Some of the most common questions I hear as a ukulele teacher are: 1. How do I know which strum to play for a particular song? And, in the beginner class: 2. Why do we have to learn strumming straight away? Can’t I just learn chords?
I’ve written this post to address these excellent questions.
I’ve collected much of this material from personal experience. My original working title for this post was “Dancing Queen was my Waterloo.” But I decided that this would confuse the internet search engines too much.
Keep reading and you’ll find more about this!
The strum is the rhythmic foundation of a song or piece of music.
Strumming means to play a ukulele by stroking or brushing the fingers across the strings. Ukuleles are usually strummed with the fingers. Guitar players often use a pick or plectrum to strum, because the strings are much harder.
If you want to play ukulele with a pick, you can buy a special ukulele pick which is a bit like a piece of stiff carpet.
Strumming on the ukulele means playing a rhythm pattern that intersects with the chords (the harmony) of a piece of music. And then there’s the singing – the melody.
Strumming isn’t the “show pony” aspect of music. Good strumming doesn’t draw attention.
Singing, strumming and playing chords, all at once, isn’t easy. You’re multi-tasking. But it’s incredibly satisfying. And, it’s ideal mind-body integration practice.
It’s also a great stress-buster. You can’t worry about anything else while you’re strumming, playing chords and singing.
I love strumming. I’m a bit of a rhythm geek. I played bass guitar in a band for many years, but that doesn’t involve strumming or even chords. You just play single notes on a bass.
Here’s a post I wrote about the bass guitar. I’m working on a post about ukuleles and basses – watch this space.
I love drumming too – hand drums, Brazilian samba band, cajon, etc. My rock band drumming career was brief because I don’t enjoy playing at loud volumes, even with earplugs.
I teach beginners to play strums right from the start, because that’s where we connect with the rhythm of a song. If you’re not connected with the rhythm, your chords won’t be in the right place.
I start with very simple strums and build up to more complicated strums over a few weeks.
Your hand and brain get gradually used to strumming and keeping in time while you play chords. It just takes time. You can’t make this happen faster by practicing longer and harder.
Which strum is best
I look for the simplest strum that’s right for a piece of music. That’s because for me, it’s important to be able to sing while I strum.
There are always more complicated strums that could also sound right for that song. But when you’re playing a more complex strum, it’s much harder to sing and strum at the same time.
Some people think fancy strums are better than simple strums, but I don’t agree.
What strum you play will depend on the style of the music; on your personal taste; and on your level of skill as a musician.
The simplest strum often sounds best, in my opinion. A very complicated strum may sound too busy, even when you’re playing it perfectly. But that’s a matter of taste.
When you’re playing in a group, you should strum to fit in with the group, and also to follow the directions of the group leader. (This is always a good choice!)
You can’t learn strumming from books
When I started teaching ukulele, I scanned music shops, books, and the internet for resources about learning to strum. I was disappointed to find beginner ukulele course books that promised on the cover to “get you strumming”, but glossed over strums, barely including one page about rhythm.
Most ukulele songbooks don’t include information about suggested strums.
What about strum charts?
Many online strum charts have at least 20 different strum patterns. But, the charts can’t explain how to match up a strum with a song. Also, they don’t show how to physically play the strums.
Also, there isn’t one ideal notation for strums. Some people use D for down and U for up; some use arrows showing down and up. Classical music notation can be used to indicate strums, but that’s not helpful for people who don’t already read music confidently.
I ended up creating my own strum chart, with nine strum patterns. It generally takes beginners several weeks to gradually build up their strumming co-ordination, to play most of these strums.
At the end of this post there’s a link to download a copy of my strum chart.
I use arrows in my strum chart, because I think using letters can create misunderstandings with chord names.
I’ve found that many popular ukulele strum patterns don’t have generally used names. The main exception to this is the Island strum, which is also called the Calypso strum. But even that strum has a few other names!
“Why don’t you write a book about strumming?” suggested Chris Penman at my local music shop, Shearer’s, after she’d been listening to me complain about the lack of ukulele strum resources.
Maybe I will.
How to start strumming
I don’t think it’s possible to learn to strum from reading a book or blog post. Even this one.
You learn strumming by watching, listening – and by doing it.
Youtube videos are very helpful. But, if you’re a total beginner, there are pitfalls. I’ve seen Youtube videos teaching advanced strums and describing them as “easy”.
Strumming takes time to develop. You may take a few weeks to learn a particular strum. Practice regularly and you’ll gradually improve.
I recommend you start with the basics and build up very gradually. That will train your strumming hand (if you’re right-handed, you strum with the right hand) to play in time, while your other hand changes chords.
By the basics, I mean very simple strums. Down (move your fingers down across the strings) and up (move your fingers up across the strings). Down, Down, Down, Down. And Down up, Down up Down up, Down up.
Do this for a week or so, before trying more complicated strum patterns. Your strumming will gradually improve, with steady practice over time.
One way to fast-track your strumming is to join a ukulele group or group class. When you’re playing along with a group of musicians who are in the groove, you’ll find you get carried along with the rhythm.
But, make sure you can play the basic chords and at least the simple down and up strums before you join the group, or you may just get lost.
The right strum
Figuring out the right strum for a particular song is a matter of trial and error. Every song is different!
It’s also a matter of taste. And, it depends on what style of music you’re playing in. E.g. you can give the same song a country or folk or reggae feel, by playing different strums.
I often include suggested strums with a song chart.
Some songs definitely suit one particular strum better than another. “Jamaica Farewell” is perfectly suited by the Island strum/ aka Calypso strum. So is “Stand By Me”. And, “Under the Boardwalk”.
With some other songs, there are several strum options. E.g. “Three Little Birds” has a different feel, depending on the strum.
Some songs (including many Beatles songs) have two or more strum patterns in different parts of the song.
Strumming on purpose
I know many highly skilled musicians who don’t think too much about strumming – they just strum intuitively. I think that’s fine if it works for them. But, it’s not so helpful when you’re an inexperienced player, trying to find your way into music.
Also, intuitive strummers may tend to play the same strum pattern for everything. For many people that’s the Island strum.
If you leap into playing Island strum straight away, and you find it intuitively easy to play, that’ll work for a while.
But sooner or later you’ll want to play a song that just doesn’t work with Island strum – and then you’ll be stuck, if you haven’t learned the basics.
“Dancing Queen” was my Waterloo
When I rediscovered the ukulele, after many years of playing single notes on a bass guitar, I had to retrain my strumming hand.
One day I tried to jump too far ahead and play the complicated syncopated strum pattern of “Dancing Queen”. My hand just wouldn’t/ couldn’t do it!
I had to swallow my pride and go back to the basics. After a few weeks of simple up and down strum practice, I found “Dancing Queen” was achievable. I still can’t sing that song at the same time as I’m strumming, though.
Download my strum chart here, which has all the basic strums written out.
And here’s a link to my Strum Series playlist on my Youtube channel. I go gradually through most of the strum patterns on my chart.
Want more help?
Book a ukulele lesson with me, using this link, and I can answer your questions about strumming.
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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