I often get asked what should I do when I perform in regards to amplification. Questions often are - Should I put a Microphone in front of my uke, or should I instal a pickup. Then should I buy an amp or plug straight in to a PA system.
Well the first things to consider is where are you performing, and what is the quality of your uke. Finally how much money you want to spend on your sound. Let's look at these questions and see if we can simplify your decisions for you.
Well if you plug in just to amuse yourself in your lounge room, then the ultimate sound might not be that important. The same to if you just want to plug in at your local uke club meets. Then maybe it is not so important what pickups or microphone you use.
However if you want to perform at a real venue to the public, then maybe you should think about what sound your uke/ukes are producing.
Getting your sound - Pickups
So when looking at sound you have a few things to consider - Pickups/Microphones, Amps/PA. So let's first look at pickups. For me, I would only ever use 3 brands of pickups - one passive (K&K pickup) and two active (LR Baggs 5 O or Misi Trio). Let's face it one of the reasons you most likely bought the uke/ukes you have was because of their acoustic sound.
If you will want a pickup that reproduces that sound for you. This is why I love K&k passive pickups. When I plug into a good acoustic amp with a uke with a K&K in it, I get a louder version of what my uke sounds like acoustically. K&K pickups reproduce the natural acoustic sound of your instrument and in my opinion it is the only pickup in the world that does so.
Next the LR Baggs 5 O or Misi Trio active pickups. These pickups being active offer a high signal and produce a real in ya face presence in tone.
Of course, the pickup is only as good as the amp you plug into. When it comes to ukes or any acoustic instrument for that matter, you should use an acoustic amp. Don't go and pull out your Marshall stack and plug in and expect to have a sweet natural uke tone coming out. Once again there are many acoustic amp brands out there in the world. Depending on the money you have to spend will determine what you buy. Golden Rule however , always buy the best amp you can afford.
If you are on a budget I would consider a Roland acoustic amp something in their AC series. I used to own a AC 60 rosewood cabinet and it was a great little amp. I also have been told of the Boss (Roland) Acoustic "Singer" Pro (120w) and 'Singer "Live" (60w) the person who told me about these amps was raving about how good they were and both are under $1000
But if you got money to burn and want to get serious about your sound you may want to look at a Schertler or AER acoustic amp. These guys are serious amps and will set you back between $2000 - $4000. But wow the sound they produce is amazing. There are a few amps within this price range that really kick butt. I have only mentioned the Schertler and AER because I personally have played through them and highly recommend them. The old adage you get what you pay for is so true when it comes to amps. Do your research on what is out there and ask people that have an amp you are thinking of buying and get some feedback.
If you decide to plug straight into a PA via a DI box your sound will vary. A lot of the sound quality will depend on the quality of the PA that you plug into. Another thing to keep in mind about plugging straight into a PA as opposed to an amp is you are then at the mercy of the sound engineer. If you are unlucky and get someone that doesn't know there PA and job, you could end up with a terrible sound. However I have had some amazing sound plugging into a PA at gigs with an engineer that really has it together. I always suss out the engineer to determine how good he is and also look at his/her PA system. If it is a bit sad, I will pull out my amp instead. I never go to any gig without a backup plan and a good amp in the boot of my car.
let's look at the other option using a mic on your uke. The same as amps, the quality of the mic you use and if it is an instrument mic specific for your purpose will determine once again what you hear. There are many mics specifically designed to mic up acoustic instruments. So if you want to go down that path do your homework and find a good quality one within your price range.
You could spend as little as a $100 or up to thousands of dollars. A good range of mics at a good price are the Rode brand. They punch way above their weight. They have a great range of acoustic instrument mics. The Rode M5 works really well on a uke and are price around the $150 mark depending on where you buy one.
I hope this little article hasn't confused you more. If you have any questions about pickups, amps, or uke related questions at all don't hesitate to contact me via my website.
Trevor Gollagher Music for all your uke needs - Australia’s Leading Custom Uke store - www.trevorgollaghermusic.com
Okay so you have been playing for a while and getting pretty good. Your friends and fellow ukers notice and ask you to perform for them at a party, festival, or some other occasion. To be heard you have some decisions to make. Do I mic up my uke? Or do I instal a pickup?
Well to me there is an obvious choice - instal a pickup. Why? well having a pickup makes you more adaptable for live performance. With a pickup you can plug into an amp, or directly into a PA via a DI box. You will not always have a good quality acoustic mic available if you want to mic your uke as opposed to installing a pickup.
My advice is to not skimp on a low quality pickup. Always buy the best you can afford. Once again Why? Well simply cheap pickups sound cheap. They destroy the natural sound the uke is producing, which is the last thing you want to do.
