BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
All photos by Sandor Nagyszalanczy, except where noted
As an iconic guitar riff launches the Southern Rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s vocalist, Ronnie Van Zant, tells us to “turn it up.” He was certainly on to something: It’s a scientific fact that human ears enjoy music more when it’s played louder (within reason, I’m not talking about ear-splitting rock concert volumes). But then what of the lowly ukulele, one of the quietest stringed instruments on the planet? These days, making your uke loud enough to be heard in a noisy club or cavernous performance venue is no problem: If your instrument has a built-in pickup, just plug it in; if not, simply step up to a microphone and strum away.
But ukulele performers didn’t always have it so easy. During the uke’s first heyday in the 1920s, microphones were more commonly used for recording and radio broadcasting than for live performances, and electronic pickups were still in the experimental phase. In order to understand how ukulele amplification evolved in the decades to follow, we need to trace the history of the uke’s 6-stringed cousin, the guitar.
In the 1910s and 20s, the rhythm sections of ragtime and Dixieland bands typically featured tenor banjos, as they naturally produced enough volume to be heard amidst the bands’ much louder horn sections and drums. As popular band music evolved in the 1930s, banjo players traded their instruments for guitars, which had a mellower, less jangly sound more appropriate for the songs of the time. In lieu of traditional Spanish-style guitars, most players chose archtop guitars, which possess a crisp tone loud enough to be heard when played in the rhythm sections of small ensembles.
But as bands got larger in the big band era, guitarists struggled to be heard. Resophonic instruments developed by the Dopyera Brothers in the late 1920s provided one solution. Resonator guitars employed one or more speaker-like aluminum cones to mechanically amplify the sound of their strings. Although they are notably louder than archtops, resonators possessed a metallic sound quality that limited their appeal. The Hawaiian Territories were a different story: Native musicians quickly embraced the resonator guitar and developed a style of slide playing which gave popular Hawaiian music one of its signature sounds. Resonator ukuleles, both with metal and wood bodies, soon followed. Although resonator ukes were louder than regular ukuleles, they never achieved wide use in either Hawaiian or mainland bands.
Owing to the Hawaiian slide guitar’s great popularity, in 1932 the Ro-Pat-In Corporation (later to become Rickenbacker) created and produced the world’s first commercial electric lap steel guitar: the “Electro” (nicknamed the “Frying Pan” due to it’s small round body). The Electro’s horseshoe- shaped electro-magnetic pickup employed coils that created a magnetic field. As its steel strings were played, their vibration caused changes in the magnetic field, thus producing an electrical current that could be amplified by plugging a cable into a small tube amplifier.
After introducing its own electric lap steel in 1936, the Gibson Instrument Company began production of the model ES-150 (“Electro Spanish”) guitar: The first archtop guitar with a built-in magnetic pickup. These guitars were loud enough to be heard even in large bands. In the hands of talented guitarists such as Charlie Christian, an amplified electric guitar became a bona-fide solo instrument.
In 1949, Gibson started installing smaller versions of its magnetic pickups on their model TU tenor ukes. Thus, the ETU-1 became the world’s first electrically amplified acoustic ukulele (they also produced and ETU-3, which had the same pickup and features of the ETU-1, but sported a triple-bound body). Unlike Gibson’s standard tenors, ETU ukes were strung with metal strings, which made them sound more like electric guitars than acoustic ukes. Clearly, they were never very popular: Gibson produced only about 88 ETUs between 1949 and 1953, making the few remaining ETUs quite valuable to collectors. They did build one custom electric uke for TV and radio personality Arthur Godfrey. What made it special were its strings: Godfrey didn’t like the sound or feel of steel strings, so Gibson created special polymer strings infused with iron powder, so that they would work with the uke’s magnetic pickup.
In the early 1950s, DeArmond, an early pioneer of detachable guitar pickups, developed a contact pickup specifically for the ukulele. Their Model 750 pickup attached to the top of a uke by means of a large rubber band, thus allowing it to be installed on any regular acoustic ukulele. A microphone-like transducer inside the pickup amplified the vibration of the top as the uke was played. Thus amplified, a uke could sound loud, even if it was played softly. A small booklet that came with the pickup proclaimed: “All the feeling and sensitivity which you bring to the instrument will pour out, faithfully duplicated at the selected amplitude for your audience.”
The electric guitar craze of the 1960s prompted the creation of some very interesting and unusual electric ukuleles that featured magnetic pickups. Mastro Industries, manufacturer of innumerable plastic ukes in the ’50s, produced a baritone-sized ukulele made from “rosewood-swirl” styrene plastic, which came with its own gold-vinyl-covered, battery-powered amplifier. The Japanese-made Tombo “Ukulet” was perhaps the world’s first solid-bodied electric uke, with a shape similar to a Fender Stratocaster. This tenor-sized instrument’s rectangular case featured a cool surprise: Opening a hinged panel on the back of the case revealed a built-in amplifier, which could be powered, by either batteries or AC current.
Another significant development in stringed-instrument amplification came in the early 1970s, once again driven by guitar tech. The Ovation Guitar Company built one of the first production guitars featuring an undersaddle piezo pickup for country music star Glen Campbell. A piezo (pronounced “pie-zo”) element directly transforms the vibration of the instrument’s strings into an amplifiable electrical current. [Editor’s note: The word piezo comes from Greek and means “pressure.” Strumming or picking causes changes in pressure on the piezo element, creating a current.] The beauty of these pickups is that they work with any kind of strings and, because they’re mounted beneath the saddle, don’t change the appearance of the instrument.
By the time the current uke craze swept the U.S. in the early 2000s, ukulele builders were ready to employ all the pickup and amplification technology developed over previous decades. Contemporary ukulele manufacturers and luthiers typically offer built-in pickups for their instruments, at least as an option. Piezo pickups, both undersaddle and under-top-mounted, are most popular, both on traditional acoustic and solid-bodied instruments. Ukes with magnetic pickups and steel strings are another option, especially for those who prefer a more strident sound. Whichever kind of uke and pickup system you choose, just plug in to your favorite amplifier and you’re ready to rock… or reggae, or slack key, or…