Updated: Dec 7, 2020
If you want to learn how to strum, put your ukulele down. Play the version of the song you're trying to learn and do two things:
Bob your head, tap your toe, move your hips, drum your fingers to the beat. Find the rhythm in your body's response to the music.
Sing the beat. Yep - forget about the melody and the lyrics. Isolate the beat in your mind - don't have to stop your body's bee-bopping along here. Get in synch with your mind AND your body. The better you can "sing" the rhythm, the better you'll be able to play the rhythm with your fingers on the strings. Without a good idea of the rhythm, you have to guess where the chord changes are and where the song itself is going. You've got to have something to hang those changes on or it comes across as mushy.
Here's how I figure out what rhythm I'm going to play with "Let It Be," by you-know-who.
I learned the Beatles' version, so that's the version I'm going to find. Here it is.
Find the most obvious rhythm, which, for me, is just steady, simple down-strums, something like this (each | represents a single down-strum): When I find my-self in times of trou-ble | | | | Mo-ther Ma-aa-ry comes to me[space] | | | | Spea-king words of wis-dom, [space] let it be | | | | | | | |
When I'm locking into that very simple rhythm, I don't worry about chords. Instead of letting the strings ring, I lay my chording fingers lightly on the strings to damp them. That way I can still hear what's going on without the strings ringing and driving me bananas.
Once I get that down, I may add in the chords to begin coordinating that simple strum with chord changes.
Then I might listen to the song again to explore other rhythmic possibilities. When I did that recently with a student (Hi, Bob in LA!!) another rhythm emerged as I sang along with the beat, not the lyrics: da-da da-da-da-da v v v ^ v ^ (DOWN-down DOWN-up-down-up)
It can sometimes take a while to hijack your regular go-to strum. Your body and your mind want to revert to what's familiar. Gently lead it back to your new strum.
Walk around the house while doing your new strum (while damped so you don't drive yourself or any other living thing in earshot crazy). Talk to the birds outside the window, yell at the TV, all the while, keeping up that strum. All of this is in service of distracting your mind so your body learns to take over the strumming operation, without your mind having to continually chant DOWN-down DOWN-up, etc. It becomes instinctual at this point. You want to be able to focus your mind on other things, like singing or changing chords, or seeing what's ahead on the chord chart, or seeing what your pals are doing, or simply enjoying what you're doing.
Here's a test: Make a C chord. See? You did that without thinking "Let's see, I think it's my ring finger on the bottom string on the 3rd fret." Nope, you probably just landed it there without all that narration, because you've done it a thousand times by now. THAT's what you want to have happen with your strum - you want it to become instinctual.
A mistake that many people make is assuming that each syllable in the song gets a beat. That may be the case for a song like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," (Go ahead! Try it with damped strings!) but for most songs, the lyrics are draped like Christmas lights over a steady beat. For a really clear example of what I mean by this, "sing" the rhythm to this song and see how they fit the words in around the beat. Very simply:
DOOM-do-do-DOOM-do-do-DOOM-do-do basically over and over And yet the lyrics are laid within that beat so soulfully - and part of that soulfulness comes from finding rhythmic freedom within the constrains of the underlying rhythm.
Here's another example, from "Country Roads."
Set your metronome to 60 bpm (beats per minute) and clap along with the line below - or strum along, if you've picked your uke back up - making sure the syllables match up with this very spare underlying beat. No need for chords - just damp the strings so you can focus on the basic beat.
Al - most he a ven West Vir gin ia
v v v v v v v
The 'v' represents a down-strum for this very simple beat.
Now here's what it looks like when you fill in with some down-up-down-up strums. The underlined strums (v) are those basic strums from Exercise 1 above. Check it out at 80 bpm. OR GO MORE SLOWLY! Go at a pace that works for you.
Al - most he a ven West Vir gin ia
v ^ v ^ v^ v^ v^ v^ v^ v^ v^ v^ v^ v^
Go as slowly as it takes to really get this timing. The more slowly you practice, the more quickly you become a faster player and learner. Playing the ukulele is a physical act in response to whatever brilliant idea your mind came up with in an instant. Your body learns much more slowly. To learn well, you have to go at your body's learning pace.
Oh! And here's the full strumming pattern layout for applying the tropical strumming pattern (Down-Down/UP_UpDOWNup) to Wagon Wheel: