If you’ve learned a few chords on your ukulele and are looking for a way to take your playing to the next level, you have come to the right place! Today I’m going to teach you how to play what is widely considered to be the most popular strum pattern for the ukulele – the Island Strum!
Originating from traditional Hawaiian music, the Island Strum has been used in countless songs (most famously in Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow) and is quite possibly the most ukulele sounding thing you can play on a ukulele.
By the time we’re finished here, you will not only have everything you need to master this quintessential strum, but also an understanding of how strumming notation works so you can figure out other patterns as you come across them. So grab your uke and let’s get strumming!
How to Read Strumming Notation:
There are several ways to write out or notate strumming patterns, but the most important thing to understand here is that the patterns will always be written as some combination of “upstrokes” and “downstrokes.” An upstroke is exactly what it sounds like, starting below the strings and strumming up across the strings towards yourself. A downstroke then is the opposite, meaning we strum away from ourselves across the strings towards the floor.
Upstrokes are most commonly notated as an upper case U, or an upward-facing arrow of some kind (^ or ↑), while downstrokes are written as an uppercase D, or a downward-facing arrow (v or ↓).
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, here is an example – D U D U. Can you strum it? This notation calls for a downstroke, followed by an upstroke, then another downstroke followed by an upstroke. Written with arrows it would look like this: v ^ v ^ or ↓ ↑ ↓ ↑. Pretty straightforward, right?
The next thing you want to understand is the importance of the spacing between the letters/symbols because while the letters/symbols tell us how to play, the spacing will tell us when to play (if you want the why we play: because it’s fun!).
To understand timing, we need to have a basic understanding of measures. Don’t worry, I’m talking very basic here – like pumpkin spice basic. Measures are what all pieces of music are broken down into. They are essentially small sections of a piece that each contain a specific number of beats. For our purposes today we will focus on measures containing 4 beats each – beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 – as this is the most common.
So going back to our first example (D U D U) we can see that there are 4 strokes, and now that we know there are four beats per measure, we can see that each stroke in this pattern falls on a numbered beat:
Again, pretty simple, right? But what if we come across a strum pattern where some letters are touching like this, D U DUD? Spoiler alert: you are about to come across one down below!
To tackle a pattern like this, the beats will have to be further broken down into sub-beats, giving us something like this: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + (If you wanted to count this out loud you’d say “one and two and” and so on). Looking at our latest example (D U DUD), we can see that the first two strokes are just like our original example and therefore will fall on beats one and two, but what about the last 3 strokes?
Essentially, normal space equals a beat, and no space equals a sub-beat. Make sense?
The Island Strum
Now that you understand the basics of how to read strumming pattern notation, let’s take a look at the pattern you came here to learn!
Here is the Island Strum:
D DU UDU
Before reading anymore, give it a try and see how you do. How did it sound? Think you’ve got it? No? Let’s break it down some more.
So as far as strokes go, we’ve got down, down-up, up-down-up. But what about the timing?
Notice that the second upstroke falls on the sub-beat between beats 3 and 4, not on beat 3. Because the first upstroke falls on a sub-beat, and there is a normal space between it and the second upstroke, we read that as being a full beat (or space) away from the one before it.
So there you have it, the Island Strum! I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and will take what you’ve learned here and use it to not just play the Island Strum, but to be able to decipher other strum patterns as you come across them (and heck, why not create some of your own?).
If you found this lesson to be challenging, or just want more of the basics of strumming on the ukulele, try out this post on the basics of strumming.
For more lessons on chords, techniques, and songs, 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.