup and it will create an electrical audio signal that can be output for external use.

But in our new landscape of ukulele understanding we need to have a more distinct definition. There are two different styles of ukulele pickups and both work with different technologies. In this article I’m going to try and break down the characteristics of each along with providing some info on the more obscure steel-string electric.

Piezo Pickups

The first – and more common – is the piezo pickup. This style converts the vibrations of the ukulele into an electrical signal via compressed crystal molecules. These output a low volume, but fairly accurate representation of what they “hear.”

When you see an ukulele that looks like a traditional ukulele but it has a plug-in, it almost always has a piezo pickup. This style configuration is usually called an “acoustic-electric” ukulele. The instrument is built to create acoustic sounds without being plugged in, but it also has the option of being amplified.

You can learn more about piezo pickups in my dedication article on them.

Magnetic Pickups

A magnetic pickup, on the other hand, is similar to what you would find in an electric guitar. It creates a magnetic field that steel strings vibrate within to create an audio signal. By this token, a magnetic pickup will NOT create sound with nylon strings.

Since traditional ukuleles use nylon-style strings, magnetic pickups are never used in acoustic-electric ukes.

Piezo pickups can hear the vibrations of steel strings and amplify them, but the entire point of a steel string uke is usually to create a more electric guitar sound instead of a traditional ukulele sound.

DO NOT put steel strings on a normal ukulele. Steel strings exert many times the pulling force of nylon strings and an ukulele needs to be designed to handle the extra tension otherwise it will break when you tune it up.

The Steel-String Electric Uke

risa solid body electric ukuleleThis is where steel-string electric ukuleles come into play. A steel-string electric ukulele is understood to have a magnetic pickup and it’s usually made from a solid piece of wood with no body cavity.

Essentially, these hybrid ukulele are built in a similar style as an electric guitar. They are intended to replicate a similar sound and also look and feel like the bigger instrument.

Electric Ukulele Styles

There aren’t as many steel string electric ukulele options as there are normal acoustic-electrics, but it’s becoming more and more popular every year. Even with limited options there are still configurations and specs that can be confusing.

The scale length of a steel string ukulele is usually similar to an acoustic ukulele. It’s just the body style that looks significantly different.

One distinction to make is the difference between humbucking and single coil pickups. Each of these creates a unique sound and you usually only install one type or the other in an instrument.

Single coil pickups are Leo Fender’s original pickup design. They have a bright, chime-y, round sound that you’re used to hearing from electric guitar artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Mark Knopfler, and Jimi Hendrix.

Humbucking pickups were created to cancel the hum that single coil pickups can create in certain electrical situations. They essentially place two single coil pickups next to each other inside the same pickup. These have a more meaty, dark, punchy sound. Electric guitar players who mainly use humbuckers include: Santana, Metallica, AC/DC, and Jimmy Page.

Electric steel string ukulele also usually have a number of knobs and switches on them to control the output of the pickups. There’s almost always a volume knob that controls the master volume exiting the instrument. It’s also fairly common to have a tone knob which adjusts how bright or dark the overall sound is.

If the ukulele has more than one pickup, a switch to select between them is a practical feature. The different pickup locations – even with the same pickup – will have different sounds. Being able to switch between the neck pickup or bridge pickup can yield some very different tones.

One last signature feature of this style ukulele is an adjustable bridge. Due to the unforgiving nature of steel strings, intonation can vary drastically between different sets. Because of this it’s nice to have an adjustable bridge that you can use to make sure that each string is precisely the correct length.

Most adjustable bridges also allow you to control the action -or height – of each string. Learning to set up one of these adjustable bridges can be a bit of a challenge, but once you figure it out it will allow you or your instrument tech to get your ukulele perfectly dialed in and easy to play.

What amp should I use?

The difference in piezo and magnetic pickups is not only in their technology. Their sounds are very different and both have specific needs for amplification to get the best sound.

A piezo-equipped acoustic-electric ukulele is usually intended to recreate the most natural acoustic sound possible. In the real world this isn’t usually very accurate, but it’s still desirable to have a clean, warm sound.

To recreate this, it’s best to use an acoustic-specific amp – like the Fishman Loudbox Mini – or a flat, clean PA or keyboard amp. More about these different amp styles can be found on my page about amps.

A steel-string Uke is a different story. Magnetic pickups tend to sound a bit boring when played straight through a flat amplifier such as a PA. This is why people usually use an electric guitar amp for an instrument with magnetic pickups instead of a PA. It focuses on the prominent midtone characteristics of magnetic pickups and often allows for the creation of distortion in the signal.

Since a steel string ukulele is very similar to an electric guitar, technology wise, it’s practical to use an electric guitar amp. This creates a familiar tone that you would associate with an electric guitar.

The trouble lies in trying to have the best of both worlds. If you have a piezo pickup in one of your ukuleles, you’ll want to have a PA or an acoustic amp to get the best sound. If you have a steel-string uke, you’ll get the best sound with an electric guitar amp.

But the reverse is not true. Ukulele players have been disappointing themselves by trying to play their piezo equipped instrument through electric guitar amps for many decades. It rarely works as desired. Because of the frequency response that suits the electric guitar, an acoustic instrument often sounds very thin and tinny when played through the same amp.

The one possible exception is certain vintage tube amps. Something about these old circuits can sometimes do a decent job recreating a piezo sound. I have yet to hear of a case where a tube amp was better than an acoustic-specific amp, but it doesn’t hurt to experiment if you have the chance.

Steel-string ukuleles work a bit better through acoustic amps. You’ll be able to amplify the characteristic magnetic sound accurately. But since an acoustic amp or PA doesn’t have distortion controls, it can be difficult to get a rock sound from the instrument without pedals.

If you have just one ukulele, the solution is fairly simple. Just get the amp style that fits your pickup and don’t look back.

If you have an acoustic-electric ukulele AND a steel string ukulele and want to amplify both of them, my best advice would be to go with the acoustic amp or PA option. This allows your Piezo pickup to shine and also gives you a place to start coloring your steel string tone.

It’s probably cheaper to get one amp and add a couple pedals to your chain to make your steel string sound like you want it then to buy two amps, one for each ukulele.

So how do I make it sound like an electric guitar?

Assuming you’re working from a clean tone and your amp doesn’t have a distortion knob, you are going to need a pedal to get that rock or metal electric guitar sound out of your steel string ukulele.

A distortion, fuzz, or overdrive pedal is the place to start. This is what creates that signature buzzing, raspy sustain sound that electric guitar players have been creating for decades.

The main factor in a distortion pedal is how much gain it produces. This is almost always included as a knob control on a pedal, but it’s also inherent to the circuit. The more gain, the more raspy and buzzy the sound.

Usually overdrive has the least amount of gain and distortion and fuzz have more. Each of these flavors has their own sort of sound which you can hear in the video below.

Often a distortion-type pedal is enough for an ukulele player to get the sound they want. But sometimes it can help to also have a pedal that recreates the sound of an amp. This emulates the sound that an electric guitar amp circuit creates and also the speaker characteristic.

Many electric guitarists these days are switching to so-called “modeling” setups that create the entire sound of the amp and pedals in a single device and then just feed it into the PA system. The Line 6 Helix and POD series is a great example of this.

There are many other effects you can add to your chain. I explore these a bit more in this article on them.

Since it’s hard to know exactly what pedals you like the sound of, it can be a good idea to start out by getting a multi-effects pedal. This contains many different pedal models and can help you try out a lot of different sounds in one unit and for a low price. I’ve always been a fan of the simple BOSS multi-effects, like the ME-80, since they are much easier to use then more programmable units.

With a multi effect, you don’t have to wonder what you’re missing out on. You can try it all in one place and see what you like.

Electric Steel-String Ukulele Options

There are quite a few custom electric steel string ukuleles that you can buy these days. Many small shop luthiers will build them to order. Some of these include Sparrow and Joyner.

As far as production models go, you’ll be a little bit more limited. A popular budget option is the Vorson. This seems to tick the boxes, but with such a specialized instrument I would be more comfortable spending more on a higher quality machine.

This comes in the form of the RISA models of electric ukes. They’re made in Germany and of fantastic quality. I had the opportunity to play one when I was teaching in Freiburg and I was totally blown away. It was like playing a mini Les Paul. Usually electric ukuleles have the tendency to feel cheap and be hard to tune. This one had none of those problems. It was a truly professional level instrument.

No matter how you choose to approach the puzzle, an electric ukulele will allow you to create new sounds and present our favorite four-string friend in a new and interesting way.

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