BY FRED SOKOLOW | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Also known as two-finger picking, double thumbing is a fingerpicking style used by many roots guitarists and banjoists, and, like most guitar and banjo techniques, it works well on ukulele. Double thumbing makes use of the thumb and only one finger, so there’s less variety than in three-finger picking patterns, but the approach can be the basis for some very rhythmic and exciting ukulele playing.
In this lesson, I’ll show you a bunch of double-thumbing patterns you can use to accompany singing. You’ll also learn how to build double-thumbing solos, using familiar tunes as examples. Whether or not you’re new to fingerpicking on the uke, double thumbing will open up new possibilities on your instrument while expanding your musical horizons!
In the double-thumbing style, your thumb (p) and index finger (i) do all the picking. Start with the basic pattern, as shown in Example 1a. If at first it feels awkward, stabilize your picking hand by anchoring your ring and pinky fingers on your ukulele’s top, below the soundhole. For further practice, play two bars of G and two bars of C over and over until they sound smooth and rhythmic (Example 1b).
Once you’re comfortable with the basic pattern, try using it as accompaniment for a song. Example 2 shows how to apply the pattern to the first several bars of the country number “Wabash Cannonball,” which was popularized by the Carter Family and Roy Acuff.
Of course, things will get monotonous if you always play the double-thumbing pattern exactly the same way. Example 3 demonstrates two variations that break up the stream of steady eighth notes with quarter notes on beats 1 and 3 of each bar. These variations are identical, except in the first bar the thumb is assigned to strings 3 and 4, while in the second measure, that digit is on strings 2 and 4.
In the double-thumbing approach, your thumb should handle most of the melody notes. For instance, Example 4a is the first few bars of the old spiritual “When the Saints Go Marching In,” picked entirely with the thumb. Using the pattern in the second bar of Ex. 3, you can flesh out the melody (Example 4b). To make things fancier, add more eighth notes, as shown in Example 4c, which will help keep the rhythm going while giving the arrangement an energy boost.
Example 5 shows some variations on the double-thumbing patterns you’ve learned so far. In the first bar, notice the pinch on beat 2—the thumb and index finger pick strings 1 and 4 simultaneously, disrupting the single-note texture. As with the patterns in Ex. 3, there are strategically placed quarter notes throughout. Also, the first bar introduces a pinch—the thumb and index finger pick strings 4 and 1 simultaneously.
After you’re comfortable with Ex. 5, try an arrangement of the old ballad “Railroad Bill,” as shown in Example 6. Note that the thumb is more active than the index finger, which sticks almost exclusively to the first string. The only exception is when the index finger picks string 2 in a 3–2–4–1 roll, as in the last half of bars 2, 4, etc.
Index-Finger Lead Rolls
When a melody is played on the first string, it’s best to use a double-thumbing pattern that sort of turns the basic pattern (Ex. 1) upside down. In Example 7, the index finger kicks things off, rather than the thumb. The thumb alternates between strings 2 and 4, and the index finger picks the melody when it falls on the second string.
In Example 8, we revisit “Wabash Cannonball,” this time with a double-thumbing solo. Because the melody moves between the first three strings, this arrangement makes use of both thumb and index-finger rolls. This example also introduces hammer-ons (see bars 5 and 7)—be sure to play these articulations as smoothly as possible. Also, you can strum the final G chord with your thumb.
Take It to the Next Level
Example 9 is the most difficult arrangement in this lesson, a double-thumbing take on the traditional ballad “Cold Rain and Snow,” known by many music fans as a Grateful Dead song. The song actually goes back over 100 years, and guitarist Jerry Garcia learned it from banjo player Obray Ramsey’s circa 1960 recording.
To play this arrangement, lower string 1 a whole step, to G from A, and raise string 2 by a half step, to F from E. The open strings form an open Csus4 chord (C F G), akin to the Appalachian sawmill banjo tuning, which creates an ominous, spooky mood. The thumb plays almost all the melody notes, and the many hammer-ons, slides, and pull-offs give it a banjo-like flavor. Pinches at the halfway point (bars 8 and 9) create a textural contrast, with the index finger picking the open first string for a droning effect.
I hope that you have enjoyed learning these accompaniment patterns and solos. Try using double thumbing on some tunes you love, and see if you can use it to play some of your favorite melodies.
Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth Basics lessons from instructors and frequent Ukulele magazine teachers Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, plus the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.