I’ve been a huge fan and promoter of the LR Baggs Five-0 ukulele pickup for a lot of years. I still think it’s probably the best UST uke pickup option for most people.
But it has some drawbacks. Number one is the low voltage circuit. The cause of this – and also an annoyance in itself – is the 3v 2032 watch battery it runs off of.
The more voltage you run an audio circuit on, the more headroom you have to work with before your signal starts to run out of dynamic room and get “crunchy” (distort). This has bothered me for years with the Five-0. There’s always a light crunch in the sound when you play hard. This makes sense because it’s designed to run on a super lightweight, super low-headroom, 3v circuit.
So, naturally, in the interest of a better live sound, I started wondering if the 9v classical guitar version of this same pickup would have this problem if I installed it in my uke. A year or so ago I wondered enough that I bought one to try. Same UST Element as the Five-0, but with a different preamp circuit.
Here’s the uke one: https://www.lrbaggs.com/acoustic-instrument-pickups/five-o-ukulele-pickup
Here’s the guitar one: https://www.lrbaggs.com/pickups/element-acoustic-guitar-pickup (I got the basic one with just the volume knob – looks like they’ve updated it slightly since I bought mine)
Replacement Install of a Pickup
I installed the Element in my Moore Bettah tenor. Since it’s the same UST and endpin jacks are usually a universal size, I didn’t have to do any modifications to the uke – just get the Five-0 out and get the Element in.
Pretty painless. Though, if I hadn’t seen this done in person a couple times, I’m not sure I would have known the tricks to make it easier. All of this assumes that you’re replacing a pickup, not installing one for the first time. The principles are the same, but you’ve got to drill some major holes on a fresh install:
Tightly coil the excess wire and bind it with small zip ties. I was able to match the existing lengths on the Five-0 with the Element while both were out of the uke. Any wire that touches the inside of the uke needs to be secured, otherwise it will buzz. So by coiling them tightly just off the endpin jack, you can suspend the majority of the wire in midair.
Match the internal endpin nut on the new pickup to the same depth as on the old one. Your ukulele hasn’t changed! So use the old pickup to set the correct depth. Otherwise you’ll be fishing the endpin in and out as you adjust for the right placement.
Poke a chopstick in through the endpin hole in the uke to fish the endpin into place. You probably don’t want to set it into place until you get the UST up into the saddle slot. Just let it sit inside the uke on the chopstick.
Stick a used string down through the UST hole in the saddle slot, fish it out of the soundhole, and temporarily glue/tape (I miraculously used electrical tape) the string to the UST and use it to pull the Element up through the saddle slot.
Does the Element Sound Better?
There are two remarkable things about the change in sound. The crunch is gone. It sounds like there is more dynamic range and that my playing is able to breathe more without getting squashed.
The EQ is also slightly different. The Five-0 has a pretty aggressive high-pass filter on it which is good for suppressing low-end feedback, but loses some oomph. For instance, you can’t get a deep kick drum sound by tapping on the saddle. It’s more of a knock sound, which is kind of lame if you’re trying to create a drum loop.
This is gone with the Element. There might still be some high-pass, but compared to the Five-0 it sounds like it’s running wide-open.
This is mostly for the good. It brings some power back into the lows and makes the frequency response seems more flat and natural. (The Five-0 is honky in the mids in the best of ways.) The drawback is that it does need some EQing. With my Line 6 HX Stomp for processing, this is no skin off my nose, but I could see it being too boomy for players who wanted to plug and play. That said, I didn’t notice any tendency towards feedback with my usual Five-0 EQ settings.
To get it sounding more streamlined I just moved the high-pass on the Stomp up to 120hz (it wasn’t doing much before). I also dropped a low shelf at ~200hz by 3-4.5 db. This cleaned everything up nicely while retaining the oomph. You don’t really hear the low-end on a uke, but you can “feel” it.
I retained my normal -3db parametric cut at 300hz and a +2db~ high shelf boost at 2khz.
Last thing I like about the Element is it’s going to allow me to run rechargeable 9v batteries. I’ve had terrible luck storing the 2032s that the Five-0 requires. I end up using them for only a couple of hours of good sound before throwing them away when they start to fart out.
Batteries are a terrible waste so I was stoked to find that there are pro-grade rechargeable 9vs. I imagine, in addition to being rechargeable, the 9v will last significantly longer. They have a bit more mAh capacity than the watch batteries, but beyond that, even when almost dead a 9v puts out more voltage than a fully charged 2032.
Time will tell how this plays out in the real world, but I’m looking forward to the possibility of not having stacks of coin batteries to throw away.
Should you Rip Out Your Five-0 and Get an Element?
The Five-0 is a great uke pickup for most people. It sounds fantastic and is super light. There’s not a lot to complain about and certainly nothing wrong with using one or getting one installed in your ukulele.
But if you’re a discerning performer type who’s into splitting hairs and getting the last 5% of sound potential from your uke, the Element provides a more true sound with a more appropriate amount of headroom for uke. Its main drawback is the added weight of the 9v battery. You’ll also probably want some comprehensive EQ to go with it.
Time will tell how the Element pans out in live situations, but initial results are good and so far I’m happy I tried it out.