How to strum a ukulele

Along with the finger and thumb question, we often get asked other questions about how to strum on the ukulele, where to strum on the ukulele, what to strum with (do I use a pick or not?) and lots of other, more detailed questions. Thank you for asking, this blog is just for you. I hope we cover the top 5 questions associated with strumming your ukulele below:

1. Can I play with my thumb?

In practice, you can play with any digit you like. I prefer to play with my finger, as the nail hits on the on beat, with the flesh coming back up on the off beat. If you play with your thumb the reverse is true. That’s good if you’re looking to get a reggae or ska feel, or play gently for jazzy or gentle songs, but starting out it might be worth learning to play with your finger.

2. Should I cut my nails?

In a word, ideally, yes*. On your chord making hand. If you have long nails on the chord making hand, it will keep your finger away from the strings. You need your fingertip to be able to press the strings down to make the chords, or they will sound ‘dead’ or ‘muted’. Chords need three or more notes sounding, so three strings ringing clearly to make a chord. If some of your strings are dead because you’re not pressing down hard enough with your fretting or chord-making hand, your chord may sound unusual and not as you want it to. Later on, when you’ve been playing for a while, if you want to pick notes out (this is sometimes known as playing fingerstyle) then it may help to have long nails or acrylic nails on the finger picking hand. (As I do at times, shown in the photo below)

Ukulele Nails

Ukulele nails – short on the fretting or chord making hand, and long (if possible) on your strumming or picking hand.

*unless you are Dolly Parton, or you are channelling Dolly, by coming in at the ‘Dolly Angle’ as seen below:

Dolly Parton's Nails Playing Guitar

Dolly Parton’s Nails Playing Guitar

3. Can I play with a plectrum?

If you want to be really loud, and play lead lines and single notes, then yes, do play with a plectrum. I prefer not to, I prefer finger picking both for strumming and for lead melody playing but some lead players use a plectrum in order to get a louder sound when they are playing lead lines.

4. Can I use a felt pick?

Yes, but I think it’s better to learn to use your finger to strum, as there are many percussive strums and ukulele tricks you can employ later on which use a finger, some fingers, or finger and thumb combos.

5. Where (on the ukulele) do I strum?

It sounds nicest if you strum over the fretboard. The strings are closer to the fretboard than they are to the body, so you’re less likely to catch your finger when you’re strumming there, than if you were strumming lower down towards the soundhole. Also, you are less likely to damage the body of the ukulele as you won’t bash it if your finger lands in mid air, whereas you’ll end up with a hole if your nails bash the body. A musical and a practical reason to shift your finger along!

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Want to see a video to help you along? Here you go!

Strumming Pattern #1

Before learning any other strumming pattern, learn this one. This pattern is very simple, as it is only down strums, but it is highly effective. For example, in my performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, I use all down strums for the last half of the song.

As you practice this, set your metronome, count out loud, and focus on lining up your down strums with each beat. Try to make your strums as even in tone and in volume.

Strumming Pattern #2

When you have the previous pattern mastered, add in up strums between each down strum to make the pattern more interesting. You would count these up strums in between the main beats by counting the word “and” like: 1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and, repeat.

In addition, practice changing between chords on the first beat of the strumming pattern. For example, you might switch between a C, Am, and F chord. Take your practice further by coming up with your own chord progressions too.

Strumming Pattern #4

You can get creative by rearranging the order of your down strums and up strums within the count of four. This pattern is like pattern #3, but in this pattern, you insert an up strum on the “and” of beats 1 and 3.

Strumming Pattern #5

This strumming pattern is sometimes referred to as the calypso strum. This pattern is the most complicated out of all of the patterns. This is because the down strum on beat 3 is removed and you only play an up strum on the “and” of the third beat. You’ll want to be sure to watch the video to get a sense for how this pattern sounds and feels. Once you get it down, you’ll find that it’s an easy pattern to apply to a lot of different songs.

Practicing Strumming Patterns

I recommend practicing these strumming patterns while playing just a C chord. Strumming is all about practicing a pattern to the point where it comes second nature and you don’t have to think about it too much. Don’t forget to practice these strumming patterns at a slow and fast tempo.

After practicing each pattern for awhile, practice changing between chords. Check out my lesson “Knowing When to Change Chords While Strumming a Song” for some practice examples.

When you’re ready, try applying these strumming patterns to a few different songs:

  • I’ve Been Working On the Railroad
  • Jingle Bells
  • You’ve Got a Friend In Me

How’s the strumming going for you? What questions do you have? I’d love to hear from you.