Okay, when you bought your uke, what convinced you to buy the one you did? Possibly looks, but most likely it was the sound it made. Let’s assume it was the sound. Wouldn’t it make a lot of sense then if you installed a pickup you would want it to reproduce the acoustic sound of your uke? well, a cheap pickup will not do that.
There are so many variables that go towards interfering with your natural tone and sound of your uke. Bad pickups, cheap amps, or if you are using a mic cheap mics and cables. Once again, always buy the best gear you can afford. The old saying you get what you pay for is so true.
Okay with this all out of the way let’s look at some pickups. Basically there are two types - active and passive pickups. Without getting into hours of typing here let’s just say actives don’t require a preamp and will need a power source like a battery inside the uke.
Sometimes these pickups will have a outside power source too. Active pickups often add lots of tone, sound boost, and presence to the uke. They tend to drive the sound making it quite “in ya face”. this is great if you want that sound (it often is not a natural sound). One of the down sides to active pickups you have to replace the battery every now and then and Murphy's law they will always go dead during a performance and the uke will lose its sound.
On the other hand passive pickups don't need internal batteries so they never go flat. Another positive for passives they tend to interfere less with the ukes natural sound. The downside for passives is if you are not using good quality PA or amp you may want to run a external peddle type preamp. However if you are using a good pickup and PA or amp it is not a problem.
I have tested dozens of pickups - passives and actives. I have also talked to many people around the world who know pickups. Through this I have come up with only 4 pickups I would ever use. The rest are inferior to these pickups and will not reproduce the quality of your ukes sound and tone.
So what are my choices for pickups?
Active Pickups - Misi Trio or LR Baggs 5 0 The interesting thing about both of these pickups is they have identical elements. The element in both pickups are made by LR Baggs. The only difference between the two is the LRBaggs has a tone control and a flat watch battery inside the uke. The MISI trio has no volume control or battery inside.
It uses a recharge system of where you plug your uke into a power source for 30 seconds and it recharges for 130 hrs of use. The Baggs battery life is suppose to be around 300hrs. I have a few ukes with Baggs and MISI and I have no issues with either one.
Passive Pickups - well the only two I recommend are made by the same company K&K twin spot or K&K Aloha. K&K pickups interfere with the natural sound of the uke less than any other brand on the planet - you get a true representation of your ukes natural sound just louder.
I love these pickups and not just because of am a K&K dealer. I have many of my ukes with these pickups in them. Both pickups are very similar but if i had to choose I would go with the Aloha because it is designed exclusively for the uke.
Well there you have . I hope this has enlightened you on this topic a bit more. If you want some advice on what your ukepickup requirements are contact me via my uke business website - www.trevorgollaghermusic.com
Okay from the start I would like to say I may get into trouble with this article as there most likely will be people that disagree with what I have to say. What I will say right now is this is my opinion based on personal experience.
I have owned or at least played about every ukulele brand on the planet - cheap inexpensive ones that are one step up from firewood, all the way up to the most expensive high end hand-built ukes in the world, and everything in between. So I feel I am equipped with the knowledge to make some qualified judgements on ukulele brands and the quality of them from build quality, playability, looks, and all important intonation
So, what uke should you buy? well that has a lot to do with what your skill level is and where you want to go with your playing - do you just want to sit around with a couple of friends and strum away and sing, or are you wanting to play music for a living? The golden rule for me is regardless of your intentions you should buy the best uke you can afford.
Generally speaking more expensive ukes play and sound better and most likely are much better built. This is not always the case, but most of the time it is. I have played some quite expensive ukes that have been real lemons. and I have played some cheap ukes that have sounded great. My advice is play lots of ukes, one will jump out to your ears and that is the one you should buy.
It's your uke and if it sounds good to you then that is all that matters. The most important consideration in purchasing a uke is has it got good intonation. Basically what this means is does it play in tune the further you go up the neck, if not it has bad intonation and should be avoided. I have seen even ukes around the $400 - $500 mark that have bad intonation. If your uke doesn't play in tune it is basically firewood.
So this is the part of the article where I will get disagreement from people. There are so many brands of ukulele out there but below I have given a list broken down into 4 price categories that I feel give you a good choice of instruments to focus your search on. All of these are good ukes. Yes there are most likely other brands that are too, so if I have missed your favourite uke brand let me know.
Cheap end of the scale (entry level ukes) $100 - $300
These brands are the ones that are decently made mass produced ukes. All entry level ukes are mass produced mostly in china or some asian country. Another point here is really any uke under $100 most likely will have bad intonation and not play very well so stay clear of these. The below list is not in order of good to bad.
