BY RALPH SHAW | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The thrilling strum that George Formby used in his ukulele solos is known as the split stroke. Also known as the syncopated strum, its roots go back to ragtime music. Ragtime—from “ragged time,” so called because to American and European ears of the late 19th century it sounded as if the rhythm was being torn to shreds—was a far cry from the sedate waltzes most people were used to. This is a demanding strum to do well but, once you get it, it’s an exciting ukulele technique to know and add to many styles of music.
Ukulele songs in 4/4 time are usually strummed with strong down beats on the 1, 2, 3, and 4, and lighter up strums on the and beats, as shown in Example 1.
What makes the split stroke different is that it breaks the rules of normal strumming, interspersing single notes with full strums and, more important, shifting the emphasis of certain beats (shown on a G chord in Example 2). The usual heavy strum on 2 is displaced to the and of that beat. This is followed by a light single note on beat 2, which is normally a heavy downbeat.
To successfully play the split stroke, you might need to challenge your notion of what strumming is. You can thumb-strum the stroke at a slow speed, but when the tempo picks up, that approach probably won’t work. So, it’s best to learn the strum using your index finger, with the primary motion coming from the rotation of your forearm.
As you try to learn the stroke using the breakdown that follows, stick to the discrete moves in the pattern. Practice slowly at first, bringing the strum up to tempo as the motion gets ingrained in your muscle memory. Here’s a breakdown of the pattern as shown in Ex 2:
- Begin with a down strum on beat 1, as in a typical 4/4 pattern.
- Bring your index finger up, picking the first string on the and of beat 1.
- Here’s the important and tricky bit: On beat 2, bring your finger down to strike the fourth string, and immediately place the finger above that same string so it is ready to strum down again.
- Strum down on the and of beat 2.
- Bring your index finger up to pick the first string on beat 3.
- On the and of 3, pick the fourth string and immediately place your finger above that string, so it is ready to strum down.
- Strum on beat 4.
- On the and of 4, bring your index finger up to pick the first string.
Also, bear these two main things in mind when learning the split stroke: 1) As with all strums, make sure that all the beats are on time, and 2) accentuate the heavily strummed beats so that they contrast with the lighter picked notes. This is what will make the syncopated ragtime sound pop.
Some George Formby listening: