How (Not) to Take Your Ukelele Electric
Uke is cool again. But trying to 'mic' one in a live performance situation, not so much.
It's hard to beat a pickup for convenience and ease of use. But if you don't already have one, what can you do? Won't it be terribly expensive to install to buy and install one?
In a word, no. I'll show you how.
These directions are specific to the K & K Big Island Spot pickup, which is designed for easy installation. If you are installing another transducer, some details will naturally differ, but quite a few of the tricks, traps, and techniques given are universal.
How to Install a Big Island Spot Uke Pickup
*Locate central point for jack
*Drill successively larger holes for jack
*Loosen strings and secure away from sound hole
*Measure thickness and set jack for correct height
*Insert jack in hole and secure
*Attach transducer body center on bridge
*Retune strings and test pickup
Why the Big Island Spot?
I selected the Big Island Spot for my project on the basis of an online review comparing 5 aftermarket ukelele pickups. Its advantages:
- Good sound
- Low price
- Does not require a preamp (passive, yet high-output)
- Designed for easy installation
It is currently available from K & K or their dealers, as well as music retailers. List price is $57, but I found mine at just $39. I found it to live up to the review.
The Tool Dilemma
Although the Big Island is designed for easy installation, there is a catch. The instructions tell you that you must use an endpin reamer, and ask you, nicely, to hire a professional luthier for the installation if you do not have one. Is this really necessary?
Well, it depends. It is the optimum tool to use, unquestionably. But an actual endpin reamer will set you back by about $70. My project involved a $30 soprano uke, so that seemed a little excessive. There are similar 1/2-inch taper reamers available in the $10-15 range. But I was reluctant even to buy one of them, particularly since in addition to the small expense, it would have meant an online purchase and an annoying delay.
So I opted for what I had on hand, which is a simple hand-held drill. I found that the result--though much less clean than the reamer would have been--is adequate. (See picture above.)
Locate the Spot for Your Endpin Jack
It's conventional to install the endpin at the 'bottom' of the instrument, and highly recommended as well. Though solid-body guitars often have jacks in other locations, acoustic guitars and ukeleles usually use the location shown. That's because the presence of a sturdy endpin block in most instruments makes an excellent anchor for the jack. And the length of the jack is calculated to match typical blocks, which means if you install it elsewhere, you may have trouble adjusting the hardware to yield the correct jack height.
So find the center point vertically and horizontally on the instrument and mark it as shown above.
Drill the Hole
If you aren't taking the high road and using an actual reamer, you will probably want to do as I did and drill very carefully using successively larger bits as shown. It's much easier to control the bit accurately when it is a smaller diameter, so start small and expand slowly. (I expanded the hole mostly in increments of 1/8th inch.)
- Use sharp, new bits
- Be sure to keep the drill as perpendicular as possible to the work surface
- Use the least pressure you can--let the drill do the work
- As you reach the larger sizes, the drill will tend to 'grab' and twist, so beware! Keep the drill straight and quickly release the drill trigger, so that the chuck does not hit and damage the work surface.
I held the ukelele between my knees, leaving both hands free to control the drill. The picture above show the third pass, at which point the hole was still fairly clean. Succeeding passes would change that; I found it increasingly hard to control the bit as well as I would have wished, and the sides of the hole became increasing 'messy.'
This wouldn't happen using a reamer.
The picture above clearly shows the 'messy' hole. There are protruding wood fibers, and the hole itself is not perfectly circular, but has acquired a slightly triangular shape. (This is a tendency with larger hand-drilled holes.)
I had used the masonry bit because I didn't feel that a spade bit would work well in this situation, and didn't have a large enough conventional bit. (Buying one would have been silly, as it would likely have cost as much as an inexpensive reamer would have.) But I wondered afterwards if it would have been possible to find a hole saw in such a small size. If so, it likely would have done a better job.
But this hole is 'good enough'--it's the right size, and the 'mess' will be covered by the hardware.
Preparing for the Installation
To install the endpin jack, you will need to access the soundhole.
