How to add texture to your strum
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
There's more to strumming than just creating variations on the basic up-and-down pattern. Here's how to add a little texture to shake up your strum and more effectively express take on a song.
As with any technique, you don't want to overdo it. You're breaking up a wall of strumming with these techniques - so don't create a wall of technique! That can get just as old, just as quickly. Sprinkle it in judiciously to keep it fresh for you and your audience.
NOTE: Somehow, I'm not able to add links to song sheets on this page, so if you want to download them, go to this strum techniques tunes page.
The New York Shuffle
This is a great way to add some percussion to a tune. It's also handy for when you want to practice a strumming or fingerpicking pattern over and over without driving yourself and every living thing in your home absolutely bonkers. And it's a great way to rescue yourself if you lose your place in a song or can't make a chord, but still want to stay connected with the song and whoever you may be playing with. Here's how:
Hold the uke with your chording hand where you usually make the basic chords. Drape your fingers lightly across all four strings. When you strum the strings with your other hand, you should hear the strings thunking, rather than ringing.
If you hear any strings still ringing, you might be catching one of the edge strings too tightly - loosen up until all the strings are just thunking.
Now try some of your strumming patterns -- D-D-D-D, or d-u-D-u, or even the island strum: D-DU_UDU. Go for an even thunking sound.
If you're using it as a way of regrouping when you don't know a chord or lose your place in a song, try to strum lightly, reducing the volume of your playing so you don't disrupt the rest of the players. If you're using it as percussion, then play at a volume that supports the overall song.
When you strum your strings, they ring for several seconds afterwards. Sometimes, by stopping that ringing abruptly, you can create an interesting effect. Two examples spring to mind:
"Under the Boardwalk,"where, in the last line of the chorus, there is no lingering ringing after both the words 'boardwalk, boardwalk.' Lift your chording fingers into a damp immediately after you say 'walk' both times.
"King of the Road," where, similarly, in the last line of the chorus, there are two strums in this line: "I'm a man of means by no means [damp, damp] King of the road." Those two strums don't sound like a normal strum -- they both are quick and end abruptly.
Here's what's happening: You down-strum and, right after that chord rings out, quickly lift your fingers so they are still in contact with the strings, enough to stop the vibration. You get a little bit of the chord sound but you end it quickly when you lift the fingers. It's similar to the New York Shuffle, but you're maintaining your fingers on that chord shape.
This one adds some funk to your playing. I like to chunk on "Don't Be Cruel." With the chunk, the goal is to add some percussion within your strumming pattern. Here's the strumming pattern for this song: D-U-Chunk-U. Here's how to chunk:
I'm a finger-strummer, so thumb-strummers will need to modify this description slightly. Strum down and up a few times with the usual follow-through to get into the rhythm. When you're ready, strum down, twist your wrist a little more, bringing the drumstick of your thumb (from the mid knuckle to where it meets the palm - as in the image at the top of this page) in contact with all four strings, stopping them from ringing. Then, immediately strum up as usual. That stops the strings from ringing BEFORE the sound of the chord can be heard. This is a more percussive technique.
Now try it within the pattern: D-U-Chunk-U, D-U-Chunk-U, D-U-Chunk-U.
Once you get it, make little tweaks to your hand position to suit your unique hand structure, and to get the effect you're looking for.
To keep the chunk from getting old in a song like "Don't Be Cruel," I go back to the regular strum so that gorgeous Em7 to A chording rings out sweetly in the last line of the verse ("Don't be cruel to a heart that's true"). I also revert to the regular strum for the "I don't want no other love, Baby, it's just you I'm thinking of" refrain.
There are many ways of doing the fan strum. This is the simplest version that I've come across, which enables me to add it in easily on the fly.
Basic strums usually involve running your finger(s) or thumb across all four strings so they ring out as a single unit. With the fan strum, you're dragging one or more fingers and/or thumb across the strings in a way that allows the voice of each string to ring out distinctly, one after the other.
I prefer using just my thumb for this, and find that fitting it into the island strum (D-DU_UDU) adds a nice emphasis (D-FanU_UDU). "Under the Boardwalk" is a great way to explore this strum.
When you insert a fan into the island strum, keep in mind that, by giving each string enough time to ring out as you're dragging your thumb across them all, you're adding a little bit of time to that down strum, so you need to quickly strum up to make up for that time and enable you to keep the beat of the song. Practice with a metronome to make sure you're getting that timing down. The beats happen on all the down strums (including the fan) and the _ (which signifies the brief pause).
Remember that in "Boardwalk" the lyrics actually start at the UDU (U ["Oh"] D ["when"] U ["the"]), not at the beginning of the strumming pattern (D-FanU_).
Sprinkle these techniques into your playing and it elevates your version of the song beyond the regular strum, strum, strum -- though, some songs work really well with a simple, unadorned strum. Take Leonard Cohen's "Halelujah." I tried several different strums while I was learning it, and settled happily into a simple down, down, down strum. Everything else I tried seemed too ornamental and busy for the spare yet lush emotional lyrics.
Try these out on some of your favorite songs and see if they fit in with how you interpret the song. One student of mine used the island strum on "City of New Orleans." I never would have thought of that, but when we tried it in class, it really worked, adding a whole different feel to the tune.