I’ve been working on ukulele strums and decided to write up a blog post on the topic. While this post is uke focused, much of it can be applied to guitar or any “strummable” instrument.
How to Strum
A key question arises quickly: how does one strum a ukulele? I have a preferred technique but it’s not the only one out there. Some people use…
- The thumb.
Some call this “Hawaiian style” and it usually involves strumming down with the underside of the thumb, generating a soft attack on the strings. Strumming upstrokes uses the nail of the thumb.
- The claw.
(Not to be confused with clawhammer style strumming.) In this method you bring your thumb and index finger together with the rest of the fingers lined up against the index. This claw hand can then be used to strum up and down against the strings.
- The invisible pick.
This is my preference; it’s like a simplified claw. I bring my thumb and index finger together to a position similar to holding a guitar pick. I then use the index finger, supported by the thumb, to strum up and down.
- A real pick
You can, of course, just use a real pick to strum a uke. For a variety of reasons this is not as popular as hand techniques.
There are more esoteric styles of strumming but this covers the basics. A good video tutorial demonstrating Hawaiian and claw style strumming is here.
I discuss this topic a bit more at “The nuances of uke strumming.”
Strumming is fundamentally about keeping the time of a song. Most popular music is broken into various groups of beats, usually denoted as 4/4 and 3/4. 4/4 has four beats per measure, and 3/4 has three. Here’s a very basic strum in 4/4 which involves strumming downward on all the beats.
Each beat of a measure can be divided in half. Often this will be counted as “one and, two and, three and, four and etc.” You can hit the “and” beats, usually called off beats, by strumming upward with an upstroke, bringing your strumming hand to its original position. Here’s an example in 4/4 time that hits all the down beats with a downstroke and hits the off beats of beats two and four with upstrokes.
The last diagram is a probably busier strum than you would want for most songs. But once you get this busy up and down movement in your comfort zone you can come up with all sorts of strums by subtracting strokes from each bar long strumming pattern. You can subtract strokes in two ways.
- You can simply miss the strings as you perform the up or downstroke. You still move your hand as if performing a stroke, just don’t brush the strings. (You have to “leap over” the strings.)
- With your fretting hand you release your grip on the chord so that your fingers merely lay on the strings. This creates a percussive sound when you strum. Of course, if the chord has some open strings in it they will still sound but usually that’s not a big deal.
You can also mix and match these two techniques. The key thing is to use downstrokes for the downbeats and up strokes for the off beats (or, as they are sometimes called, up beats.)
Here are some good 4/4 strums.
Where in the series of beats a song changes chords will likely effect what strum you use. Quite often a song will change chords on the downbeat of a new bar (the “one” count) so you may want to have a less busy strum around the 4th beat before that change to give yourself some time to switch chords. As you get quicker at changing chords this is less of an issue.
Different strums have different flavors. Strums heavy on downbeats tend to have an urgent, active even aggressive feel. Strums heavier on off beats have a lighter, laid back vibe (think “island style.”)
Everything we’ve discussed can apply to 3/4 time. Here’s some good 3/4 strums. Again, use downstrokes for down beats and upstrokes for off beats.
Triplet feel strums
As we’ve seen, a bar of 4/4 time has four beats per measure and a bar of 3/4 time has three beats. So far in our strums we’ve broken those individual beats in half, so that each beat can have, at most, two strums. (the downbeat and the AND).
What if, instead of dividing each beat into two parts, we divide it into three? We then get a triplet feel that can be used in either 4/4 or 3/4 time. It can be counted like this:
The easiest and strongest way to play this requires using two downstrokes in a row in certain places. See here.
We can also subtract beats from triplet feel strums (This is getting quite advanced and takes lots of practice!) For example…
And of course, we can use triplet feel in 3/4 time as well.