6 Ukulele Strum Patterns that Beginners Need To Know

How can I tell what the strumming pattern is?

One of the questions I get asked most often by beginners is ‘what is the strumming pattern’. In the beginning, it’s nice and comforting to have a prescribed strumming pattern, and it’s helpful to follow a set rhythm. As you learn more about music, you’ll ditch this idea, and mix it up, adding shifts in rhythm and dynamics (louder or quieter in certain bits for emotional effect) to suit the mood of the song. That said, it’s good to learn a few basic rhythms that you can strum in the beginning, to practice your timing and co-ordination. When you’ve got a few of these strumming ‘patterns’ under your belt, you’ll have a bunch of tools in your box to work with.

To start up, it’s worth nailing some basic common time (counting in 4’s, also known as 4/4) strums.

Here are 6 basic strumming patterns you really need to know:

1 2 3 4
D D D D
DU DU DU DU
D DU DU DU
D DU U DU
D D DU DD
D X DU DD

If you need to see/hear this in action, here’s a video to help you.

If you’re in London, you’ll learn this in our courses. If not, this is also a tutorial from our YouTube series, 30 Day Ukulele Challenge. Why not give that a go?

I’m left handed. Can I play the ukulele?

I want to start this blog by saying, honestly that I’m right handed. I don’t want anyone to think I’m implying that I’m left handed, as I’m not. I just care about my students, so I’ve done a lot of research on this subject.

In terms of my experience, I’ve been teaching since 2008 and I know A LOT of left handed ukulele players, both from my classes and also from Ukulele Wednesdays. As I wanted to get it right in the early days, I asked a lot of questions, and I’ve sat in on many hours of debate about what is the right thing to do for lefties. From this, I’ve deduced that there are two schools of thought:

Camp 1:

Believe that left handed ukulele players should play their ukuleles in a right handed tuning. The justification for this is that you don’t see any left handed pianos, or left handed violin players in an orchestra.

Pros:

1. There are more tabs available to you
2. You can play more people’s ukuleles – as there are more people who play right handed
3. Your stronger hand makes the chords

Cons:

1. If this doesn’t feel natural to you, you’re fighting your instinct and that can make strumming harder (though if you’re happy playing righty, that’s great)
2. You’ll find it odd playing lefty after you’ve trained yourself righty

Camp 2:

Believe that left handed ukulele players should play their ukuleles in a left handed tuning. The simplest way to do this is to switch the middle two strings around, as the outside two strings are very similar in thickness. Ideally you’d adjust the bridge and neck, too, but if you’re looking for simplicity you won’t want to do that yourself, so just switch the middle two strings for now. You can see how to change strings here.

Pros:

1. If this feels the most natural way for you to hold it, you’re following your instinct.
2. You can play other left handed people’s ukuleles – as the righties can’t
3. Your stronger hand does the strumming

Cons:

1. There aren’t many ukulele tabs that are written up for left handed players.
2. You’d find it difficult testing out right handed ukuleles, say, in a shop before buying, for example.

So, there you have it, in a nutshell. 3 pro’s and 2 cons of playing left vs right. I think the short answer is to do what feels natural for you. Some people honestly prefer to play right handed when they’re left handed, yet some naturally prefer to play lefty. The right thing to do is what is right for you. Here at Learn To Uke, we’ll support you no matter which hand you choose to strum with.

Grab yourself a left handed chord chart from here.

What if you want to get more technical than just swapping the strings around? Read more here.

5 Ukulele Strumming Considerations

5 Ukulele Strumming Considerations (Should I Cut my Nails?)

We often get asked questions about how to strum, where to strum, what to strum with and lots of other, more detailed questions. Thank you for asking, this blog is just for you! Before I answer how where and what with, I’d like to cover 5 things.

1. Should I cut my nails?

In a word, yes. On the chord making hand. If you have long nails on the chord making hand, it will keep your finger away from the strings. You need your fingertip to be able to press the strings down to make a chord, or it will sound ‘dead’ or ‘muted’. Chords need three or more notes sounding, so three strings ringing clearly to make a chord. If some of your strings are dead your chord may sound unusual and not as you want it to. Later on, when you’ve been playing for a while, if you want to pick notes out (this is sometimes known as playing fingerstyle) then it may help to have long nails or acrylic nails on the finger picking hand. (As I do at times, shown in the photo above)

Ukulele Nails

Ukulele nails – short on the fretting or chord making hand, and long (if possible) on your strumming or picking hand.

