This is a post about strumming and the ukulele. Strumming is where we connect with the rhythm of the music.

I’ve learned a lot about strumming in my journey with the ukulele, as a player and teacher. And very little of it was from books.

You can’t learn to strum a ukulele by reading a book or a post. Even this one!

Some books say they’ll teach you to strum. But they don’t. Because they can’t. Unless you already know quite a lot about music. Most written ukulele parts gloss over the strum.

So where do you start?

Rhythm is crucial to playing ukulele. It’s every bit as important as playing the right chords and singing in tune. Okay, you have to do those too!

The way to learn to strum, in my experience, is to listen and watch, and then try it out. And ask questions, and then practice some more. And keep going. It doesn’t happen straight away. You’ll get better gradually.

I’ve made a series of Youtube videos showing how to play basic strums. Here’s a link to the first one, Strum Series 1 – Beginner strums:

Strumming and books

You can’t learn to strum by reading music. Classical music notation doesn’t work particularly well when it comes to notating strums.

Neither does any other kind of music notation I’ve ever found. They’re always an approximation of how the strum actually goes. They are useful for indicating what strum would be good for a particular song.

The limits of strum charts

There are charts with huge numbers of strums on them. But this is only somewhat helpful when you don’t know which song goes with which strum. And also, maybe you don’t know how the strums really sound.

I think at the beginning it’s helpful to learn a much smaller number of strums. You can download for free my strum chart here. I’ve trimmed it down to nine basic strums.

Strumming in groups

Playing in a group with other reasonably competent musicians is a great way to get better at strumming. Once you get to a certain stage of confidence, you’ll get swept along with the rhythm of the music. This is called “entrainment”, and it’s one of the great pleasures of making music in a group. One friend told me it’s like the feeling he gets when surfing.

Which strum is the right one?

I think the right strum is the easiest strum that fits with a particular song. That’s my favourite answer.

I want to be able to sing while I’m strumming. Some complicated strums are hard to play at the same time you’re singing. Even when you’re a skilled and experienced musician.

However, as long as it fits with the rhythm of a song, you can play whatever strum you prefer. Many musicians play the same strum for everything. (Although personally I think this is boring!)

Youtube and strums

Youtube videos are great for playing along with musicians. However, many Youtube musicians use strums that are quite hard for less experienced players.

A good example is Brother Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s iconic Hawaiian version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This is the song that inspires lots of people to play ukulele.

It looks easy, but it’s actually very tricky! That’s because Brother Iz was an awesome musician, and a brilliant singer too. But he makes it look so simple and chilled-out…

First steps to strumming

The place to start is to learn three or four basic chords and then change chord while counting a regular 1,2,3,4 beat.

Use a metronome to help you keep a regular beat, especially at the beginning. There are lots of online metronome apps, some paid and some free. Or you can buy a metronome at a music shop, starting at about $25 for a small electronic model.

Metronome online is a free metronome app that I think is pretty easy to use, but you may find others you like better.

Set the metronome to 60 BPM (beats per minute). Start by strumming a down stroke on the first of every four beats.

When you can do that easily, try strumming on each beat, while you count 1, 2, 3, 4.

This is the beginning of your journey to developing rhythm.

To find out more about strumming, check out my Strum Series of videos on Youtube. See the link above in this post.

And here’s another post, with more about strumming: Ukulele strumming basics

Hi, I’m Alice

I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.

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.

Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $US160 for six half-hour lessons.

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Alice Bulmer music

Photographed by Brooke Baker

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