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Electric versus acoustic

There are several schools of thought about electric ukuleles. Some purists believe that a ukulele is an acoustic instrument by tradition and should therefore only be amplified through a microphone to pick up all the complexities and subtleties of the sound projected from the front. Others believe that an acoustic instrument can be served by an under-saddle pickup that, while not necessarily providing full fidelity for the rich harmonics, can reasonably ad adequately reproduce the tones of an acoustic instrument for performance and recording. That school gets further subdivided into preferences for active or passive pickups. And others think anything goes and any style, shape, design or electrification is just fine.

Like guitars, there are two basic body designs for electric ukes: solid body and hollow body. These produce very different sounds and use very different methods to convey that sound to the listener.

Any hollow body (including the semi-hollow style like the Kala arch-top and Riptide) instrument uses the top to send the sound forward to the listener (see my page on ukulele acoustics for details). An under-saddle pickup will capture a fair portion of that sound, albeit not all. An external stick-on pickup on the top will similarly capture a good portion of it.

Hollow-body ukes may have active pickups with a pre-amp to boost the signal, and usually pair that with some adjustable controls. These can be basic tone-volume wheels, or a much more fully-featured set like Applause or, to a lesser degree, Riptide offer.

A solid body, on the other hand, produces very little sound without amplification. There is no top board to project the sound. Instead, much of the energy of the plucked string goes into the saddle or the pickups. A lot of it remains in the string, however, which is why most electric guitars have good sustain. You can't really hear an unamplified, solid-body uke unless you're fairly close to it. So that's good for practicing late at night.

There are two basic solid-body types: nylon and steel string. See my page on pickups for info about the differences in hardware and physics.

Basically, when plugged in, a solid-body nylon-string uke sounds a lot like a nylon-stringed guitar, amplified. Because it has no cavity to affect the sound and create the overtones from bouncing around inside, it tends to sound a bit flat, without the complex harmonics an acoustic offers. Semi-hollow or chambered bodies can improve this.

With this sort of uke, a good amplifier with some post-processing choices like equalization or low-mid-high range tone controls, and a bit of reverb can help balance the sound and give it some depth. It does not sound like a hollow-body ukulele, nor can any amount of post-processing make it sound like one.

Some nylon-string solid body ukes have battery-powered pre-amps built in (see the Eleuke review). These can help balance the sound before it gets to the amp. The Eleuke even offers a headphone jack so you can hear yourself play.

I personally find that with the bar-type piezo pickups that are most common, there is often a tendency for one or two strings to be 'boomy' - dominate the sound. Separate pickups for each string might help alleviate that, but would require more sophisticated controls to adjust the balance individually.

While you can bend nylon strings, you can't get the same sort of wailing and cross-over effects from them like you can with steel strings. The sound comes from the vibrations passed through the saddle to the piezo pickup below, not from the vibrations of small magnets that you get on a steel-stringed instrument.

When you bend a steel string, you active the magnets both below and adjacent to the string in the direction of the bend. That creates a different sound - two or three magnets vibrating simultaneously, often out of synch - than just playing the string without bending and is part of the sound of any electric guitar. You can't get that sort of effect with nylon.

A steel stringed uke sounds just like a steel-stringed solid-body electric guitar. Unless you've strung it high-G, you can't really tell it's a ukulele, except by sight.

Solid body ukes generally have a tone and volume control. Steel stringed versions may have more than one pickup (nylon-stringed instruments only ever have one pickup under the saddle because of how they work). If there is more than one pickup, there may be additional controls to switch pickups or adjust each on individually.

Eleuke has announced a steel-stringed, solid-body uke due for release in late 2010. Flea Market Music has also announced a solid-body, nylon stringed uke for release later in 2010. Risa has added les-Paul style models to their electric lineup.

The bottom line is that electric ukes are now a popular part of the ukiverse and seem to be growing in popularity, but you have to decide whether you want your instrument to sound like a ukulele or are happy to have it sound like a guitar (and use all those effects that many amps and foot pedals offer).

For the former, choose an acoustic, hollow-body uke with a pickup. For the latter, a solid body is the best choice. Just keep in mind you ca play the acoustic anywhere, but the sold body needs amplification. My advice is to own one - or more - of each.

Note that the Kala U-bass, although hollow-body, is really an electric instrument and requires an amp to be heard more than a few inches away.

Note that solid-body ukes of all types are much heavier than their acoustic cousins. Less than a solid-body guitar, but still heavier, and usually require a strap to play standing.

What defines a ukulele? The size? Shape? Sound? Certainly solid body ukes don't fit the standard in sound, and arguably in shape as well. It might be considered heresy to suggest it, but can an electric, solid body uke really be classified as a uke, since it sounds and looks like a guitar? Perhaps they are really just short-scale tenor guitars...

I think it's the state of mind of the person playing it.

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