How to strum a ukulele


how to strum a ukulele

Strumming a ukulele is among the most important aspects of playing the instrument, so, yeah, it’s an important topic.

There are many things to discuss it, like technique, strumming patterns, different tips, and more.

Edited by Ukulele Experts!


How To Strum A Ukulele – The Basics

We’ll share with you the most important aspects of discussing the topic:

1 # – Studying strumming patterns can help you find your favorite playing style

Aside from completing your skills, along with chord shapes, strumming patterns are more often than not, what defines your playing style.

Your playing style is what sets you apart from other musicians – you can play many songs that are readily available to learn, but you’ll always add a touch that represents you.

Finding your style is like finding your writing voice, your perfect job, and more like – no one will do it like you.

If it sounds important, it’s because it is vital!

2 # – They’re a vital part of playing the ukulele

The ukulele is an instrument, and just like any other, it has its ways.

Strumming patterns are what complement the instrument in the sense that, without them, the uke wouldn’t sound as great as it does.

Additionally, knowing how to read strumming notation and mastering the different patterns naturally will help you maximize the variety of songs you can play

3 # – Strumming patterns often go unnoticed

Some people believe – and teach – that strumming patterns and everything around them is just another part of playing the uke.

For us, it’s not just another aspect of playing the uke.

It’s one of the most important skills that will define how good you can get, how fast you can improve, and how many possibilities you have regarding ukes.

Learning everything you can about strumming patterns will set you free to discover the magic behind our beloved instrument.

Are you ready to start? Let’s dig in!

3 Ukulele Strumming Techniques

The first things to discuss are the techniques.

The main strumming techniques – we’re not counting fingerpicking, that’s another story – are:

  • Strumming with a pick.
  • Strumming with your fingers.
  • And the muted strum.

That’s the trifecta you must meet to fully master the ukulele sounds that you love and admire so much.

Once you understand, practice, and master the three techniques, you could consider yourself, at the very least, an intermediate uke player.

An advanced player can mix the three techniques plus, fingerpicking with ease and right when they’re needed – which is only achievable by thousands of practice hours.

We don’t want to lure you away – just to let you know that practice makes perfect is a good way of putting it.

Below, we’ll explain fully the three different techniques.

Strum with a Pick

Strumming with a pick is, well, a controverted choice for hardcore traditionalists.

However, a pick can be a valuable resource, too, and we don’t discriminate against anyone using one.

The advantages of using a pick are:

  • They’re great if you don’t want to let your fingernails too much just to play the uke – which is ok.
  • You have options!
  • Plastic picks produce a brighter sound, that has slightly better projection because it’s louder, and this maximizes the resonance of the uke. Still, we don’t recommend this so much because nylon ukulele strings are more delicate than metal strings used with electric guitars
  • Felt picks are good, too, but produce a warmer tone, more similar to the one produced by fingers.
  • You can explore different strumming patterns that share a likeness to the ones used with guitars.

On the other hand, they’re not so good if you’re planning to do some picking – nothing beats four fingers in that regard, unless you really, really practice a lot.

Strum with fingers

Strumming with fingers is by far the most common way of strumming a ukulele, and it’s actually our preferred technique.

The advantages are:

  • You can produce any sound you want the way they’re meant to be produced with a uke – it’s the most traditional approach, so you can say thanks, captain obvious.
  • It’s easier than using a pick.
  • It’s better if you want to switch from a strumming pattern to fingerstyle.
  • It gives you more freedom to improvise.

Of course, you always have the option of using your fingers with or without long nails – you can strum a uke with just your fingertips!

Additionally, there are several options you can use – depending directly on which finger you want to use to strum.

With the thumb (the most common way)

A lot of people prefer strumming with their thumbs.

However, this limits the possibilities to:

  • You can use the fleshy side of your thumb to produce warm sounds when strumming downward.
  • You can use your nail to produce bright sounds when strumming upward – doing this downward is harder, but also possible.

And that’s about it. This style should only be used for simple strumming patterns, like the d-u-u-d pattern (more on this below).

With the index finger

The index finger is the second-most common finger to strum a uke.

