The Ukulele: beloved instrument of Hawaiians and laid back pluckers of happy tunes. With just four strings, it’s so easy to pick up and learn, but really hard to put back down. George Harrison of Beatles fame, was said to have traveled with 2 ukes, one for himself and another for anyone he happened to be hanging out with. Jimi Hendrix also enjoyed the little instrument.
We do have a course here for learning the ukulele. Taught by accomplished musician Dan Scanlan, he covers all the chords, a couple scales, music theory, and even some history, making for an excellent primer for the beginning student. If you’re jumping into it from guitar, he has some advice for you, too!
Speaking of Jimi Hendrix, the is the Hendrix of the ukulele world is Jake Shimabukuro. His rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” played in Central Park catapulted him and the uke to global stardom. Here is a more recent version.
After watching that, I picked up a ukulele thinking I could be that awesome. And nearly 10 years later, I’m not quite there, but I love that little instrument. Because it has only four strings, it is easy to learn the chords to accompany songs. Once you learn chords to accompany songs, you can sing your heart out while accompanying yourself or your friends or family or band.
So what do you need to know for strumming?
The most basic element of music besides sound is rhythm. Rhythm is the beat of a song and it dictates how fast or slow the music is moving. If part of the rhythm is thrown off, then the song will sound weird. If you’re attempting to sing along to a wonky rhythm then it can make the entire effort fall flat.
Generally, most music has a four beat pattern. Most popular songs you hear on the radio (with some exceptions) follow this, so you are probably well aware of it, though you may have never thought about it. When you bob your head to the beat or tap your finger or even do air drums along with a song, you are subconsciously keeping the rhythm. That rhythm is what drives the music forward.
If you want to keep a basic beat, then just count “1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4” at a regular tempo. This will be the basic rhythm you’ll need to stick to for a strumming pattern.
You may also hear how it’s possible to divide those 4 beats into 8. Those are just smaller parts of the 4 beat pattern, but there are still 4 main beats. You can still count at the same speed as before but say “and” between the numbers. Then it becomes “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…” This is marking the eighth note with the “and”.
If some of this seems a bit foreign, then maybe a music theory course is a good way to go. There’s this affordable one called Music Theory – A Beginners Guide from MusicProfessor that covers the basics pretty well, including rhythm. Any music learning is going to be helped a ton by understanding the basics of music theory.
So once you have an idea of how fast you want to go, and what rhythm you need you can strum along to it.
The Basic Pattern
This is the simplest, most easy thing ever. Hold a C chord and then strum on the beat.
Think about your rhythm, that 1-2-3-4- beat. Count it out in your head, tap your foot, bob your head, do what you need to get the feel.
Once you’re comfortable, strum down on the downbeats. 1-2-3-4- D-D-D-D
That’s it! Nice and easy. If you’ve got to change chords, then think about where you’re going before the next beat, if you wait till the exact moment you need the change to put those fingers down, you’ll throw that beat off! 1-2- UH… *changes chord* -3-4-… *looks at tab, moves fingers… 1-2-… and so on.
Practice that rhythm a bit and practice changing chords at the right time. If it’s a complicated 3-finger or even 4-finger chord, know where those fingertips land so you aren’t left hanging without music, or causing a huge break in the song!
This strum is perfect for learning the chords of a song while you sing and enforces the rhythm and fingering you’ll need.
This is basically the same pattern before but instead of only strumming on the down-stroke, you will strum also on the up-stroke. Use the same tempo and the same rhythm, just adding the eighth note between beats.
So for this, count out “One and two and three and four and…” at the speed you think you can manage. Bob that head, tap that foot, wiggle those eyebrows, keep that rhythm. It will probably also help to practice moving your arm regularly in the pattern to the beat, moving down on the number and up on the ‘and’. Down-up-down-up…
Once you feel you have it set, finger that chord and start strumming that pattern!
Down-up-down-up-down-up-down-up… 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…
This great video shows this pattern and a variation of it, as well as a couple others, which have some advanced rhythm, The Church Lick and The Calypso.
If you watched it (and I recommend you do), you might have noticed that the Swing Shuffle he shows there was the same basic pattern of DUDUDUDU but it feels different. That feeling comes from the fact that it wasn’t just on the beat of the down-up pattern, but that the up-strokes happened just a little bit later than on the beat, and right before the downbeat. That laid back rhythm is called a “swing”, hence the name “Swing Shuffle”. Practice that, both straight ahead and with the swing.
Once you get those two patterns down, even as basic as they are, you can switch between the two. Do one 4 beat measure of the Basic and then do the Shuffle and back again.
You can also switch patterns in the middle of the measure, doing two beats of Basic and two beats of Shuffle, like so. D-D-DUDU
The challenge you’ll find when switching patterns is making sure you are ready for the change. With four beats, it is easy enough because you play four of one pattern and then switch, which can feel naturally easy. If you get too tied to the 4 beat pattern, though, it can make faster changes feel quick and you may be unprepared.
For the second variation with 2 beats that change, you need to be prepared right away because it happens on the 3rd beat, halfway through a measure instead of happening on the 1st beat of the next one.
Strumming in rhythm or along with a song takes time, like anything does, and with practice you will eventually get it down.
If these patterns were super basic, I found a great PDF with even more strumming variations. It’s available over here.
Once you get comfortable maintaining a pattern at the same tempo, you can start learning songs. There are tons of tutorials and how-to’s online for particular songs, from folk songs and jazz standards to recent radio hits. And maybe you’ve got the urge to write your own songs. If that’s the case, Udemy has you covered with How to Write a Song. This class covers everything from rhyme and structure to melody and harmony.
If you want to learn more beyond just strums and rhythm, you could also learn to read music with How to Read Music For Busy People with the staves and accidentals and time signatures. Affordable, at the price of free, it’s also aimed at busy people as the name implies.