As a beginner ukulele player (or, as I like to say, an Ukulayer), there are four essential lessons you should learn as you embark on your ukulele journey. These are; how to tune your ukulele, how to hold it, how to play the basic chords, and finally, how to strum it!
In this article – as I’m sure you’ve guessed – we will be focusing on the fourth lesson, how to properly strum your ukulele. Now while the lessons above don’t necessarily need to be done in that order, I would highly recommend at least taking a look at any of the first three you have missed so far, as they each provide a key foundational skill that will make this lesson easier and more enjoyable!All caught up? Already did the first three? Don’t give two hoots about my advice on order? Well then, let’s get this party started!
Two Main Components
Let’s face it, when it comes to strumming the ukulele, there are so many techniques and patterns you can learn and use in your playing that it can be overwhelming! Here’s the secret though, all of those patterns and techniques, they all start with the same two main components; where you strum, and how you strum.
So for this beginner lesson, we are simply going to break down the process of strumming the uke into those two components to give you the basic foundational skill and understanding you need so you can branch off in whatever direction you choose.
Sound good? Ok, let’s start with…
Read more: The Best Ukulele Tuners On The Market
Where To Strum
This may feel like a rhetorical question (on the strings of course!), but I promise it’s not. Although ‘on the strings’ is technically correct, it actually makes quite a difference where exactly you strum on the strings. The sweet spot is where the neck of the ukulele meets with the body.
The closer you move your strumming hand towards the sound hole of the ukulele, the thinner your chords will sound, and if you go even further towards the bridge, you’ll find the strings get tenser, and are harder on your hands. Likewise, if we move the other direction, strumming further up the neck, we will get a thicker, fatter tone (plus we start to get in the way of our fretting hand!).
Now, I won’t say you never want to strum anywhere besides the sweet spot. There are times you might want a harsher or softer sound, and can adjust accordingly. As a beginner however, the spot where the neck meets the body will give you the best balance of tone, and likely be the most comfortable place for your strumming hand to be placed.
How to Strum (It’s All in the Wrist)
There are two questions we face within the how component of strumming; what do we strum with (i.e. what makes contact with the strings), and how do we move our body to strum (i.e. where do we generate the momentum to strum)? Let’s start with the second one.
The Body Mechanics of Strumming
When it comes to strumming, it’s (almost) all in the wrist! If you have gone through the lesson on how to hold your ukulele, you know that you place the fleshy, bottom bit of your forearm (closer to the elbow) on the body of the uke, somewhere above and behind the bridge. This helps to hold your uke in place. So what happens if you start moving your forearm up and down a bunch when strumming?
This is where the wrist comes in. The key here is in the rotation of the wrist. You DO NOT want to just bend your wrist side to side, this is bad for your wrist. Instead, we strum with a gentle rotation of the wrist, taking a bit of the forearm with it (it’s ok if your forearm moves a little, so long as it’s not what is driving the strum).
What to Strum With
When it comes to what you strum with, you have several options, but the two most common are the pointer finger and the thumb.
To strum with your pointer finger, hold it loose and with a slight downward ward curve. As you strum down, you are using your nail, and some of the soft bit behind it to make contact with the strings. When strumming up, you can use the fleshy side bit between your 3rd knuckle and the end of your finger (can you tell I have an extensive scientific understanding of hand anatomy!).
Tip: it might help to pretend to be holding a pick between your pointer finger and thumb when practicing, until eventually you can leave the thumb out of it.
To strum with your thumb, you use the soft padded bit (the part used to take a fingerprint) when strumming down, and the nail and topside when strumming up.
Tip: the thumb strum will give you a softer, quieter sound, well using your pointer offers a louder, brighter sound.
Can You Strum With a Pick?
If you, or someone you know plays a guitar, you may be wondering, can you use a pick on a ukulele? The short truth of it is that, while guitarists generally use picks, ukulele players tend to use their fingers. Most ukuleles have nylon or carbon strings, which are softer than the steel strings most acoustic guitars are fitted with. This means that the ukulele strings are easier on your fingers, and allow you to get a warmer, softer tone by using your fingers, as opposed to the bright and twangy sound of a pick on steel strings. Does that mean you can’t use a pick? Some uke players say it does, and that to use a pick on your uke is blasphemy of the highest order! But I say, do whatever floats your boat! Just know that using a pick on your uke will make for a much louder, tinnier sound, and it will be harder on your strings.
So, there you have it. You’ve now completed the four foundational lessons and are well on your way to becoming the ukulele player you know you can be! Now take that momenstrum (heh heh) and run with it!
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.