Banjo-ukuleles have a particular sound that lends itself to a nice variety of techniques. These include techniques from ragtime music of the 1920s–’30s, as well as techniques for banjo. Here are a couple techniques that work well with banjo-ukulele.
George Formby’s Legendary Split Stroke
This technique is also known as the syncopated strum, and its roots go back to ragtime music. Ragtime—from “ragged time,” so called because to American and European ears of the late 19th century it sounded as if the rhythm was being torn to shreds! This is a demanding strum to do well but, once you get it, it’s an exciting ukulele technique to know and add to many styles of music.
To successfully play the split stroke, you might need to challenge your notion of what strumming is. You can thumb-strum the stroke at a slow speed, but when the tempo picks up, that approach probably won’t work. So, it’s best to learn the strum using your index finger, with the primary motion coming from the rotation of your forearm. Check out our lesson by Ralph Shaw here.
Earl Scruggs–Style Banjo Rolls
Because the banjo and the ukulele share a common high G string, right-hand techniques for banjo sound great on the uke.
What banjo players call three-finger picking makes use of two fingers and the thumb. Since the late 1940s, when North Carolina banjo legend Earl Scruggs figured out a super-fast and syncopated way to three-finger pick, the term “Scruggs style” has been synonymous with bluegrass banjo. Scruggs popularized this technique in his work with Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys—yes, that’s the inspiration for the “Soggy Bottom Boys” moniker in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
To become a Scruggs-style picker on uke (or banjo), you need to learn a handful of three-finger rolls and their variations. When playing a solo, you’ll pick the melody of a song and use the rolls to fill the gaps between melody notes or embellish them. Here’s a great lesson by Fred Sokolow that ports over some banjo techniques to the uke.
In this highly useful intermediate lesson book, Ukulele Explorations – Chords and Harmony, Fred Sokolow writes about how to better understand chord progressions and jazzing up your uke; Alec Poletsky explains moveable major and minor chords; Jim Beloff illustrates the step-up key change through one of his own tunes; and Jim D’Ville uses Beatles songs as a gateway to learning extended chords.