You can use your nail or your fingertips to do the strumming, mostly because the nylon strings are soft enough to use them.

This method offers the same advantages and limitations as using just the thumb.

Thumb and index finger

Using both the thumb and the index finger gives you more freedom to maximize the sound of your strum, while also giving you the benefits mentioned above.

You can:

  • Use your nails to maximize projection and produce brighter, louder notes with better sustain.
  • And you can also use the fleshy side of your fingers to produce warmer notes, with milder projection.
  • The hand position is also natural and comfortable, so it doesn’t cramp your hand as picks can.
  • It doesn’t affect muted strums.

This is our preferred technique!

Muted strum

The muted strum is the percussion aspect achievable with most guitar-like instruments, like mandolins, and of course, ukes.

There are two types of muted strums:

  • The palm-muted strum: this is strum you mute with your palm – captain obvious did it again. This one is used when you want to cut the sound of the note suddenly after the strum. The note sounds, but you basically stop it to create percussion.
  • The fret-muted strum: this strum is muted by barring your fingers on top of the strings gently, without actually pressing a chord. It’s mostly a percussion resource used in advanced playing styles.

Both techniques are advanced, and, again, you must practice a lot to integrate them into your playing naturally.

How to read Ukulele Strumming Notation

Now, before you enter the world of strumming patterns, you must first learn how to read strumming notation – which is the essence behind strumming patterns.

To keep it real, we’ll let you know that we sucked at reading ukulele strumming notation when we were starting.

That’s because we learned ourselves and strumming patterns came sort of naturally for us – which was great at first.

When we tried learning notation, we got a little confused because we couldn’t tie the theory to the practice.

So, to keep this story short, that’s why we want to help you master strumming notation, because we know there’s always someone needing a hand with this.

It all starts with measures, then whole note strums, half note strums, quarter note strums, and eighth note strums.

Those are the simplest concepts you must use and understand when getting started.

Measure

A measure is what tells you when and for how long you’ll play a specific chord.

Strumming patterns work in a very simplistic measure with four beats, which, depending on the tempo, you’ll play at a certain speed (beats per second: bps).

Here’s a simple explanation of the common symbols used in most measures:

Now, before you start trying to read measures, you need to understand strumming notation, because that’s the main tool.

The simplest four types are as follows:

Whole Note Strum

A whole note strum is one that you must keep playing for the duration of the whole measure.

To practice this, you can count 1, 2, 3, 4 in a steady tempo.

Now, a whole note strum will resonate as long as the count lasts, meaning you’ll play just one chord until you complete the count, and pass to the next measure.

To practice, set up a tempo with a metronome app on your phone.

Then play the note with one down strum that should resonate for the duration it takes for the tempo to beat 4 times.

Don’t worry if your strum doesn’t resonate that long, though, because it probably won’t unless you’re playing an electroacoustic uke.

When reading a notation, the whole note strum pattern will be shown in the shape of a slanted square.

Half Note Strum

A half note strum is one that you must play a chord for the duration of two counts (1, 2), and then replay the same chord or switch chords to complete the count (3, 4), and pass to the next measure.

To practice this, you can set up the same metronome app, and play a chord for the duration of the first two beats (1, 2)

After that, you can play another chord or the same, for the duration of the second two beats (3, 4)

Use a simple down strum for each beat and go slow at first, until you can increase your tempo comfortably.

When reading strumming notation, the half note strum will be shown in the shape of a slanted square, similar to the one above, but with a slash below it.

Quarter Note Strum

You must play a quarter note strum four times for each count of one – one beat, one strum.

To practice this, simply follow the example below, and play one down strum, for each quarter note notation.

An actual metronome or an app can help you pick up this quickly.

Keep in mind that, most of the time, a quarter note strum will represent a down strum, unless it’s indicated otherwise.

The quarter note strum is represented by the same slash and square, the only difference is that the square is filled with black.

Eighth Note Strum

For the eighth note strums, you must play the chord twice per beat/count.

It’s very simple because the notation tells you everything you have to do.

So, as represented below, the eighth note strum is just like a quarter note strum.

The difference is that it’s comprised of 2 quarter note strums united at the bottom of each slash by a horizontal line.

To practice, follow the example below.

Use a down-up pattern for each beat – so you’ll play 4 beats, each one comprised of two strums.

The first quarter note strum goes down and then comes up with the next one attached to it.

See? It’s a piece of cake!

4 Standard Ukulele Patterns

Once you’ve mastered the strumming techniques, and the strumming notation, you’re more than ready to understand strumming patterns.

Keep in mind that, as we did, you can learn patterns first.

However, it’s very useful to understand how to read notation before strumming patterns.

Why? Because you can practice any time you want, and it’s very fun, but it’s like having one eye closed.

If you do that, you’ll confuse yourself into oblivion when you face music theory – which you’ll do if you’re curious enough and really want to learn.

Now, patterns are very simple, and are usually written in some sort of strumming notation – the one we showed you above is pretty common.

We’ll show you the simplest 4 strumming patterns, in the form of notation, so you can practice your reading.

Keep in mind that you can go back to the explanation above to refresh what you should know.

Down, Up, Down, Up

For this pattern, each strum will resonate independently for the duration of each strum.

You can use a 1 BPS tempo, and then increase the tempo until you’re comfortable.

Down-Up, Down-Up, Down-Up, Down-Up.

This one is faster than the one above. Note that we used only eighth notes, just like the example above.

Practice this one at a slower tempo to master it.

Down, Down-Up

Here, things start to get trickier.

Notice that there are many empty beats!

That’s why it might sound a bit weird if you play it at a 1BPS tempo; increase the tempo slightly and it will sound great though.

You can start using this one with songs!

Down-Up, Down,

This is an inverted form of the one above.

Still, once you practice it in the same manner that we suggested with the others, you’ll notice there’s a slight, but noticeable difference.

Other popular strumming patterns

Once you understand these 4 strumming patterns, notation, and apply strumming techniques proficiently, you can start trying other more flavorful patterns.

A famous one you’ve been hearing in a lot of pop songs over the years is the calypso strum.

This is a rather simple strumming pattern – but dominating it puts you in the advanced beginner category.

Also, the calypso strum opens the door for you to explore many different strumming patterns, which include muted strums as a percussive element.

We highly recommend you to check some YouTube vids, mostly because a simple notation format might not be enough.

You need to hear the example to understand it better – have fun learning!

Tips for a clean Strum – How to strum a Ukulele

Before you leave, we have some tips that can help you improve your strumming technique exponentially once you start applying them all at the same time.

We’ve created a progression so you can integrate them into your skills more easily.

#1 – Strum with your wrist, not with your arm

Strumming with your wrist is, well, vital.

When playing the uke, your strumming arm is the one holding the uke against your body – we explained this in our article about how to hold a uke.

If you strum with your whole arm, you’ll be wobbling your uke up and down, which decreases your accuracy a lot.

That’s why you must relax your strumming hand, and use just the hand to strum, without moving the arm at all.

Wrist and finger mobility exercises, like stretching and relaxing them before playing, can help you achieve this.

#2 – Tilt your finger or pick to get more volume

When playing with your fingers, or with a pick, a simple tip that can help you play louder notes is to tilt your finger.

To resume this tip: put in more nails!

#3 – Do not lock your strumming finger

If you lock your strumming finger, you’ll limit yourself to play only loud, reckless notes.

Instead, try to relax your strumming finger enough so you can achieve a middle point from where you can increase or decrease how loud and bright the note is.

Learning how to utilize this in your favor will increase your skill!

#4 – Attack the strings cleanly

Hitting the strings with your strumming in a clean, precise manner will allow you to strum more efficiently.

This process will help you improve the accuracy of your strumming:

  • Play a song and strum as you would do it regularly while recording your strumming hand from the front.
  • Analyze your video.
  • If you realize you’re strumming too long – as in far away from the strings after your hand passes – try and shorten your strum.
  • If you realize you’re strumming too short, add in a little bit until you reach the sweet spot.
  • If you realize your fingers get stuck a lot, try and separate your hand a little bit from the strings.
  • If you realize your finger barely touches the strings and you sometimes miss, put it in a bit closer to the strings.
  • Analyze also the position of your strum – keep in mind that you should always strum anywhere from the sound-hole, up to the last, barely playable frets.
  • Then, try to reposition your hand wherever it’s comfortable for you, but still within that optimum range.

This process will help you achieve a strumming balance.

#5 – Stay relaxed

Relaxing is flowing, and the music flows, whether you learn it from chords on a screen – they just flow.

If you learn to stay relaxed enough, and you pair that with your knowledge and technique, you’ll achieve an advanced playing level pretty quickly.

Some good tips to relax are:

  • Just listen to the music and let your muscular memory take over.
  • Try to warm up and stretch your hands and even your body before playing.
  • Practice different songs, strumming patterns, and chord progressions and learn them by heart.
  • And just pour all that into your playing.

To be completely honest with you, it’s very likely that you won’t be able to relax while playing until you have more than a hundred hours of good, focused practice.

This will make you feel more comfortable than ever, even though it’s not easy to achieve.

Still, once you achieve that comfort, you’ll unlock your full musical potential, and be free to enjoy the true magic of the ukulele.

#6 – Develop an effortless swing

When practicing your strumming patterns, you must always let yourself go to the music you’re playing, without forgetting the patterns.

Relax! This is the only way you can develop a natural swing to the music.

A tip that really helped us was to practice a song over, and over, and over again until it became part of us – more so than just a strumming pattern.

To do it correctly:

  • Pick a song that you like that’s simple, repetitive, and fun to play.
  • Study the strumming pattern, learn the chords, and practice taking all of these tips into account.
  • Once you’ve learned it by heart, play it along with the music, but without the visual support of the chords in front of you.
  • Then, play it on your own until you feel free enough.

Just repeat this process with different songs that also have different strumming patterns, and you’ll develop a natural swing in a matter of days.

Frequently Asked Questions – How to strum a ukulele

How do you strum a ukulele smoothly?

To strum a ukulele smoothly, all you have to do is strum it with the fleshy part of your fingertips, or even the fleshy side of your thumb.
Also, avoid using your nail, as it will give you brighter notes, which are louder, but less smooth.

Can you strum a ukulele with your thumb?

Yes! Some people only use their thumbs to play everything – including fingerpicking.

Is fingerpicking harder than strumming?

That’s a tough answer.
We’d say that it is for someone who has focused just on strumming – if that’s the case, it’ll be really hard.
However, if you add fingerpicking to your practice sessions, you won’t be a stranger once you want to try it fully and include it in your songs.

Do ukuleles hurt your fingers?

Not really, because the strings are made out of nylon, which is softer on your finger pads.
It’s like playing just the nylon strings of a guitar – but softer!

How do you strum and fingerpick a ukulele at the same time?

Well, that’s a very advanced technique that’s reserved for the highest musicians.
Once you’ve mastered strumming at an intermediate level, and have wetted your hands with fingerpicking, you can try including both in a song – this is good practice.
After that, you can practice switching between fingerpicking and strumming a chord as fast as you can.
Eventually, you’ll be able to switch seamlessly between styles!

Conclusion

Strumming your uke is, of course, a vital part of playing it, which gives importance to the technique you use to do it.

In this guide, we showed you the best, standardized techniques of strumming a ukulele, which will help you find and settle for the one you prefer.

Also, we tried to guide you through your first steps into ukulele strumming notation, which will get more and more complex as you advance.

And, finally, we talked a little bit about the 4 basic ukulele strumming patterns, which as we said, can get you far enough.

However, the most important thing we emphasized throughout this article is that practice makes perfect.

At first, it’s not easy, because just thinking about how many things you must learn to fully master the instrument can be frightening.

Still, with our full confidence, we can tell you that you can master this and much more – if you have the patience and will to learn, that is.

We were a little intimidated when we were getting started, and that actually never stops, even when you’re an advanced player.

Why? Because there’s always something new to learn!

In that sense, the uke is a lovely instrument that’s been used throughout the world to teach music easily – it’s a fairly simple instrument.

Even so, what we’ve discovered so far about this tiny instrument never ceases to amaze us, feeding the passion that led us to learn its ways in the first place.

So, have you been practicing your strumming?