By Fred Sokolow
One of the main reasons the ukulele is so popular is that you can use it for practically any type of song. All you need to do is get a good rhythm going on “that little lamb chop,” as Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards used to call his Martin Style 3. To some players, strumming comes naturally; they don’t even have to think about it. This lesson is for anyone who doesn’t fit into that category and could use some solid tips for common rhythmic grooves.
A Matter of Preference
Old instructional books tend to agree that the ukulele is properly strummed with a felt pick. But these days, most of us use our fingers. While I strum down with my index finger and up with my thumb, many players use their index to strum both up and down, and others use their thumb exclusively. I’m in favor of whatever works—whatever feels comfortable for you, as long as you get a good rhythmic groove. [NOTE: The music examples referenced in the text are found in the embedded video, with audio.]
Play It Straight
As a general rule, you can get a groove going by strumming down on the downbeats and up on the upbeats, or the “ands.” If you divide one measure of 4/4 time (four quarter-notes per bar) into eight equal parts (eighth-notes), played in Example 1 (0:00 in the video), the numbers are downstrokes and the “ands” are upstrokes. [All of the music examples are demonstrated in the video clip.]
Rock music often involves steady eighth-note strums, played straight (evenly), as heard on classics from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Proud Mary.” Check out Track 1, on which I play this straight-eighths feel two different ways—with downstrokes and upstrokes and then with all downstrokes. You can easily create syncopation—a deliberate emphasis on the weaker beats—to the basic eighth-note pattern by using “ghost strums,” in which your pick hand makes strumming motions, but you intentionally miss the strings.
In Example 2 (0:20 in the video), avoid contact with the strings on the “and” of beat 1; Example 3, a slower variation, adds a ghost strum on beat 3 (0:30 in the video).
The shuffle beat is heard in everything from jazz to R&B to bluegrass. Its main feature is a swing feel, in which downstrokes are given more emphasis than upstrokes—they’re louder and they last longer.
Example 3 demonstrates strummed eighth notes, played in a shuffle beat at both moderate and faster tempos. (Note that in general, the faster the tempo, the less pronounced the swing feel.)
Just like the rock strum, the shuffle beat can be easily varied with ghost strums—listen to Example 4 (0:41 in the video), which is a swing version of Ex. 2, played at two different tempos, perfect for playing rock songs like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” and Tin Pan Alley tunes such as “All of Me.” For a bluegrass or classic-country sound, try Example 5 (1:13).
Sixteenth notes come into play for the strumming patterns on classic-rock ballads like “Hey Jude” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The insistent down-up strumming pattern is similar to the previous patterns, but the beat is divided into 16ths instead of eighths. In Example 6, (1:21) note the ghosted upstroke on the “ee” of beats 1 and 3, extended to beat 2 in Example 7 (1:30).
In waltz, or 3/4 time, you’ve got three quarter notes to the bar, as opposed to four. From “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to “Norwegian Wood,” there are many great waltzes in country, pop, and beyond.
A typical waltz strum, as shown in Example 8 (1:44), has a ghosted strum on the “and” of beat 1. When you strum a waltz, add a little emphasis to beat 1.
Practice the waltz and this lesson’s other rhythms until everything becomes second nature—and you can consistently get a good strum going on that little lamb chop.
Now you can strum along to these classic songs!
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.