By Fred Sokolow
Because the ukulele and guitar have so much in common, uke players like me, who started on guitar, are inclined to adapt their guitar skills to the uke. The result can be pleasing to the ear, and can even push the envelope for ukers, creating new styles and sounds in the process.
One popular guitar style I sometimes use on the uke is the alternating-thumb fingerpicking popularized by acoustic blues guitarists of the 1930s, like Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake. Some people call it Travis picking, after the brilliant fingerpicking guitarist Merle Travis; others call it “raggy blues,” because it has a rhythm similar to ragtime piano. This type of picking made its way into pop, country, rock, and folk: Think of “Dust in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Going to California,” or the Beatles’ “Julia.”
Travis-style guitarists play alternating bass notes with their thumb, on all four downbeats of every measure, while playing melodies on the higher strings with their fingers. Those thumb beats provide a steady accompaniment, taking the place of a bass player and rhythm guitarist. Even though the uke doesn’t have “bass strings” like the guitar’s sixth and fifth strings, you can get the rhythmic feel of raggy blues by playing the downbeats with your thumb, alternating on the fourth and third, or fourth and second, strings.
Ex. 1: Basic Accompaniment Pattern
To get started, try a basic accompaniment pattern. In this type of music notation, the stems pointing up are the melody notes, played by the middle (marked as “m” in the music examples) and index (“i”) fingers. The stems pointing down are picked by the thumb (“p”).
Ex. 2: “Stagolee” Accompaniment
Here’s an example of how to use this pattern to accompany a tune. It’s an old 12-bar blues, “Stagolee,” that has been recorded by countless blues, rock, R&B, and country artists. The pattern stays the same throughout. Use the indicated fingering: Thumb, index, thumb, middle finger. As mentioned, the thumb notes are on all four downbeats of every bar. Many pickers anchor their picking hand by placing the ring and little fingers on the uke’s soundboard, just below the soundhole.
Ex. 3: “Stagolee” Solo
When you play fingerpicking solos, the thumb keeps playing those downbeats, relentlessly, while the fingers pick melody notes. The pattern you used to accompany “Stagolee” disappears, except for the thumb notes. Most beginners to this style find that picking melody notes throws the thumb off track. Here’s how to overcome this hurdle:
- Play the first measure of “Stagolee” over and over, slowly, until it flows evenly.
- Once you’ve mastered that bar, do the same with the second bar.
- Loop the first two bars, playing them over and over.
Ex. 4: “Stagolee” Solo with Syncopation
If the previous version of “Stagolee” sounds a little stiff, that’s because there’s no syncopation; all the melody notes coincide with the thumb notes. When you start placing occasional melody notes between the thumb notes, things get rhythmically interesting. This version of the same tune adds syncopation and some slides, hammer-ons, and other touches that make it swing.
Ex. 5: “Careless Love”
Here’s one more example of alternating thumb-style fingerpicking. “Careless Love” is a popular folk blues; you’ll find dozens (maybe hundreds) of versions on YouTube by blues, jazz, rock, country, folk, and pop singers. Here are a few highlights of the following arrangement at right:
- Sometimes the alternating thumb goes down to the second string.
- The thumb plays some of the melody notes, but it still plays every downbeat, four beats per measure.
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You’ll likely agree that this type of fingerpicking suits the uke well.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.