Strums and rhythms can be a very powerful musical tool and, when used correctly, can completely change the entire mood of a song without even changing the chords.
Basic Strumming Patterns
One of the main reasons the ukulele is so popular is that you can use it for practically any type of song. All you need to do is get a good rhythm going.
These days, most of us use our fingers. While I strum down with my index finger and up with my thumb, many players use their index to strum both up and down, and others use their thumb exclusively. I’m in favor of whatever works—whatever feels comfortable for you, as long as you get a good rhythmic groove.
As a general rule, you can get a groove going by strumming down on the downbeats and up on the upbeats, or the “ands.” If you divide one measure of 4/4 time (four quarter-notes per bar) into eight equal parts (1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&), the numbers are downstrokes and the “ands” are upstrokes.
Rock music often involves steady eighth-note strums, played straight (evenly), as heard on classics from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Proud Mary.” You can easily create syncopation—a deliberate emphasis on the weaker beats—to the basic eighth-note pattern by using “ghost strums,” in which your pick hand makes strumming motions, but you intentionally miss the strings.
The shuffle beat is heard in everything from jazz to R&B to bluegrass. Its main feature is a swing feel, in which downstrokes are given more emphasis than upstrokes—they’re louder and they last longer. Just like the rock strum, the shuffle beat can be easily varied with ghost strums.
Sixteenth notes come into play for the strumming patterns on classic-rock ballads like “Hey Jude” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The insistent down-up strumming pattern is similar to the previous patterns, but instead of eighths, the beat is divided into 16ths (1-e-&-ah-2-e-&-ah, etc.).
In waltz, or 3/4 time, you’ve got three quarter notes to the bar, as opposed to four. From “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to “Norwegian Wood,” there are many great waltzes in country, pop, and beyond.
The Flamenco Rumba Strum
Luckily for us, the rumba strum happens to be one of the most useful, fun, and great-sounding strums you can do on any song in 4/4 time. The flamenco rumba is well known in its modern form, and has become very popular thanks to artists like Paco de Lucía and more recently the Gypsy Kings’ style of pop Latin rumba. Songs that have a Latin flair to them will work nicely with it, but you can also use it on songs that are usually played in totally different styles. As ukers, we are no strangers to making things up for fun and mashing styles and lyrics together in new ways to make ourselves and our friends smile, so let’s get started!
Begin by placing your strumming hand flat over all the strings and top of your ukulele around the area of the soundhole. This is the “tap” part of the strum and is the center of the groove. Then, from the flat-hand tap position, lift upward and play the strings with the upstroke of your index finger. Try Example 1 a few times, saying “tap-up-tap-up” and watch as you stop the strings with your flat hand and pull lightly up with your index.
The most important technique of this strum is keeping your hand flat against the body of the instrument without coming away or “bouncing off,” which would put you on the wrong part of the cycle for the next beat. So, imagine that when you tap, there’s a little magnet that holds your hand to the body, and then the index finger pulls up toward your face, strumming the strings right from the flat position.
Now try the tap, followed by the index up, and add another down-up with just your index finger (Example 2). This is a great strum in itself and is used widely in calypso music. Say “tap-up-down-up-tap-up-down-up” and repeat this many times slowly until it starts to feel natural and makes a rhythm. Remember your hand’s imaginary magnetic attraction to the top of the ukulele and avoid the impulse to pull away or bounce before you pull up.
Example 3 is where it all comes together. Adding two down-up strokes before the rhythm we just learned will complete the rhumba pattern. This time, the first down-up is with the index finger, and the second is with the thumb. It may take you many revolutions to get used to the feel of changing fingers, but this is well worth the time. Practice saying “down-up-down-up, tap-up-down-up” and slowly work on it until all the correct fingers and taps are in place. It can be very helpful to mute the strings with your fretting hand and just practice the strum with a scratching sound as well.
As you become used to the rhythm, and can play it a bit faster and lighter, try to play the up stroke with your thumb before the tap just a hair louder, giving it an accent that will nicely affect the sound for this style. Get into the feel of it by saying “down-up-down-UP-tap-up-down-up.” The faster the strum goes, the more you will feel the importance of this accent.
George Formby’s Ragtime Split Stroke
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. 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.
1) Begin with a down strum on beat 1, as in a typical 4/4 pattern
2) Bring your index finger up, picking the first string on the and of beat 1
3) 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
4) Strum down on the and of beat 2
5) Bring your index finger up to pick the first string on beat 3
6) On the and of 3, pick the fourth string and immediately place your finger above that string, so it is ready to strum down
7) Strum on beat 4
8) On the and of 4, bring your index finger up to pick the first string
Essential Hawaiian Strums
A well-strummed ukulele is the heartbeat of traditional Hawaiian music. When a strum is executed to perfection, it can make the difference between a dragging, uninteresting song and a song that makes a hula dancer want to immediately get up and dance.
Sometimes known as “swing” or “double swing,” this “classic” Hawaiian strum (Ex. 1) is useful in Hawaiian music as well as rock, pop, and folk. I use it on roughly 75 percent of the songs I play.
Notice that the strum begins before the first beat of the measure, which creates a syncopated feel, especially when you’re singing along to it.
The “ʻOlapa strum” (Ex. 2) is another strum that also goes by various names, including the “await for me” strum, since the strum sounds like the rhythm of those words. The word ʻolapa means “dancer” in Hawaiian and this very rhythmic and widely used strum is often heard accompanying hula dancing. Like the classic strum, the dancer strum begins before the first downbeat—but this time on an upstroke.
For a more contemporary feel, I like the “modern strum” (Ex. 3). It can be very complex and is highly syncopated, so be sure to start slow and increase your speed as you feel more comfortable with the rhythm. Also notice that the downbeat right before the third beat is emphasized, which adds to the syncopation.