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One Hand Strum Man, Karl Jackson

An inspirational story that needed to be told!

by Susan Montgomery

Every now and then I come across an ukulele player who is like no one I’ve seen before. I met Karl Jackson, better known as One Hand Strum Man, months ago and he is inspiring other players as he plays with heart and determination. Karl is a Michigan native who taught himself how to play the ukulele with one hand. A stroke at age 12 left him with the use of only one hand. Read below and find out what makes Karl so unique!

Ukulele Beginnings

Karl was told he would never be able to play anything more than techniques like hammer-ons on a stringed instrument. He believed this for over 25 years and didn’t bother trying to learn how to play a stringed instrument. His daughter started learning how to play the ukulele in 2019 and he decided to try it. He searched out videos and scoured the internet, only to find there are very few one-handed ukulele players.

Karl tried different ways of holding the ukulele, first laying it in his lap. Then something just clicked! If people could play lap guitars, why couldn’t he play the ukulele the same way? He played like this for a while and has since learned how to play with a strap. Karl even had a strap button installed at a unique spot recently, right behind the neck, to make it more comfortable for him.

Unique Techniques

Karl has been playing the ukulele for four years now. He started with a Ubass to build his finger strength up for fretting and picking. “I have played harmonica for many years, and the hand drum since I was a teenager, “ Karl says. Inventing his own techniques was a challenge. “At first it seemed impossible; I had to rethink everything that was set as the ‘standard’ for playing the ukulele. I started with my ukulele on my lap like a steel guitar or dulcimer while teaching my pinky to pick and strum. I had to train my other 3 fingers to do the fretwork for getting the different notes and keep them out of the way of the pinky.  It took me nearly 2 years to be able to do chords with multiple fingers,” Karl says.

Each Song is a New Challenge

When Karl learns a new song, he encounters many challenges. “Strumming patterns are very difficult to change up. The muscle memory training involved to get the rhythms from my pinky makes it easy to slip into a more practiced pattern,” Karl says. He enjoys playing many styles from jazz to jigs, but his favorite style is the Blues. He has participated in online Blues Challenges for a few years, recently learning how to play the Blues in the Key of D.

Read more: The Oldest Surviving Ukulele Brand

Advice for Others

Karl is inspiring to many people, especially those with physical challenges. “My biggest advice to anybody looking to play an instrument while having a physical limitation is to try! Pick the instrument up, and find how you can comfortably handle it. If it’s lying on your lap, sitting next to you on the couch, or on the floor and you pick with your toes, start there.” He assures that you need to be kind to yourself: “You aren’t going to start out the gate sounding amazing. That takes practice. Start with the fundamentals, making a clear note. Learn your scales, arpeggios, and simple songs and one step will lead to another. Finally, and most importantly, have fun with it. The enjoyment that playing an instrument brings cannot be compared to, even if you are playing only for yourself.”

Karl goes by the name One Hand Strum Man on social media. You can find him on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok as @OneHandStrumMan. Karl is currently learning how to play ragtime tunes on the ukulele, which has quickly become a favorite style. In addition to playing music, he is a third-generation fiber artist (spinner/weaver), and beekeeper, and has been home brewing for as long as he can remember, specializing in mead (honey wine). Karl will be playing at various festivals in the Michigan area this year.

Check him out! Perhaps you will be inspired by his heart and determination and love for this great, little instrument.

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