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Strum That Uke

This time around I wanted to write about the general concept of how to strum the ukulele. Or more specifically… how not to strum the ukulele. I’ve certainly watched my fair share of online videos on the subject, and many of them do offer some valuable insight. But… here’s the part that I always try to help people understand. Please don’t get so caught up in the mechanical process of 2 downs, 1 up, and a chunk that you forget that the whole point of playing the uke is to make music. I’m sure a lot of people want, and need, a very specific idea of what strums need to go where. However, the danger of that notion is that all of the feeling that makes the ukulele so cool gets sucked right out in the process. It’s possible that I’ve been strumming various stringed instruments for so long that I fail to realize how difficult it might be for beginners. On the other hand I tend to believe that people often make it more difficult than it needs to be.

So… take any one of a thousand videos that show how to play a particular song. Invariably they always get to the part about the strum pattern. Down, down, up, down… so forth and so on. My first reaction is always, Holy Moses, how boring is that going to get after about 30 seconds. Now I also realize that the point of the video is show the basic premise of the song. But… I see a lot of casual players assume that what they see in the tutorial is EXACTLY what must be played during the entire song. My contention is more along the lines of, strum in any way that makes the song feel right to you. For beginners, that might mean using a series of simple downstrokes playing quarter notes. And that’s cool if that what it takes to get through the song. But I always encourage people to let the rhythmic part of their brain figure out what the song needs and then do that. And for many that may require a lot of trial and error, which is really great because it’ll teach them how to feel a song rather than learn a strum pattern and sound like a robot.

Personally, I never think in terms of “what strum pattern should I use for this song?” I let the song guide me naturally which in turn allows for variation throughout the tune. Ultimately the song will sound more natural and organic, which ends up being more enjoyable for both the player and the listener.

Here’s something else to keep in mind. A song we wrote last year called “Just One More” changes feel during the course of the song. Some sections use a typical Reggae feel, (single downstroke on 2 and 4) while other sections use more of a swing feel. We purposely changed the strumming pattern based on the feel of a particular section. However… those strum patterns came about naturally. We didn’t sit down and say “let’s strum like this in the verse and then strum another way in the chorus.” In fact, we never talked about the strumming pattern at all. The song decided that for us.

So… just start strumming, using the song as your guide. In a fairly short period of time you won’t need to rely on someone else to tell you how many ups and downs you need. The ultimate payoff will be a more enjoyable playing experience for everyone.

As a side note, if you strum directly over the sound hole, the ukulele police WILL NOT show up and take your uke away.


Tune into your local PBS station during the month of December and catch The Atomic Sharks in their new TV special, “Play the Ukulele With The Atomic Sharks.”

“Just One More” will available soon on iTunes

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