BY AARON KEIM
When I play fingerstyle ukulele, my right-hand thumb (p) typically plays the fourth and third strings, my first finger (i) plays the second string, and my middle finger (m) plays the first string. This may sound complicated, but assigning a different job to each digit actually makes things easier because it is one less thing for you to decide. Just stick to this system until it becomes second nature: I think you will be well prepared for whatever I throw at you!
The examples that follow come from my book 10 Etudes for Fingerstyle Ukulele and are training exercises to get your fingerstyle skills in shape (an etude is a short musical piece intended to teach a skill, technique, or style).
Like all of the etudes in the book, these examples—which are intended for intermediate to advanced players who can read tab and have some prior picking experience—will use one chord progression to teach several picking patterns that you can apply to your own music later on. These pieces will work on any size uke (including baritone), low fourth string or high; just read the tab and go for it!
First, just work on these chord shapes by strumming each chord once in Example 1. We will use this “boot camp chord progression” for every example, so the quicker you learn this progression, the quicker you can get picking.
Once your fretting hand is fluent with the progression, try the patterns in Example 2a and 2b on just the open strings. When you are ready, apply it to the chord progression. Remember, thumb on fourth and third strings, then first finger, then second finger.
If you’re having trouble, go back and split the left- and right-hand elements up. Work on just the chords, or just the pattern on the open strings, until you are ready to put them back together. Go slowly and take your time. This sort of slow, careful practice is important to gain speed later.
When you have this pattern down, try the patterns in Examples 3–6 with the same chord progression.
As the chord progression becomes more familiar, it will become an anchor as you try new picking patterns. I encourage you to also try each pattern on open strings. Check out the videos to hear the patterns and get a better sense of the rhythm.
Feeling inspired? Here is some homework:
- Try mixing the patterns up or alternating between two different ones
- Add a new favorite pattern to a familiar old song
- Improvise new melodies as your friend plays the chords
- Invent your own pattern
Have fun and keep on picking.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Ukulele.
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American, an old-time folk music duo based in Hood River, Oregon.