So, loosen the strings enough that they can be pulled to one side, as shown. A helpful tip to secure them out of your way is to use a guitar capo. Simple, positive, and most of us will have one.
Installing the pickup poses a problem. The soundhole is too small for most adults to insert their hand completely into, especially for soprano ukeleles, such as mine. Yet the jack needs to be inserted into its hole from the inside, which is too far to reach. How to accomplish this?
With a tool, of course. We humans may have learned that we are not the only tool-making species on Earth, but we still do it better than any other. In this case, what we need is a stick or rod that we can insert into the endpin hole from the outside to use as a guide. If it is long enough to reach the vicinity of the soundhole, it is simple to place the jack onto the rod and, holding the ukelele with the neck upward, lower the jack carefully into the endpin hole, guided by the rod.
The pickup instructions suggest using a chopstick, and I have no doubt that that would work well. But you could also use a length of galvanized wire, as shown above. It's a versatile choice, because you can repurpose it for a couple of later steps, as we will see.
Or you could use a circular file, which is what I actually used, as shown in the picture below.
Before you actually install that jack, though, you need to set the inside nut and washer to match the thickness of the body and endpin block. This is necessary because you want the threaded part of the jack to protrude just enough from the hole that it is covered exactly by the outside nut. Too much, and the nut won't reach the body of the instrument.
Here is where that wire comes in handy. Make a small "L" bend, as shown in the picture above, and you can use the wire to gauge the thickness directly. To mark it, I simply used the edge of the hole to make a second bend in the wire. The length between bends is then a template for the desired setting. (But don't forget the length outside the hole!)
Once you have the length set, you can install the jack using the wire or other rod.
As shown here, those slacked-off strings are very helpful at this point!
Secure the Endpin Jack
With the jack in place, it's time to secure it. There's a washer next to the body, followed by a nut, followed by a cap.
There's a special tool to tighten this down conveniently, but you can manage well without it. Simply take a length of your wire and thread it through the hole in the jack. Use it to keep the jack from turning as you tighten the nut.
That can be done with an adjustable wrench, as shown, if you use it parallel to the axis of the jack, instead of perpendicular to it. (That lets you reach over the wire holding the jack straight.)
Attach the Transducer Body
With the jack in place, it only remains to attach the transducer body to the underside of the ukelele top. The Big Island Spot makes this simple; as shown above, the transducer comes with tape already on it. You just peel the covering away and stick the transducer in place.
Of course, you only get one chance.
So the instructions very sensibly recommend that you feel out the terrain first, and then do a couple of dry runs so that you will be sure to get it right. I can only concur.
Not all tops are constructed the same way, for one thing. There may or may not be a center brace that prevents you from centering the transducer on the bridge. If so, the instructions recommend that you choose the bass side for your 'spot'.
I found that in my case there was no such brace, so I was able to place the transducer right next to the center of the bridge plate. That's the 'mouth' of the uke, as shown in the picture above.
That done, there's nothing to do but take the capo off, retighten and retune the strings, and try out your handiwork.
Retuned and Testing (1)
That's straight out of the pickup and into a small cube amp, and recorded with a cheap dynamic mic running into the portable video recorder.
There are phasing artifacts resulting from the compression of the video--sorry about that!--but you can still tell that the overall sound is quite reasonable. (Particularly for the kinds of price points characterizing this whole project.)
Of course, if you have an electric uke, you might as well have some fun with it.
Wrong key, but hey, this is just for fun anyway! "You need schoolin'", indeed.
Note: if you turn the gain up like this, you *will* have feedback issues. The whole top of your uke is now essentially one big microphone, after all. But maybe that's not entirely a bug in some cases.
So, to sum up, I took a $30 uke, added a $40 pickup, and using just a few simple tools on hand, took my uke electric. The timeline of the whole process is documented in the time stamps of the photos I took. The first one was taken at 10:02 AM, the last one--showing the preparation for adhering the transducer--at 10:40 PM. So, allowing a few minutes to complete that task, this process took roughly 45 minutes, including all the photography.
Cheap, easy, and lots of fun. What's not to like?
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