2. Can I play with my thumb?

In practice, you can play with any digit you like. I prefer to play with my finger, as the nail hits on the on beat, with the flesh coming back up on the off beat. If you play with your thumb the reverse is true. That’s good if you’re looking to get a reggae or ska feel, or play gently for jazzy or gentle songs, but starting out it might be worth learning to play with your finger.

3. Can I play with a plectrum?

If you want to be really loud, and play lead lines and single notes, then yes, do play with a plectrum. I prefer not to, I prefer finger picking both for strumming and for lead melody playing.

4. Can I use a felt pick?

Yes, but I think it’s better to learn to use your finger to strum, as there are many percussive strums and ukulele tricks you can employ later on which use a finger, some fingers, or finger and thumb combos.

5. Where (on the ukulele) do I strum?

It sounds nicest if you strum over the fretboard. The strings are closer to the fretboard than they are to the body, so you’re less likely to catch your finger when you’re strumming there, than if you were strumming lower down towards the soundhole. Also, you are less likely to damage the body of the ukulele as you won’t bash it if your finger lands in mid air, whereas you’ll end up with a hole if your nails bash the body. A musical and a practical reason to shift your finger along!

Want to see a video to help you along? Here you go!

10 ways to improve your ukulele playing…

We often get asked for tips on how to become a better ukulele player.  Here’s a few ideas to help you along and help you to improve your ukulele playing.

absolute beginners ukulele course in London

1.  Get lessons.  Come and learn in a group with us.

We were bound to say that, right?  And yes, there are many other ways to learn to play the ukulele.  You can learn from a book, you can learn via YouTube, you can learn from your pals, or at a jam night.  The thing is, when you book lessons with a teacher, you’re getting their years of experience, with hints, tips and guidance. They’ll watch your technique, and answer your questions and go over it until you’re confident.  When you learn in a group, it’s more fun, you can socialise with your peers and it gives you the impetus to want to play along.  Ukulele is a social instrument, after all.

2.  Do your homework.  Practice playing, (and singing).

Yes, the dreaded P word.  But, all the greats practice for many, many hours to be come accomplished musicians.  You’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to spend quite that many hours practicing to strum along with your chums down the pub, but to play the songs well, you should take some time playing on your own at home.  Practice can be divided up into a few more points…

3.  Practice the things you find hardest most often.

It’s all well and good keep playing a song, but getting stuck at one point.  Practice the point that you get stuck on so that you don’t get stuck and you can play that song you love in it’s entirety, well.

4.  Strumming (and singing).

“It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy.”  Yes, it is.  It’s also like driving a car and chatting to your passenger, when you first pass your test.  These things are possible, but first you need to get comfortable with the first thing, and introduce the second as soon into it as you can.  In the case of strumming, strum in a regular even tempo, repeating the strum so you are comfortable, and then sing as soon as you are able to stop concentrating on what your hand is doing.  Keep trying to take away the focus from your hand.

5.  Chord changing.

If that’s the bit that you’re finding difficult, take the two, three, or however many chords in succession that you’re hesitant on switching between and keep looping them until you find it easy to switch between them.

6.  Timing.

If you’re struggling to keep in time, try playing along with the track you like, or grab a metronome (there are free apps available).  Play along and keep in time with the track or metronome and don’t let the previous stumbling points stop you!

7.  Play at a local ukulele jam.  

In London there are loads including Ukulele Wednesdays, every Wednesday. Playing with others is not only fun, but a good way to meet others and get better if you’re in your early playing stages.

 

Ukulele Wednesdays at the Albany, London.

Ukulele Wednesdays at the Albany, London.

 

8.  Make audio recordings.

There are many ways to make free audio recordings of your playing.  Voice recorder apps are widely available on most smartphones, free of charge.  Record yourself singing the song, and wait for a week to listen back to it.  You’ll notice any areas for improvement and you can work on them.

9.  Make video recordings.

Very much like audio recordings, you can get a lot from watching yourself a while after you’ve recorded yourself playing and singing.  You can spot any areas for improvement and work on them.  It’s reported that Tina Turner and Usher watch their tapes immediately after every performance.  Whilst we don’t suggest you become this level of perfectionist if you are just playing for fun, it’s good to see where you’re up to by watching yourself after you’ve played.  Hell, if you love your performance, you could pop your cover version on YouTube for everyone to enjoy.

10.  Go and play at an open mic night.

There are many ukulele open mic nights or standard open mic nights where you can unleash your talents on the world.  You’ll be in a wonderful supportive environment, and you’ll know from the audience feedback how your performance is doing.