I just started teaching my son Ben, who is five, to play the ukulele. He’s left handed so I first had to reverse the strings on my right handed soprano ukulele so he could play it. He was so excited that his ’daddy’ was finally gonna teach him to jam. As his father I was eager to see if he had raw musical talent since I had just binged clips of Billie Eilish and her just as phenomenal brother Finneas over the past two days. They honestly blew my mind! The musical talent between them could light up a city!
So as I stared into Benny’s big brown eyes thoughts crossed my mind…
“Is he the next Billie Eilish?” “Is he gonna buy daddy a big house on the ridge?”
I wasn’t even three minutes into the lesson before I hit bumper to bumper traffic. A full stop! I was able to teach him where to place his fingers to play the C chord, but he literally could not “play” the C chord. Here I was excited to teach him simple chords when he hadn’t learned how to strum. The lesson quickly shifted from holding the C chord to learning how to strum the ukulele. This got me thinking about writing a post on strumming. I learned how to strum so long ago that I forgot to teach it to my son! So here we go…
Strumming is among the most foundational abilities you will learn for your dominant hand on the ukulele. If you’re new to strumming, the concept might have you stumped. Have no fear! We will explore several techniques that you should be able to pick up. But right off the top, lets start with a pro tip….. RELAX!
As a beginner, it's common for your body to be tensed up as you're learning to strum. The best way to relieve tension is to stop playing, relax your hands, and begin playing again. Over time and with a bit of self-awareness, you'll learn to play more relaxed. Trust me, strumming with “frigid fingers” can be frustrating. So much so that you may want to throw in the towel but I promise, like learning how to ride a bike, you will get it!
But before you start strumming away, make sure that you :
Learn how to hold the ukulele properly. Your right elbow should cradle the body of the ukulele, giving your arm complete range of motion over the strings.
Don’t worry about playing chords while you practice basic strumming patterns. Just make sure that you hit all the strings.
Learn to keep time. Download a digital metronome. This will come in handy when learning to strum in rhythm.
Keep your wrist free and relaxed. The strumming motion depends on the flexibility of the wrist, especially for more advanced rhythms.
Know that this is a skill, so it will take time to learn. Don’t put pressure on yourself! Remember to relax and have fun.
The correct way to strum is to make a movement that originates from both the wrist and the elbow. This movement culminates with your hand, and if your a beginner, your thumb. I know you see people strumming with their index finger as if they were flicking off a piece of gum but that will come with practice. To make things simpler when starting out, strum with your thumb. Wow that rhymes! The thumb hits the strings at the right angle and is away from your other fingers. You could even rolled up the rest of your fingers into a fist as you strum with your thumb if that‘s more comfortable.
Basic Strumming Techniques
There are three basic strumming techniques including downstrokes, upstrokes, and a combination of both downstrokes and upstrokes.
Downstrokes: To play using the downstroke technique, you'll simply strum each ukulele string in a downward motion. Just remember to hit the strings with the meat of your thumb (you might want to trim your nail), and relax your shoulders and use your wrist and elbow while strumming. It's okay if you don’t strum chords, just practice until it becomes second nature.
Upstrokes: Using the upstroke technique is similar to downstrokes but in reverse. Instead of coming down with your thumb your going swing up, nail first, from the bottom. Keep everything the same with your posture and hand configuration. Practice the upstroke until it feels comfortable. Be sure to play through all four strings when practicing. You don’t want to develop bad habits.
Downstrokes and Upstrokes Combination: Once you've got the hang of strumming using upstrokes and downstrokes on their own, you can try combining the two. This is accomplished by strumming downward and then upward and back down again so that you're alternating upstrokes and downstrokes. Do this slowly at first and gradually get faster.
After you got this down, you’re ready for strumming patterns! You‘ll soon learn what DD-UU-D-U-DD-UU-D-U means. And it’s not Black Pink’s DDU-DU-DDU-DU (seriously that’s the name of their song)!
What you can immediately try after practicing all these techniques is to search for your favorite song, and while muting the strings with your chord hand, strum the percussive beats with your strumming hand. You can try this with just downstrokes, upstrokes, or both if you're able. This will help build rhythm memory into your arm, wrist, and hand. And the more you practice, the more comfortable it will feel. Then when you ready you can try using your index finger. You can train your index finger by pinching it with you thumb. Since your thumb has been trained, it will guide the index along.
Here’s a video lesson when your ready to go to the next level:
Don’t worry if you don’t know the chords, just play along with the strings muted or open. The key here is learning the different strumming patterns. John is such an amazing teacher!
This is just the tip of iceberg. As my son Ben advances in his ukulele playing, so will my posts on the matter. Hopefully it won‘t be too long…haha!
Keep jamming and aloha!