After that show a few weeks back, I got it in my head that I really needed to find a better way to electrify my low G uke. The obvious answer was to get electronics installed in it, but given I’m in the midst of home repairs, I knew it was going to be a good while before I could afford to pay a pro to do it for me. I also knew that the cost of paying to have electronics installed was likely to be twice or more of what I paid for that uke. The latter I don’t conisder a huge issue. Money can’t by love, as they say, and even though my Kmise only cost me about 40 bucks, it plays well, feels good and I love it. I don’t necessarily mind throwing a bit too much cash at it in that case. But, it is a bit silly, at the same time, I admit, to pay more on upgrades for an instrument than you paid for the instrument.
From there, I was off to youtube, wondering how hard it was to just buy a pickup and install it myself. I watched a few videos, and it honestly looked pretty easy. I didn’t want to futz around with soldering, but there are plenty of pre-soldered pickups available, at a wide range of prices, and multiple different types.
I decided I’d try it, but, not on my favorite Low G uke. No, first I’d try it out on an uke I wasn’t using much, so if I messed it up and had to replace the uke, I could. That made my Kala the obvious choice for a test run. The KA-15S is reasonably priced and popular, so if I destroyed it in the process, I wouldn’t have a problem finding a replacement. Besides, mine has a teeny chip in the laminate, and I was planning to upgrade from it eventually anyway, so of all my ukes, it’s the one I could most afford to lose.
Next, I had to decide on what sort of pickup to put in the thing. On the Kala, I have choices, but with the uke I really want to add a pickup to, I’m a bit more limited due to a non-standard soundhole. Uke pickups come basically in two orientations. One is disks that stick inside the body of the instrument, the other pickup slides in under the saddle. While either would work for the Kala, the lack of a standard soundhole in my low G uke means I’m not going to be able to get my fingers in the uke enough to stick things inside the body. Under saddle is going to be only realistic option in that case, and so under saddle is what I decided on for my test drive. Also because of the unusual soundhole, I wanted a pickup with a box shape and battery where the plug is rather than just a plug. It just seemed like it would be a lot less fiddly work if the hole for both parts of the pickup was big enough to get my fingers in – after all, I’m working on the assumption that working through the soundhole isn’t going to be a viable option.
So, with decisions made, what did I need?
- A drill – already have one, so this doesn’t cost me anything.
- A pickup – I grabbed a cheap one off ebay for $9.30.
- Some sort of small saw tool, files, sandpaper. I decided on a cheap rotary tool with saw blade attachment. I should buy a better one eventually, but for my purposes I went pretty cheap, and that cost me about $25.
So, I had everything I needed to do the job at the cost of about $35. And, you could argue since the rotary tool will be handy for any number of household projects and is a one-time expense (until I upgrade to a better one), it maybe shouldn’t even be counted as part of my expenses for this project. Since I bought it with this project in mind, I’m including it in the cost anyway. But, I should include the cost of CR2032 batteries for the pickup, and I’m not doing that because I have several things in the house that use them, so I already had a few on hand.
First thing was to test the pickup and make sure it works, so I stuck batteries in it, and just slid the pickup into the saddle without actually attaching the pickup to the uke otherwise. Stick in batteries, plug it in, and, yep, sure enough, I can hear it coming through my amp. Good. It would have sucked to install a pickup and find out it was a dud, so testing the pickup first was important. Once I cut holes in the uke, they’re there for good, after all.
Next, grab some thick paper or cardboard and a ruler to measure out the size the hole is going to need to be, and test out a template. No problem. Everything looks good. My pickups fit through the templates I cut.
Cover up the outside of the uke in masking tape. No problem. I have about 40 lbs work of masking tape in this house because I keep misplacing it and buying more.
Now, to place the pickup, you’ve got to run it alongside the edge of the uke until you find the spot where it neatly fits. The instrument determines where the pickup goes, not your whims. You may have more than one choice regarding where it fits – one on the top of the body and one on the bottom, but you can’t just stick it anywhere. Mark the masking tape with a pencil, and then use your template to draw the spot you need to cut. Awesome. so far so good.
But, now it’s the point of no return. This is the point where I have to cut a hole in my ukulele. I was so worried about screwing up. I cut inside of the line on my template. This made the holes a bit too small for the pickup, but I figured that was fine. I stuck the sander bit on the rotary tool and sanded them a bit wider. This means the hole is not perfectly square, so if that’s a problem for you, maybe use sandpaper or a file and do it by hand. It’ll take longer, but your edges will come out cleaner than mine. Since you’re sticking a pickup in, as long as you’ve got a reasonably close fit and enough wood around the edge to fit screws into, it’s fine. It’s a relief that I found the work isn’t QUITE as exacting as I was worried it might be. I should have taken photos at this point, but I didn’t. Whatever, there are a million tutorials for this sort of thing on the internet.
From there it’s time to drill a hole through the saddle big enough for the undersaddle pickup’s plug to get through. Two things of note: the wood used for an uke bridge is thick and hard. It takes longer to get through it than I expected it to. I also learned that the actual spot I had to drill to get the wire through wasn’t actually under the saddle, but a bit to the side of where the saddle sits. There was just no way, in this case at least, to make a hole large enough to get the wire through under the saddle without damaging the bridge. The space was just too small to make a hole large enough to get the plug through, so I had to make the hole in the bridge slightly to the side. It’s visible, but since it’s black on dark wood, it’s not super obvious, so I think it’s fine. You can see if if you’re looking at the instrument closely, but you’d never notice it from any distance.
Next, the saddle needs to be sanded down to height. What I did is mark the saddle with a pencil where the pickup came up to. In this case, the pickup takes up almost the entire saddle slot, so I had to sand half of the saddle away to avoid altering the action. As a matter of expedience, I used the rotary tool to do it again, since it’s must faster, which I DO NOT recommend unless you are pretty darn good with a rotary tool. It’s far better to sand on a flat surface to make sure your saddle is sanded evenly, but it was the middle of the night and I was being lazy. I was careful, and it worked out fine, but it’s definitely a method that was more about speed than precision, and you probably want to be a bit more precise about this stage of the process.
From there, it’s just plugging everything in, sticking it in the proper holes, re-stringing the uke, and screwing it all together. I managed to lose two of my screws in unpacking, so I’m going to have to go to the hardware store to buy some tiny ass screws, but I’m satisfied overall.
So, overall, I’m calling this a success. I will buy a better pickup for the next uke, though. The pickup on this works perfectly fine, but the tuner is a little flat. It’ll tune to itself alright, but it’s definitely a bit off, so I don’t think I’d buy this specific pickup again, just because it seems silly to have a built in pickup and continue using the snark. Still, even at under $10, I was able to get a pickup & eq that work well enough that I would not hesitate to trust it for a show, and that’s what my goal was. Now I can rest assured that I won’t ruin my precious low G uke by attempting to install a pickup myself. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you’re careful about your measurements and have a steady hand.