Back in 2012, Vox Amplification took the iconic shapes of two 1960s classics, installed speakers and added integrated effects and rhythms to create a new Apache Series of travel guitars. Monty Ross from the state of Washington has now given a four-string beach party regular similar "be heard anywhere" amplified superpowers with a range of electric ukuleles named Ukelation.
"The ukulele has a tradition of being a casual, haul with you everywhere instrument," electrical engineer and part-time luthier Ross told us. "Bring it to the beach, the mountains, a wedding, wherever. You can't do that with an electric instrument. There may not be any place to plug it in. It may be inappropriate to haul in a separate amplifier box and run the wires so people can hear you play. If you are using effects, the controls are located away from your electric, either with knobs on a box or with foot pedals.
"The Ukelation has none of these limitations. The Ukelation is untethered. Show up at a jam session and just start playing. Start playing as you walk in the door. No need to interrupt the others by asking where they might allow you to plug in, or where you may place your amplifier or route your cable. The effects are controlled right from the instrument itself with no footpedals."
Each instrument has an integrated speaker in the "sound hole" and vibrations from the nylon strings tuned to low G are picked up by a piezo under saddle pickup at the bridge. The beauty of this beast is that you can enjoy amplified output without needing to plug a cable into a powered instrument amp. You can also dial in built-in effects like phaser, chorus and flange using the switches and knobs on the front, with LED status lights up top to indicate which effect has been selected.
Thoughtfully, there is a 0.25-in line output if you want to run the Ukelation through a big rig or PA system, and a tone control ring on the outside of the volume knob to massage the brightness of the overall output. "The built-in effects play through both the speaker and the line out jack. If the speaker/power amp is on, the effects play through the speaker and the line output jack. If you shut off the speaker/power amp, the line output still includes the effects if they are on."
The circuitry requires eight AA-sized alkaline batteries to power the system, which are reported to offer 4 hours of continuous heavy play (or a week of 1 - 2 hours light play per day) and has the convenience of such batteries being available almost everywhere. Though Ross has considered smaller and lighter options.
"The amount of power required to power the internal speaker (8 watts) and effects circuitry is quite large," he explained. "AAA batteries for example could run the unit, but only about 1/4 of the up time with only 3 oz lighter weight. I have tried a lithium AA battery at about double the cost and they last the same length of time at about 3 oz lighter weight. There may be other options that will take engineering development, but that might be more than a year out and no guaranteed return at this point. Rechargeables do not last as long as alkaline in this product. A special internal power supply design could change all this but development time will have to wait at least a year or so out if we think it is necessary."
Ross has included an auto shut-down after 3 minutes of inactivity to conserve battery life, and if the battery does begin to fade mid-performance, there's an input for 12 V auxiliary power to the bottom. Since a lot less sound is produced by an electric ukulele than its acoustic sibling, pickers should also prove less of an annoyance when grabbing some practice through headphones.
The Ukelation sports a smaller body than an acoustic four string tenor uke, but has a full tenor scale length neck. The solid body electric ukulele is being made available in a number of different woods and finishes, each tipping the scales at more or less 3 lb (around 1.3 kg).
"The choice of woods available will be affected by availability of exotic woods which is always changing," said Ross. "Standard woods will always be available such as maple, cherry, walnut and poplar. Exotics such as mango, koa, bubinga and mahogany are as we find them and when we do, can afford to stock them. As we move forward we will have a better feel for the market demand. The fingerboards are chosen to complement the wood tones for each particular body. We use ebony, cocobolo, maple, bamboo and others."
In order to increase production beyond the 10 prototypes already in the workshop and get the Ukelations into the hands of more players, Ross has launched a project on crowdfunding portal Kickstarter. Though the retail value of a Ukelation is US$2,500, early bird project backers can pledge for one for $1,999.
Ross told us that a selection of speaker grille designs will be available to Kickstarter backers. One grille chosen by the customer will be supplied with the instrument, with additional or spare grilles available for about $15 each.
If all goes to plan, the first Ukelations are expected to ship in August 2015. Ross advises that Ukelations will be made at a rate of about four per month if the funding campaign fails to reach its funding target, adding that "the Kickstarter funding will help us build them faster and in quantity."
The Kickstarter models will also sport a different serial number group than those made available after the campaign has run its course.
Have a look at the pitch video below to see and hear the Ukelation in action.