I consider for their price the best ukuleles in that price range category
$350 - $1,000 range
This level is a good all round uke and a noticeable step up from entry level in sound, playability and often looks. This level uke will be a great uke for the novice player that wants a really good quality uke that will sound and play well, and most importantly last for many years. Many ukes within this range will be solid wood ukes as opposed to the laminates of the cheaper level. The advantage of solid wood ukes is they often have better tone, projection, and are louder.
solid wood model kala's and Ohana's
Solid wood Islanders
Next up $1,000 - $2,000
These are professional quality ukuleles and mostly hand-made customs . Built for their tonal quality, note separation, projection and playability. These ukes are made to last a lifetime and produce high quality sound demanded by the professional musician.
National (for resonator ukes)
$2,000 - $10,000
Next up is the ultimate in uke looks, sound, and generally pimped up Rolls Royce of the uke world type of ukulele. not only do these little beauties sound and play amazingly they are often pieces of art. These are ukes you will pass down through the generations
National (for resonator ukes)
Okay my honest opinion on the best brand in each category
$100 - $300 - Islander
$350 - $1000 - Pono
$1,000 - $2,000 - Barron River
$2,000 - $10,000 - Toss up between Ko'olau/Devine/Barron River
If I had to choose one ukulele for tonal quality, price, playability and overall professional ukulele players best choice I would have to go with Barron River. I have owned most of the above brands and have sold most of them and replaced them with Barron River ukes to me they have the best raw woody sound with exceptional note separation and balance between strings.
Projection plus and perfect intonation and looks to kill for. I also believe compared to many of the other top ukes in the world they are up there with half the price tag
I hope this has helped you
Looking for more uke info or to buy a uke or have lessons? www.trevorgollaghermusic.com
What creates the sound of your ukulele?
Contrary to popular belief, it's not the strings that make the sound of your uke. Of course if you didn't have any, it wouldn't make a sound unless you turned it over and hit it like a drum, which actually sounds great. I have done that on a recording of mine.
The main contributing factor in the sound of your uke is the top (the part with the hole in it). This section of your uke is often called the soundboard. Why is it called this I hear you ask? Because it is the board that produces the sound of the ukulele. Many people believe the wood of the whole body makes the sound, but this is not actually true. I have had many discussions with uke builders (luthiers) on this topic and they all confirm to me the back and side wood is for show and the top is for sound.
So as you can see from this it is important to get the right type of wood for your soundboard to get the sound you are after. Of course, other factors do play a part in overall sound - string selection, playing technique, size of the uke - Soprano, Concert, Tenor, and Baritone, and last but not least, the tuning you use. But the soundboard creates the foundation and the majority of the overall sound. The strings, size, and tuning is like a little colouring in the picture.
So let's look at some soundboard/tonewood options and generally categorise them. Please keep in mind every piece of wood is unique in its tonal quality but generally speaking all wood of a certain type will be similar. This is also by no means a complete selection of wood , there are many others. I have just focussed on the more common woods.
I would put woods like - Koa, Cedar, Mahogany, Sapele to a certain extent in the warmer or middy tonal qualities. The mahogany and Sapele is also very punchy and has strong mid tones. Their tone is great for bluesy styles of playing like some down home finger picked folk blues Yip Yah!
Next up the ladder you have woods like Redwood. Redwood is a fantastic soundboard wood featuring the best of both worlds. It has a sound somewhere between a cedar and a spruce - warm, yet crisp and with attack.
Finally what I personally believe to be the king of sound boards. I put two woods in this category - Huon Pine and Spruce. Both woods are loud bright and full of attack. It may be a personal thing for me, but I love the brashness of these woods. A great thing about spruce is if you really dig in and play hard you don't get a distorted tone like some of the other woods, it remains crisp and clear. Both these woods are "In Ya Face " types especially if you play hard.
There are many varieties of Spruce out there in the world. The most common spruces are Red Spruce (also called Adirondack), Sitka, Engelmann (which is a more whiter looking spruce) and European spruces like Carpathian, German etc. They all do vary slightly in tone, but generally speaking they are all spruce and are bright with lots of attack.
So if you are intending to buy a new uke soon think about what music you like to play and consider what soundboard would be a match for you. Generally if you want a warmer richer tone go for a Cedar or Koa. If you want something with a bit more punch or a more woody, middy tone consider Mahogany or Sapele. Or if bright, loud and full of attitude is more your go, grab a spruce or huon pine top uke.
I hope this has helped you Trevor to get a better idea of woods - it is a very interesting topic
Learning the songs you play - why it is better
Okay if you are like most ukulele players you get together with your uke mates or club, open up your song book and play what is written in front of you - all good, it's a lot of fun.
