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Fingerpicking Patterns for the Ukulele

5 Essential Patterns to Improve your Fingerpicking 

by Kevin Rossi

Are you looking for a way to bring some new life to those same old C, F and G chords? If you’re tired of simply strumming away and are looking to add a new essential skill to your playing, then fingerpicking is a great place to start!

But what exactly is fingerpicking? It might sound like just another name for strumming the uke with your pointer finger instead of a pick, but it’s not! Fingerpicking is the process of plucking or playing individual strings on the ukulele in quick succession – while still holding chords – instead of strumming all four strings at once. 

Today we are going to go over 5 essential patterns every uke player should know!

PIMA – Finger names 

Before we jump into the patterns, it’s important to understand what we call each finger on your picking hand (typically right) so you can follow along with the patterns described later. 

In fingerstyle ukulele (and guitar), instead of just calling our fingers things like thumb, index, middle, and ring (which would be TIMR), we use the letters P for thumb, I for index, M for middle, and A for ring finger. This may seem confusing, but we do it this way because this method is based on using the names from romance languages like Spanish (pulgar, indice, medio, and anular) or Italian (pollice, indice, medio, and anulare). 

You’ll notice some of the names are very similar to what they are in English, so it’s really just the P and A that you’ve got to wrap your head around!

Which Fingers go to Which Strings?

There are a few ways to assign fingers to strings when fingerpicking. First, let’s establish a common language/numbering system for strings. The standard tuning for an ukulele is G – C – E – A, with G being the string closest to your head, and A being the string closest to the floor. Typically, we number them from the floor up, so the A is 1, E is 2, C is 3, and G is 4. 

The two most common ways of arranging our fingers when we fingerpick are to:

  1. Give each finger its own string. P = 4, I = 3, M = 2, A = 1. 
  2. Assign the thumb (P) to both 4 and 3 (G and C), and then M to 2, and A to 1. 

Pattern #1

Ok, so the first pattern is about as straightforward as you can get. Using the method where each of the four fingers is assigned to one string, we will play the strings in order from 4 down to 1 and then back up to 3, and then repeat. 

Without any chords, this looks like this:

———-0———–

——–0—0——–

—–0——–0——

—0————–—-

And for the fingers this would look like this:

————A———–

——–M—–M——–

——I————I—–

—P—————-—

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Ok, now let’s add some chords! For the sake of simplicity, for all the patterns in this lesson we will use the chords C – Am – F – G. However, if you want to simplify it even more at first, you can always pick these patterns while either holding no chords (just using the open strings), or while holding just the C chord.  

Play this pattern once for each chord and then switch to the next chord. If this presents too much of a challenge, try playing it twice for each chord before switching. 

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Pattern #2

For this pattern, we will switch to the method where the thumb (P) is assigned to strings 4 (G) and 3 (C). For the first half of the pattern, play string 4 with P, then 2 with I, followed by 1 with M, and finally 2 with I again. Then for the second half, do the same, except play 3 with P instead of 4. It will look like this:

——– M——–M—–

——I—–I—–I—–I––

—————P———-

—P————–——–

This type of alternating thumb pattern is very popular and is sometimes referred to as “Travis Picking.” The notes and rhythms being played by the other fingers can change for Travis Picking, but the staple concept of this style is the alternating thumb acting almost as a bass player.

Again, try this pattern using the four chords listed above, switching chords after completing the pattern once or twice, or just play it with open strings to get the hang of it!

Pattern #3

Let’s go back to the first method, where each finger is assigned a separate string. This pattern is very similar to the first pattern, but will give your brain a nice challenge. 

We’ll start again by playing string 4 with P, but then we will skip string 3, and instead play string 2 with M. Now go back to string 3 and play it with I, before finishing off with string 1 played with A. 

——– ——-A–——-

——–M—-—–—–––

————-I—-———-

—-P————-——–

This pattern is a bit shorter, so I would play it through twice for each chord before switching to the next chord. 

Pattern #4

And back again we go to an alternating thumb pattern. For this one, we will again start by striking string 4 with P, but will this time follow it by playing both string 2 and string 1 (with I and M respectively) at the same time. Then, we’ll play string 3 with P, followed again by both string 2 and 1 at the same time. 

—–M——M———

——I——-I———–

———-P————–

—P————–——–

To give this pattern a nice ¾ waltz sound, play strings 2 and 1 an additional time in between each thumb note.

Like this:

—–M–M——M–M——

——I-–I——–I—I——–

————–P————–

—P————–———–

Pattern #5 

For our last pattern, we will return one final time to assigning each finger to its own string. This time however, we will keep the idea of playing two strings at the same time as we just did in pattern #4. To start, we will play strings 4 (P) and 1 (A) at the same time followed by string 3. Next, we play strings 4 (P) and 2 (M) together, followed again by string 3 (I).

—A——–———

———-M———–

——-I——–I——-

—P—–P———–

This one will probably take a bit more practice, but it’s worth it!

As you begin to master the patterns in this lesson, feel free to start mixing and matching them and coming up with your own combinations and variations. You can even alternate between patterns when switching chords! For example, try playing patterns #1 and #3 back and forth, playing #1 on the first chord, and #3 on the second chord, and so on. 

For more lessons on chords, techniques, and songs to help you along on your own uke journey, make sure to check out our site www.ukelikethepros.com. We offer you a bunch of great ukulele content that comes hand-in-hand with an awesome ukulele community that will support you in this journey.

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