Updated: Nov 9, 2021
If you want to learn how to strum, put your ukulele down. The first thing you need to do is FEEL the song. Outsource the beat and rhythm to your body so your head can take care of things like singing, looking ahead to the next chord, and looking around at your fellow ukulelians, if you're playing with others.
Feeling the song
I'm serious about putting the ukulele down so you can narrow your focus on your body's response to the music. Find the version of the song you're trying to learn on YouTube or your music collection, press play, and do two things:
Move your body
Is your ukulele still laying on the table? Good! Now bob your head, tap your toes, move your hips, drum your fingers -- find a way to move your body to the song. When you do this, you're moving to the beat, the tempo, the pulse, the rhythm. That's the structure on which the song is built. This is your body's responsibility, to keep tabs on the beat.
There can be only one beat: That's the tempo, or speed of the song. There can also be several rhythms. The rhythm is what happening between and on the beat. When you're strumming the ukulele, you're strumming the beat. Strumming patterns respond to the beat and the rhythm.
What do I mean by this? Check out this fantastic rhythm illustration on Youtube. The first circle is the basic beat that goes on no matter what. The rest are three different rhythms going on at the same time. Try focusing on each one individually. Heck, pick your ukulele up and explore strumming with each one individually, and then find an overall rhythm that fits how you're feeling the groove.
Sing the beat
Put the ukulele back down on the table. Now, forget about the melody and the lyrics. Isolate the beat and rhythms in your mind and your body. You 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.
What do I mean by 'singing' the rhythm? If you've heard of 'scat' singing, you know what I mean. Here's a fine example. A strum is typically focused on the beat. Strumming patterns work the rhythm(s) into that beat.
When you sing the patterns as scat, or gibberish, you're one step closer to bypassing the verbal center of your brain and moving it into your body.
Without a good, solid handle on the beat, 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 onto or it comes across as mushy.
How to figure out the strumming pattern
Here's how I figure out what rhythm I'm going to play with "Let It Be," by that little British band from the last century.
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 | | | | Spea-king words of wis-dom, 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. You can hear it clearly in the musical break: 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 things like "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.
Know where the real beats are
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 a string of Christmas lights over the rigid structure of 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 - 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: