One of the many fun things you can do with a ukulele, after you’ve learned a few basic chords, is learn to fingerpick.
Have you ever sat and watched someone play a beautiful picking pattern, and thought, “That sounds amazing, and I wish I could do it, but I’m sure it’s really difficult”?
Here’s the secret: Simple fingerpicking (also called finger style) on the ukulele isn’t as hard as it looks. And your family and friends will be hugely impressed by your efforts. I can say this from personal experience!
I don’t consider myself an expert fingerpicker – I just enjoy it.
You will quickly find that you get far more accolades with simple fingerpicking, than you do by playing a complicated strum.
When you get the strum right, people just think the music sounds good. They don’t say, “Wow, she’s strumming really well!” The strum should blend seamlessly into the music.
Whereas fingerpicking is show pony stuff.
It’s not fair, but that’s just the way it is.
Picking is easy, but not instant
Simple fingerpicking on the ukulele isn’t super-hard. But like anything worthwhile, it’s not instant gratification. It will take you a few weeks of steady regular practice, to get your fingers used to plucking the strings in a regular pattern.
Also, it’s hard to fingerpick and sing at the same time. Well, I think so. That’s why I haven’t yet made many fingerpicking tutorials on my Youtube channel!
But fingerpicking on a ukulele is not as hard as fingerpicking on a guitar. There are fewer strings.
And with a ukulele, the expectations aren’t so high. People don’t expect ukulele players to be perfect. That takes a lot of pressure off.
When to start fingerpicking
Before you try to fingerpick, I recommend you first do a beginner ukulele course, like my DIY Beginner Ukulele course. That will take you four to six weeks.
When you’ve learned the basic chord shapes, and can play most of them without sneaking looks at the chord chart, and can change chords in time without stopping, then you’re ready to start learning to fingerpick.
The benefits of fingerpicking
- It sounds great
- It’s fun
- It’s wonderfully relaxing. When you’re practicing a fingerpicking pattern, you can’t think about anything else.
- Your friends and family will be impressed
- Choose one song.
- Choose one simple pattern.
- Sit down for 20 minutes a day and practice.
You don’t have to be able to read music to fingerpick. Reading tablature is handy for explaining the fingerpicking pattern for a specific song, but you don’t have to read the tab all the way through the song. Many people find it easier to fingerpick by ear.
If you start with an easy song arrangement, the pattern will be the same all the way through. You just pick the same pattern as you change chords.
Good songs to start fingerpicking
Start with something easy. Don’t try to start your fingerpicking career with “Stairway to Heaven” or “Blackbird”. Or “Here Comes the Sun”. These are all way beyond beginner level.
Songs with a 123 rhythm, or 123 456, often sound good with fingerpicking.
“Hallelujah”, “Skye Boat Song”, “Silent Night”, “Scarborough Fair” and “House of the Rising Sun” all sound great with a simple fingerpicking pattern.
Other songs that have a 1234 rhythm, and are fun to fingerpick, are “Hotel California”, “Sound of Silence”, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
“When I’m Gone”, also known as “Cups”, sounds great played by a group of ukulele players, with some players doing an easy picking pattern and others doing a simple down strum.
Songs that include an instrumental riff at certain places in the song are “Down on the Corner”, “I’m A Believer”, “Rhiannon” and “Brown Eyed Girl”.
Cynthia Lin’s arrangement of “Old Town Road” has a very cute picking pattern at the beginning and end.
A song with a strong rhythm, e.g. “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, probably won’t work so well with fingerpicking. But it’s a matter of trial and error. And personal taste.
How many fingers to use?
As with everything else about the ukulele, different teachers will recommend different techniques with fingerpicking.
Some teachers advise using thumb, first finger, second finger and third finger.
Other teachers and players use the thumb for two strings, and the first and second finger for the other two strings.
I tend to use my thumb for two strings. I think it creates a stronger rhythm.
However, I think it’s ideal to practice using more fingers. This is a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” Especially if you’re aiming to play more complicated fingerstyle songs one day.
When fingerpicking, rest your little finger – your “pinkie” – on the ukulele body. That gives your picking hand an anchor.
- Your thumb picks downward, and the other fingers pick (or pluck the string) upwards.
- Rest your little finger – your “pinkie” – on the ukulele body, below the sound hole. That gives your picking hand an anchor.
- It’s important to get in the habit of picking in regular time, right from the start. Practice with a metronome.
- Start very slowly at first.
Easy picking patterns to start
There are many fingerpicking patterns and techniques, but don’t worry about these at the beginning.
I suggest you choose one simple pattern, and get your hands used to playing it. After your fingers get used to picking, and your brain stops panicking, you can move on to more complex picking patterns. If you want to!
Two songs that I think are especially rewarding places to start fingerpicking are “Silent Night” and “Sound of Silence”.
“Sound of Silence” is particularly easy because in my version, you only need to pick three strings.
In my play-along video, I pick at the beginning and end, and strum throughout the song. But you could play the same picking pattern throughout the song.
Here’s the play-along video for “Sound of Silence”.
“Silent Night” has a picking pattern that uses four strings.
Here’s my “Silent Night” video.
And here’s a link to download the song chart for “Silent Night”, that includes the simple picking pattern.
How to read tablature
Tablature (or tab) is a kind of musical notation that is handy when you are learning fingerpicking.
The tab diagram shows where you place the fingers of your left hand on the fretboard.
Each line represents one string on the ukulele. It’s upside down from the way you hold the ukulele. I don’t know why! The name of each string is on the left. You read the tab from left to right.
The numbers show which fret you place your finger on, to pluck a single note. “0” means an open string, or string with no finger placed on it.
Pluck each note separately, starting with your thumb. Use other fingers when it’s convenient.
Sometimes the tablature shows two (or more) numbers lined up with each other. That means you pluck both those strings at the same time.
Tablature doesn’t show rhythm. It just shows which notes to play.
Different kinds of fingerpicking
Here are three common kinds of fingerpicking. (There are more, but this is a place to start.)
- Picking a chord pattern throughout a song
- Playing an instrumental riff at specific places in the song. This is usually part of a group arrangement. Some players will pick while others strum.
This kind of picking often needs a strong rhythm, so I suggest using the thumb rather than fingers if it’s a single note riff, e.g. the three-note solo in “I’m A Believer”.
- Combination fingerpicking/ strumming patterns, where you pick in some parts of the song and strum in others. Picking an intro and an outro in “Sound of Silence” is a very simple example of this.
Some people find they love picking. Others prefer strumming.
You won’t know until you try.
I hope you have fun with this!
Want to know more?
The best way to answer your beginner fingerpicking questions is in a lesson. I’ve tried answering fingerpicking questions via email, and it’s too tricky, believe me!
Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $US160 for six half-hour lessons.
I teach ukulele to adult learners all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach in-person classes.
I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.
These days I’m loving spreading the joy of ukulele playing throughout the world.
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