However next time you get together really listen to how you and everyone else plays. What you will notice is everyone is playing like a big flat line - no true expression of the music you are playing. In a sense, it is very robotic. Everyone is focused on the next chord, and not so much on the music they are creating. The music takes a back seat to the series of chords. Everything becomes regimental and dare I say heartless - no emotion. Music is suppose to invoke emotion in the player and audience.
Without learning the arrangement you don't really understand what you are playing - you just learn chord sequences.
At this point I wish to say this article is not an attack on your uke playing, I have written it to shift your perception about the songs and your uke playing, to hopefully expand your understanding, and in so doing, if applied, increase your level of enjoyment.
By learning an arrangement you free yourself from the rigidity of watching a series of chords on some paper. It allows you to focus on what is important in a song - the flow and emotion of it. On another note, what happens if you ever get invited to a jam where no one uses songbooks if you don't know arrangements in your head?
Learning songs also gives you better understanding of music and also allows you to hear what you are playing increasing your ability to pitch and recognise what chords your are actually playing. You naturally develop your musical ears and general musicality.
It is not that hard to learn an arrangement of a song - if I can do it anyone can. For the people that have seen me perform live with my duo Gollagher Ross you will never see me with sheet music in front of me. I always learn all my arrangements so I can focus on playing them with more emotion and dynamics making my songs sound better.
So why not start to learn your arrangements today. Pick a very simple 3 chord song and learn the first verse, then the next and the next till you know the whole song. Normally once you learn the first verse you already know most of the song as this progression will repeat itself over and over again. You will start to understand how music and songs is formed also by learning songs. Once you learn a song start on another one. Before too long you will have a whole lot of songs in your head .
So give it a go and watch your music ability grow along side your enjoyment and sense of satisfaction.
Strings - how often should you change them?
There are many things to consider about the frequency of restringing. A lot depends on how often you play and of course if you want your uke to always sound its best. Many social players are not too fussed about their sound, they will keep the same old strings until they break which may never happen.
But if you are a more serious player, especially if you perform on stage, then your sound is important, and therefore regular string changes may be required. So how often should you change your strings to keep your uke sounding great?
Well once again there are many factors at play here. Your strings will loose their brightness from play, weather you wipe your strings down after every time you play, the amount you sweat on them, and even how hard you play. For the average social player I will consider re-stringing at least once a year if not every 6 - 8 months.
For a person that plays a few hours every day I would change about every 3 months. For maniac players like myself who play hard and everyday and like my ukes to always sound their best I change my strings once a month. I know some players that change their strings almost weekly.
What strings should you use on your uke?
Well, we could talk about this for a hundred years and still not find the answer. String types generally give you a certain sound for example, worth med clears tend to sound bright and alive while worth browns sound a little warmer. String gauges, how the uke is built, what wood is the soundboard (top of uke) all play a determining factor in the sound. One of the main determining factors is your right hand technique as this influences the sound in a big way. Good technique can make a very cheap horrible uke sound fantastic.
So what I am saying here is their are no right string as every string set will sound different on every uke. What sounds good on one will not necessarily sound good on another. - it is such a personal taste thing.
What I do whenever I buy a new uke is try about 5 or 6 different string types on it and I usually find one string type will just sing and that is the set I will use on that particular uke. throughout my uke collection I use about 7 different string types, so I am not using the one brand or type string on all my ukes.
Now that I have said this simply putting a set of Aquila new Nylgut or Aquila's new Super Nylgut string on a cheaper uke will often make it sound great. These strings tend to bring alive laminate or cheaper made ukes like those made in china. A very general rule for string selection is below
Warm dark or mellow sounds - Worth browns, Daddario retified nylon black, La Bella Uke Pro strings,
A more jazzy sound - La Bella Uke Pro's, Daddario titanium, Aquila super nylgut
Bright crystal clear sparkly sound - Worth med clears, Worth light meds, Southcoast strings most models, Martin M600's
In ya face loud and brash - Aquila new Nylgut, Worth hard tension strings.
Of course another thing to consider is your tuning. Do you want to tune your uke in the popular re-entrant tuning (high G C E A) or do you want to have a Low G re-entrant as this gives dare I say a more guitar like sound having all the strings in the same octave. If you like play jazz tunes low G will sound better than high G. Another option for tuning is different keys. Reentrant is a C6 tuning. Traditionally ukes were tuned in a D tuning and sopranos sound really great with D tuning it really brings them alive and gives them that traditional sound. Have a bit of a search on google about different tunings and explore a little.
Anyway have fun Trevor