Hawaiian Style Turnarounds for Ukulele

By Brian Liu

Playing a turnaround on the ukulele is an important part of creating the Hawaiian sound. In Hawaiian music, another name for a turnaround is the vamp. The vamp has many roles—not only is it heard at the beginning and ending of a song, but it also enables musicians to cue the hula dancers when a new verse is about to begin.

In this lesson, we will look at how to play a vamp with both strumming and fingerpicking.

The Basic Strum

Many Hawaiian songs are played in the key of C. The vamp in the key of C is comprised of the three chords: D7 G7 and C.

Vawaiian vamp in C tab notation for ukulele

Let’s look at how to hold these chords.

  • To hold a D7 chord, my preferred method is to barre the 2nd fret with the middle finger and to place the ring finger on the 3rd fret. Alternatively, you can use your index finger to barre, and place your middle finger on the 3rd fret. If you’re having trouble holding the barre across 4 strings, try stacking your index and middle finger together.
  • The most common way to play the G7 is to place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the C string, index finger on the 1st fret of the E string, and ring finger on the 2nd fret of the A string.
  • The C chord is most often played using the ring finger on the 3rd fret of the A string.

Once you’re comfortable moving between these three chords, practice the following sequence:

  1. Two down strums of D7
  2. Two down strums of G7
  3. Four down strums of C

Keep the strumming steady across all 8 strums, and now you’re playing a vamp in C!

An Iconic Fingerpicking Pattern

Here is a very recognizable melodic line that’s played over a vamp (ex. 1).


Ex. 1

In the video above, I’m playing an ukulele tuned with a low G, but the tab shown above works well on both a high G and a low G tuned ukulele.

There are a few things to keep in mind when learning this:

  • A hammer-on is used from the open C string to the 2nd fret as well as from the open E string to the 1st fret. Place your fingers down quickly in order for the hammer-on note to resonate better.
  • As you play the sequence of notes, hold down each of the fretted notes. This is effectively creating the shape of a G7 chord.

Once you feel comfortable with this melodic line, play it at the beginning of the Hawaiian vamp in the key of C, during the 2 strums of D7 and 2 strums of G7.

Creating Momentum with a Strum

Let’s turn our focus to the C chord only and practice down and up strums. Notice how the down strums in Ex. 2 are lined up with the downbeats (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4) and the up strums are on the upbeats (e.g., the “&” between each beat).

Ex. 2

Now, let’s add a small flourish by placing our index finger on the 1st fret of the E string for just “& 4” of the C chord (Ex. 3).

Ex. 3

This is a subtle way of propelling the groove and making the C chord sound interesting.

Advanced Fingerpicking Pattern

A variety of melodic lines can be played during the turnaround. Ex. 4 is another one.


Ex. 4

When learning this pattern, keep the following in mind:

  • Sliding between notes is a key part of the sound.
  • Keep your fretting fingers held down to allow the strings to ring out longer.

Take your time to practice these 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 performer and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find him on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook under the handle @brianteachesmusic.