By Nicolas Grizzle
If you’re looking to explore the sonic possibilities of the ukulele, there are a few different ways to go about it. You can always get another ukulele to add to the collection, and no ukulele player would fault you for taking that route. But if you have a pickup installed in your uke, you can also use effect pedals to spice up the sound, shape the tone, or experiment with psychedelic sounds and warp the sound beyond recognition.
One player who knows a thing or two about shaping the ukulele’s sound is Jake Shimabukuro. A virtuoso player and prolific recording artist, Jake is passionate about what he plays but also how it sounds. As such, he often plugs his instrument into pedals and amps to shape that sound to deliver the most an even more impactful musical experience.
For his 2016 album Nashville Sessions he decided to dig into the sonic possibilities of the instrument by using subtle but effective effect pedals. The album features a bassist and drummer backing him, and his ukulele sound bounces between intimate and delicate warmth, huge and ripping distortion, trippy delay and reverb, and everything in between. While his playing is stellar and at times virtuosic, those sonic effects are also a key part of the album’s character. “I got back to hand-selecting pieces that shape the tone of the ukulele, naturally,” he says in the video above. Each song has a wildly different feel, thanks in part to those effect pedals.
While you can plug a ukulele into almost any effect pedal, it’s important to remember that these pedals were not designed with the ukulele in mind. Unlike electric guitars, the ukulele has nylon strings and piezo pickups. So it stands to reason that effect pedals will sound different when used with a uke—though not always in a negative way.
“When you read reviews on pedals,” Jake says, “a lot of times they’re from a guitar player’s perspective.” He continues, “Sometimes the things that they rave about don’t work so well for an ukulele… and sometimes I find that the ones that don’t get the best reviews actually work great for the instrument.”
As for what works best, well, that’s up to the player’s ear and musical taste. Here’s a few pieces that sound good to Jake’s ear.
Let’s start with the foundation of the sound: tone. For tone enhancement, he runs uses a Tech 21 Richie Kotzen RK5 Flyrig. This gives the warmth of a tube amp, but weighs less than two pounds and takes up less space than a rolling pin. He also uses a Honda Soundworks Spice pedal that “just kind of warms it up.” This pedal is no longer made, however, and if you’re trying to get Jake’s tone bear in mind that this pedal is hard to find on the used market.
One of the most commonly heard effects is reverb, which is often combined with delay. Jake uses a “nice, subtle” Nocturner reverb pedal made by Keeley and a Delay Llama pedal from Jam Pedals. Paired together with the ukulele, these pedals make a warm and cozy sonic bed ready for an ukulele lullaby.
He uses a looper pedal, but “only for one or two songs in an entire set.” His favorite is the Boomerang Rang III looper pedal, but they’re a bit too large to always have on the road. So he found a compact solution in the Ditto by TC Electronics. He concedes, however, that even when it’s not turned on it does affect the overall sound in a way he doesn’t like. This is not an uncommon problem with pedals, but there is a solution in the true bypass.
A true bypass removes the pedal from a signal chain when it’s not in use, so the tone is not colored in any way by taking an extended route through a pedal’s circuitry. Shimabukuro uses a Gig Rig Quartermaster QMX 8 true bypass pedal to separate the signal and give him a more pure tone when his pedals aren’t in use.
One of the coolest pedals he uses has to be the Electro-Harmonix Micro POG. No, this isn’t related to the fad from the ‘90s—POG stands for polyphonic octave generator, and it fattens up the sound with a multitude of lower and higher octaves added to each note you play. This is one of those pedals you just have to hear for yourself! He also runs this pedal through the true bypass, because to his ear it adds a “harshness to the tone” if it’s left in the signal path.
To get a little grit, he uses a Fulltone Secret Freq or a Jam Pedals Tube Dreamer for overdrive, giving a rock and roll electric guitar sound for killer solos. Rounding out the pedalboard, there’s a tuner pedal as well as a volume pedal made by Hilton Electronics to manipulate expression and dynamics into a cool effect.
“Of course there are other things I wish I could get on there, but you’ve got to draw the line at some point,” he says with a laugh.