When I first started playing ukulele, a true electric ukulele was hard to find. Sure, there were plenty of acoustic-electric instruments out there for me to choose from, but when it came to finding a true electric with steel strings and a solid body, the choices were few and far between.
But in the last year or so, there have been a number of great electric ukuleles released by ukulele makers like Flight and Kala! If you’re curious about the difference between electric ukuleles and acoustic-electric ukuleles, read on for some great FAQs (frequently asked questions) and some recommendations on electric ukuleles to get you started!
What Is an Acoustic Electric Ukulele?
An acoustic-electric ukulele is basically an acoustic ukulele with some kind of electronic pickup installed that allows you to plug it directly into an amplifier. An acoustic-electric ukulele has volume and tone and sustain that you can hear just fine without an amplifier, but you always have the option to plug it in and use any effects pedals that you might have as well.
These acoustic-electric ukuleles usually have regular ukulele strings – either nylon or fluorocarbon, with the occasional wound metal low G string. (I even have one in my collection that has both wound low G and C strings!)
Of course, there are still many purely acoustic ukuleles out there that do not have any kind of electronics installed. For those ukuleles, you usually need to mic them the same way you would a vocalist when performing.
What is an Electric Ukulele?
An electric ukulele is a ukulele that requires an amplifier to be heard, the same way an electric guitar would function. Most electric ukuleles these days also have steel strings, the same way an electric guitar does. And just like electric guitars, you can find steel string electric ukuleles that have solid bodies (meaning the instrument is made from one piece of wood), or electric ukuleles that have hollow bodies and are constructed with distinct top, back, and sides in the same way an acoustic or acoustic electric ukulele is made.
The big difference between the steel string electric ukuleles and the acoustic electric ukuleles is the way the ukulele is constructed. An instrument with steel strings is built differently with more bracing to accommodate the tension required of the steel strings. Nylon and fluorocarbon strings, on the other hand, don’t require the same strength and bracing in the instrument build.
Another unique type of ukulele is the “silent” electric ukulele. These ukuleles are made with a solid body and have nylon strings. But unlike regular acoustic or acoustic electric ukuleles, they are very quiet when not plugged into an amplifier of some kind. This makes them ideal for practicing late at night when you don’t want to wake anyone up, or when you have neighbors who might not be as appreciative of music as you are.
How to Play it?
Playing the electric ukulele isn’t quite the same as playing an acoustic ukulele, or even an acoustic electric ukulele. There are a few things to be aware of when you’re in the market for adding an electric ukulele to your collection.
The first thing to know if you’re going to be playing a steel string electric ukulele is that there’s a good chance those steel strings are going to rip apart your fingernails if you try to strum them without a pick. Learning how to play using a pick – either a felt pick or a regular plastic guitar pick – will go a long way towards protecting your nails and fingers.
Once you are comfortable holding a pick for strumming your electric ukulele, you can choose what kind of pick to use. There are thick felt picks that can also be used on an acoustic electric or acoustic ukulele, or the plastic picks that you can use on the steel strings of your electric ukulele. One of my music teachers once told me that his favorite pick for playing three-string guitar was actually a folded matchbook cover! So play around with the different kinds of picks and find one or two that you’re comfortable using and that sound good with your ukulele.
You can also fingerpick the ukulele the same way that you would an acoustic or electric acoustic ukulele. If you’re playing fingerstyle and strumming chords, you can do this without a pick, as long as you’re not experiencing any pain or damage to your fingernails.
Using An Amplifier with Your Ukulele
Now the fun starts! To plug in your electric ukulele into an amplifier, you’ll need to make sure your amplifier is plugged in or connected to a power source (some amplifiers can even run on batteries and don’t need to be plugged in to a wall outlet). Then you’ll need a cable that connects your electric ukulele to your amplifier.
Looking at your electric 4-string instrument, you’ll most likely notice at least two knobs on the front of the instrument. These control how much volume and tone are sent to the amplifier, so it’s important to make sure that these knobs are both turned down to zero or their lowest setting before you turn on the amplifier.
Once your volume and tone knobs are adjusted and your amplifier is plugged in and switched on, you can start strumming and gradually increase the volume and tone on both your instrument and your amplifier.
If you hear any unpleasant or unwanted feedback, adjust the volume and EQ on both the ukulele and the amplifier until it resolves. It might take a little bit of experimentation before you find the right balance. But it’s worth it for all those times when you get up on stage with your electric instrument and rock out!
Read more: 6-Strings Ukuleles
Care and Feeding of Your Ukulele
Proper maintenance of your electric ukulele doesn’t have to take a long time or be particularly difficult, but it’s always a good idea to wipe down your ukulele with a soft cloth after a practice session or performance, especially if you were outside. Keeping your instrument dirt and dust-free in between practice sessions and performances can help your ukulele sound as good as it looks!
Just like other ukuleles, store your electric ukulele in a way that will minimize exposure to drastic temperature and humidity changes. Investing in a good hard shell ukulele case can do a lot to protect your instrument to keep it looking and sounding its best for years to come.
When you aren’t playing your electric ukulele, make sure you unplug it from the amplifier and properly store the cord where it won’t be a tripping hazard if you have small kids or pets around. If possible, store your instrument and gear away from high-traffic areas in your home as well.
Now, if you’re ready to take the leap and add an electric ukulele to your collection of instruments, make sure you check out all the great options in the Terry Carter Music Store! You’ll find plenty of options that fit your budget, and as always, you’ll also find someone who can answer all your questions and help you find your dream electric! Rock on!