Learn Hawaiian Vamp Variations on Ukulele

By Brian Liu

The iconic Hawaiian vamp has many variations. The inspiration for the advanced techniques in this ukulele lesson comes from the song “Noho Pai Pai” as performed by the Ka’au Crater Boys and by the Makaha Sons featuring Jake Shimabukuro. Let’s look at a new way to play the Hawaiian vamp.

Advanced Vamp Chords

The basic vamp in the key of C is three chords: D7 G7 C (Ex. 1). We can alter the chords by playing D9 to G13b9 and ending on C as a barre chord.

Advanced Hawaiian Vamp in C ex. 1
Ex. 1

Let’s look at how to hold these chords.

  • For the D9 chord, barre the fifth fret with the index finger, place the middle finger on the sixth fret of the C string, and use either the ring finger or pinky to hold the seventh fret on the A string. Alternatively, you can assign one finger per string such that the index finger holds the fifth fret of the G string, ring finger on the sixth fret of the C string, middle finger on the fifth fret of the E string, and pinky on the seventh fret of the A string.
  • For the G13b9 chord, reuse your finger assignment from the D9 chord, but slide the fingers back 1 fret on the G, C, and E strings. Use your pinky to play the seventh fret of the A string.
  • The C chord is played as a barre chord. Use the index finger to barre the third fret while the middle finger holds the fourth fret of the C string and the ring finger holds the fifth fret of the G string.

Once you’re comfortable moving between these three chords, practice the chords with two down strums of D7, two down strums of G7, and C as down, down-up, up-down (Ex. 2).

Advanced Hawaiian Vamp in C
Ex. 2

Triplet Strum

Hawaiian music is often played using swing feel and triplets. To accomplish this, divide the pulse by three to create triplets. The right hand needs to be flexible by playing either long and short strums or by playing continuous triplets.


To learn this strumming technique, we’ll use open string chord shapes for D7, G7, and C. Practice strumming these chords according to the following three levels.

  1. Start by playing quarter note down strums (Ex. 3). Each strum falls on the beat.
  2. Add an up strum between the down strums using a swing feel (Ex. 4). To do this, play the down strum with a longer duration and the up strum with a short duration.
  3. Add a triplet strum on the D7 chord (Ex. 5). Notice how your right hand strums down-up-down for one beat, and then up-down-up on the next beat. Getting comfortable with this alternating movement is the key to creating a smooth sounding triplet strum. Bonus: Change to the C chord on the up strum before the downbeat.
Advanced Hawaiian vamp techniques ukulele lesson, Triplet Strum
From top: Exs. 3, 4, and 5

Once you feel comfortable with each of the levels above, practice moving seamlessly between the quarter note pulse, swung eight notes, and the triplet strum.

Hawaiian Fingerpicking Melody

Instead of strumming a vamp, you can fingerpick a riff that outlines the sound of the Hawaiian vamp. In Ex. 6, we’re outlining some of the notes that make up the D9 and the G7 chords before resolving to the note C.

Advanced Hawaiian vamp ukulele lesson hawaiian riff
Ex. 6

When learning this riff, consider these tips:

  • If you’re strumming the song with a swing feel, then play the individual notes with the same swing feel
  • Slide your finger from the sixth fret back to the fifth fret to create a smoother sound.

Take your time to practice these strumming patterns and phrases. Experiment with creating your own variations. The best way to continue learning is to listen to traditional Hawaiian music and emulate the strumming and picking that you hear. Happy practicing!

Brian Liu is a musician and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find him on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook under the handle @nextlevelukulele.