BY VICTORIA VOX | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
It all started with “Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole back in 2003. I was in France for the summer and a friend shared this beautifully haunting song from the Finding Forrester soundtrack. I played along with this rhythm, assuming it was common to all ukulele songs. But as I began writing tunes on the uke, and learning some obscure covers, I realized that if I were to stick with the instrument, I could not play the same pattern on every song.
Although I had rhythm guitar chops, with the ukulele I found I could vary my grooves even more, playing jazz-swing and numerous variations of calypso, with the option to add a rhythmic backbeat. Over the years I’ve worked out many other rhythms on the uke, and in this lesson I’ll present some of my go-to grooves and how to play them. Note that throughout the accompanying video I use a repeating four-bar progression (F-C-Am-G), one chord per measure, but you can play all of these examples with whatever chords you like.
Hawaiian swing is a fusion of swing jazz (popular in the 1930s and ’40s on the mainland) and traditional Hawaiian music. As heard on classics like “Beyond the Reef” (Aloha Hawaii) and “Song of the Islands” (Al Caiola) this accompaniment style is typically played with alternating down and up strums, in streams of eighth notes. In notation, these notes look even (Example 1a), but they are played swung—i.e., in a lopsided way, as if each beat is divided into an eighth-note triplet, with the first two notes tied (Example 1b).
Now try Example 2. Strum up and down using your index finger. Remember that the down strums (on the beat) will sound longer than the up strums. Let all of the strings ring out, without any muting.
Reggae and Ska
Originating in Jamaica in the 1960s, reggae was influenced by traditional mento, jazz, R&B, ska, rocksteady, and calypso.
Example 3 shows a typical reggae pattern, with a down-up rhythm on beats 2 and 4 and silence on beats 1 and 3, leaving room for a bass player. Similar rhythms occur in songs like “Jamming” (Bob Marley and the Wailers), “Wild World” (Jimmy Cliff), and “Have a Heart” (Bonnie Raitt). The rest is an important part of the measure, and the chord should not ring though.
Players can use a variety of techniques to silence the strings (left-hand muting or right-hand tapping). The idea is to create a musical conversation that makes room for the bass and drums. For beginners,
I suggest an open-hand tap/touch, as I demonstrate in the video. This is not a rhythmic addition, but a downward motion to stop the chord from ringing, replacing the strum on beats 1 and 3.
A precursor to reggae, ska emerged as a fusion of calypso, R&B, and jazz. As heard on classics like “Requiem for Rico” (the Skatalites), “Santeria” (Sublime), and “A Message to You Rudy” (the Specials), ska is characterized by upbeat tempos, with a strong emphasis on the off-beat, known as the “skank.” The typical ska strumming pattern (Example 4) is played with upward strums on the “ands” and the beats muted with a downward motion of the strumming hand.
Other Island Sounds
Rooted in African and Afro-Caribbean traditions, calypso is storytelling accompanied by lively rhythms. Harmonically and rhythmically, you get the payoff of hearing the downbeat in addition to the backbeats.
I believe this is the most versatile and common strumming pattern across genres—you can hear it at work on “M’Bifé” (Amadou & Mariam), “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Bob Dylan), and “Wicked Game” (Chris Isaak), to name a few songs.
The basic calypso pattern is shown in Example 5a. Use a continuous down-up, eighth-note strumming movement, skipping over the strings on the “and” of beats 1 and 3. Beat 1 and the “and” of beat 2 are the only quarter notes in the measure. A variation (Example 5b) adds a roll down on each beat 2, which creates a feeling of a backbeat. On each roll, indicated with a squiggly vertical line, allow your thumb to drag behind the index finger, beefing up the sound.
Blues, Rock, and Pop
A typical characteristic of rock is steady and driving eighth notes, played either straight, like on “Mustang Sally” (Buddy Guy) and “Wagon Wheel” (Lou Reed), or swung, as in “Pride and Joy” (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and “Statesboro Blues” (Taj Mahal). When counted in an eighth-note pattern, as seen in Example 6, this rhythm could be played as down-up strums as written, or with all down strums, like on an energetic rock song.
Example 7 is a pop-rock variation heard on songs like “She Bop” (Cyndi Lauper), “Here Comes Your Man” (Pixies), and “Only Time Will Tell” (Victoria Vox). If played with a drummer, the ukulele rhythm might not be all that different from the calypso pattern. When playing without a drummer, I like to add the rhythm backbeat, aka the chunk, on 2 and 4.
Jazz and Swing
Jazz has evolved into many subgenres—swing, bebop, cool jazz, fusion, and much more—and can be rhythmically complex. But a simple way to play jazz, especially swing, is with steady quarter-notes à la Freddie Green, longtime guitarist with the Count Basie band. As shown in Example 8, inspired by “Corner Pocket” (Count Basie), “Stardust” (Bill Tapia), and “Je laisse passer” (Jane for Tea), just play a downward strum on every beat. To achieve a short, swinging sound, lift your fretting fingers after each strum or rest them on the fretboard.
Like the pop-rock strum, swing jazz can also be played with a calypso rhythm, but swung. You can hear this on songs like “Sunny Side of the Street” (Neal Chin), “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” (Frank Sinatra), and “Comin’ Home Baby” (Mel Tormé). By leaving the chunk in place on beats 2 and 4, as in Example 9, you have both rhythmic and harmonic momentum. You are playing a swung jazz rhythm, while giving yourself a steady back beat, emphasizing the mute before the swung eighth-note attack on the “ands” of beats 2 and 4.
Country and Bluegrass
Originating in the Appalachian Mountains and southeastern states, country music has come to be influenced by traditional folk music, bluegrass, Western swing, and blues. Old-time country music can be described as a boom-chick-a rhythm. The pattern in Example 10 is inspired by the rhythms of songs like “Forever and Ever, Amen” (Randy Travis), “I Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash), and “Walk of Life” (Dire Straits). Although beats 1 and 3 are played, emphasis is put on the backbeats (2 and 4), lending a bouncy rhythm, like reggae.
In pop-country songs such as “Riptide” (Vance Joy) and “Kindness” (Tanya Tucker), beat 2 is emphasized even more. As depicted in Example 11, this strum is similar to the calypso strum, but without an upward strum on the “and” of 2. Beat 2 therefore rings out, and isn’t reattacked until the “and” of 3. Keeping in mind that your hand is continually playing eighth-notes (even though we don’t always hear/play them), I like to pulse my hand (almost like I’m strumming) to the beat so that I don’t rush my entrance on the “and” of 3.
Fast tempos and virtuosic instrumental performances come to mind when I think of bluegrass, whether a traditional number like “The Prisoner’s Song” (Earl Scruggs) or a modern composition like “Cheeseballs in Cowtown” (Béla Fleck). As shown in Example 12, the accented rhythm (again like reggae) is added on the backbeat. Note: Because of its tempo, bluegrass is often notated in cut time, as shown in the notation by the C with a vertical slash through it. This indicates that the pulse of this speedy beat felt largely on the 2 and 4.
When strumming any groove or rhythmic pattern it’s imperative to feel where beat 1 falls, even if you don’t necessarily strum on that beat, as it can be easy to get caught up in the direction of your strumming hand.
Just remember, what goes up must come down. If you are having a hard time, I recommend using a metronome (at a slow tempo, like 60 bpm) and counting the rhythm out loud. If you can say it, you can play it.