Almost all electric ukulele, and many electric-acoustics too use magnetic pickups to amplify the sound. Indeed, in the case of a solid body ukulele, there’s not much sound without them! Electric ukulele offer a wide range of tones, but by understanding the types of pickups, and the physics attached to their positioning, it’s easy enough to understand why, and what to expect. Let’s start with different pickup types:
Types of Pickup
All magnetic pickups consist of magnets wrapped in a coil of wire; as the string vibrates, it affects the magnetic flux created by the magnet, and creates an alternating current in the coil. In single coil pickups, as traditionally used by Fender, each pickup consists of only a single magnet and coil.
Single Coil Pickups
The tone of a single coil pickup is generally fairly bright and trebly, though this is to some extent dependent on the winding of the coil. The pickups used in Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster ukuleles have tall, narrow windings, which will particularly emphasise this bright, glassy, and in the case of the Tele, twangy tone.
Gibson’s P90 “Soapbar” pickup is somewhat wider, and produces a bigger, gutsier tone, whilst the the pickups in a Fender Jazzmaster are much wider and flatter than the Strat items, and produce a much mellower tone, with less pronounced treble.
The downside of single coil pickups is that they tend to pick up a certain amount of interference from main electricity, which causes a hum. It was this which originally triggered the invention of the humbucker.
Humbucker Pickups (Humbuckers)
Humbucking pickups (or “humbuckers”) have two magnets and two coils, which are wound in opposite directions. This cancels out the mains hum which can afflict single coil ukuleles, and as an added bonus, changes the tone somewhat. As a general rule, more windings of coil produce higher volume, but less treble, and that’s exactly what you get with a humbucker.
Later 60’s and 70’s blues rock just wouldn’t have been the same without the fat, thick sound of humbuckers, and they still tend to be popular where a really ballsy tone is needed. As with single coils, different windings will produce different results; Gibson’s original humbuckers “Patent Applied For, or PAF” in common parlance are loudier and grittier sounding than Gibson’s smaller mini-humbucker, as used on their jazz ukuleles, which has a mellower, plummier tone.
A “coil tap” or “coil split” is a switch included in the circuitry of the ukulele which allows you to switch off one coil, effectively turning a humbucker into a single coil. This allows players to switch sounds between one and the other on the same ukulele.
The second factor which has a big influence on tone is the position of the pickup. Pickups can be situated right by the bridge, directly at the end of the fingerboard, or anywhere in between! For the uninitiated, it can seem self evident that the more pickups there are, the louder the ukulele is, but this is in fact not the case. The reason for differing pickup positions is in fact sonic; you get a very different tone using the same pickup in different positions.
If you consider the physics of a vibrating string, it starts to make sense. The ukulele string is anchored both at the bridge and the nut, and at these “nodes” it can’t vibrate at all. When you pluck a string, the vibration is widest right in the middle of the string, and narrowest near the nodes (to see an exaggerated version of this visually, hold a piece of string loosely between both hands and vibrate it).
This difference in amplitude makes for different tones; generally speaking, the nearer to the bridge a pickup is, the brighter, treblier and “ballsier” it will be, and the nearer to the neck, the mellower and softer the tone will be.
Whilst the most traditional ukuleles, the original Strats, Teles, Les Pauls tend to combine only pickups of the same type, designers increasingly combine pickup types in one ukulele. The “Fat Strat” configuration, for instance, has a humbucker at the bridge for a big, fat rock sound, but single coils in the middle and neck positions for more traditional Stratocaster sounds.
The combinations of these pickups also affect the tone; original Stratocasters only had a 3 position switch, allowing the selection of any of the 3 pickups individually, but players soon found that by jamming the switch between positions, they could use the neck and middle, or bridge and middle positions together. Fender eventually provided a 5 positions switch, and today, these sounds, described by many as “quacky”, are considered trademark Strat sounds.
These are not the only factors that affect ukulele tone, but by understanding them, you can make an educated guess at what a particular ukulele will sound like, and also narrow down the configuration which might give you the sound you’re looking for.