One aspect of playing ukulele that often gets overlooked is the actual technique of strumming. This is especially important for beginners who are totally new to the instrument. In this tutorial you will learn how to strum ukulele with six different strumming tips and tricks. This will help improve your tone and get you feeling better about attacking some more difficult strum patterns.
Ukulele Strumming Tips:
Location, Location, Location
Although it’s an acoustic instrument, I like to think that the ukulele has a built in tone knob. Depending on where you strum (close to the bridge, over the soundhole, over the neck) you can tailor the sound of the ukulele to suit your preferences. My sweet spot is always between the soundhole and the end of the body. Find your spot and experiment with using both the thumb and the index finger to strum.
Rules of Thumb
The thumb can often create the warmest and most tender sounds of the ukulele. Some players even play exclusively with the thumb! Practice good thumb technique by applying pressure on the G string, then following through the rest of the strings. Don’t try to “hit” the ukulele, but rather, rake your thumb across just like a harpist might glide along their strings. Once you get the rake move, you can alternate between a broken strum (hearing individual strings), and a solid strum (just quickly going from top to bottom).
It’s All in the Wrist (and Fingers)
With the thumb strum, you can keep your wrist in the same position and only use your thumb to strum. But when you strum with your index finger, you will need to twist your wrist and use a “windshield wiper” motion and ensure that you’re flexing your index finger and relaxing it back. The wrist should be the main mover of the strum—imagine the movement you make when you turn a doorknob. Minimize your movements by aiming to strum between the top and bottom strings, instead of strumming from above the body to below the body. Try to use the center of your nail when strumming with your index finger.
As a beginner, it’s always a good idea to try to experiment with thumb and index finger strumming. The thumb offers a warmer, more mellow tone and is easier to strum with when you are learning chords for songs. The index finger is usually a bit easier to control—for example, I almost always exclusively use the index finger when executing more complex strum patterns. But it also gives a brighter sound with the attack of the nail, so you might have to practice a bit more to get a mellow sound. The good thing is that there’s no wrong or right answer—the choice of which to use is totally up to you!
Ups and Downs
With both the thumb and index finger strum technique, it’s a good idea to practice up-strums in the same way that you practice down-strums. Try 4 downs and 4 ups, keeping the rhythm, pace, and volume for each strum. (With thumb technique, you can strum up by using the side of the thumb or the nail of the thumb.) When using different strum patterns, exercise some control in your rhythm by moving up and down at a consistent beat. The island strum might be “down, down up, up down up,” but while you’re executing this strum you’re still actually moving your hand up and down in time. Refer to the diagrams below to see what’s happening during an island strum:
To Swing or Not to Swing
Ukulele playing typically features two types of rhythm: swing strumming and straight strumming. Swing rhythms are commonly used in jazz, blues, Hawaiian, reggae, and R&B music. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish and execute the swing strum, so it helps to use counting to your advantage. Try saying “1-2-3,” or “1 and a, 2 and a…” while matching your strums with the diagram below. Notice that your down strums will match on the heavy beats, and the up strums tend to be a little lighter.
Bonus: To Nail or Not to Nail
Another common practice for ukulele playing involves growing out and shaping your nails. By filing down the edges of each right hand nail, you effectively create “picks” for each finger. Take some weeks to grow out the nails and shape them and see if you like the new, clearer, vibrant sounds of your uke.
Hope these tips give you the opportunity to try new techniques! Keep working on finding your desired sound. Uke on!
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.