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Post your comment below.

Hand Position

As you can see in the two pictures above, Andrew prefers a hand position that hovers closer to the neck (Red X). Contrast that with the picture below (Form 2), and we can see that Angelo prefers to be slightly further back (White X). There is no right or wrong, it is simply preference.

Which form is best for me? And when should I use Form 1 or Form 2?

Great question! The general answer is: try both out and pick the form that is most comfortable for you. But, let’s dive into some recommendations. Form 1 will be best suited for fingerpicking over strumming. This is because strumming requires more motion, and anchoring your pinky finger on the uke will prohibit this. Thus, generally I would recommend the following:

Form 1: FingerpickingForm 2: Fingerpicking and Strumming

Strumming pattern #1

This is the most simple strumming you will learn, it’s completely made of downstrokes. We just saw this strumming, but we put it once more, to make sure it’s clear:

rhythm pattern 1

Start counting numbers up to four out loud. Every time you say a number, strum the ukulele downward. Once you have reached four, repeat this process. Do that a couple of times, and you’ll have mastered one basic rhythm pattern. In order to do that as a real ukulele player, instead of saying the number out loud, try to mark the beat with your left foot.

Metronome

Metronome© Alfi – Fotolia.com

You can also get a metronome and strum the ukulele on each click.

Strumming pattern #2

rhythm pattern 2

This is the exact opposite of the previous strumming, instead of going downward on each beat, we are going to go upward. It may be a little difficult in the beginning, since the upstroke is not as natural as the downstroke is. Don’t worry if you don’t follow the rhythm very well in the beginning. Try that a couple of times, and you will soon be playing upstrokes.

Let’s complicate things a little bit and combine downstrokes and upstrokes.

Strumming pattern #3

rhythm pattern 3

This seems to be difficult, and it is! You will have to try several times before you get to strum it the right way, downstroke on the first beat, upstroke on the second one, another downstroke on the third one, and an upstroke on the fourth one. Once you do it right, you’ll notice that this pattern sound much more “natural”. Stay a while on this pattern, as it will be the base for more advanced patterns that we’ll see further on.

Strumming pattern #4

rhythm pattern 4

This is when things start to get complicated. Instead of counting up to four, you need to say out loud: “1 AND 2 AND 3 AND 4 AND”, stressing the ‘AND’. When you say a number, you play a downstroke. When you say AND, you play an upstroke. Do it slowly and take your time on each stroke. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come out well the first time, this is not the most intuitive strumming. But once you manage to do it, you will notice that you can use this pattern on many different songs.

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What we are doing here is, basically, breaking the beat, not in four, but in eight strokes. In other words, we are striking twice per beat (=8 x eighth note), when we used to strike only once before. What’s even more important, stressing the AND instead of the number, we are making sure to have our upstrokes sound more than our downstrokes.

This is strumming the ukulele: it is about mixing and finding an emphasis in different rhythms. Don’t worry if you don’t manage to do it the first time you try; this is something you‘ll learn with practice.

Strumming pattern #5

rhythm pattern 5Did you see what we just did here? We have removed a stroke from the 3rd stroke. It means that, when following this pattern, instead of playing a downstroke when you say the number 3, you will not play anything. But here is the thing: instead of holding your hand off when you reach the third beat, you must continue the movement of your hand over the ukulele strings. Notice that you are leaving the ukulele open, your hand is hovering over the strings without striking them.

This may be hard in the beginning. You have to move on top of the strings without breaking the beat. Your hand must keep on moving, since it must be moving as if it was strumming on the third beat. On the next step, you must strike the strings on the AND, with an upstroke, following the same rhythm pattern.

Practice this strumming pattern. Become an expert in not striking the strings. This will be the beginning of every strumming pattern you will use.

Strumming pattern #6

rhythm pattern 6

Now that we have learned how to remove a stroke, let’s raise the stakes and remove three strokes.

This will be harder, even if you took your time on strumming pattern 5. You will need to slide on top of the strings three times within a measure, on the AND following the 1, on number 3, and on the AND that follows number 4. The last part, the AND after 4, is the hardest part for most beginners, so make sure you practice that a lot.

These are the core strumming patterns for ukulele. There is an infinite number of strumming patterns out there, but you need to learn the most basic stuff as a beginner, don’t focus too much on these until you improve your skills. Instead of that, play what feels “natural” to you. Following a pattern very closely can become boring and mechanical. Don’t be afraid to change the rhythm, if you feel that it matches the song better.

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