When you start playing the ukulele, the hand on the frets might make you anxious — it can be hard to switch fingers and chords quickly! But the strumming of the strings pulled over the sound hole is really the foundation of creating music: It’s through the strum that the rhythm and melody comes to life.
Strumming isn’t always easy for everyone at the beginning, but your body and mind are amazing tools and will learn quickly through muscle memory. The key is practice. You can practice on your Uku ukulele, but you can even practice without any instrument by mimicking the motion, moving your hand up and down in front of your chest.
The hand you strum with should be your dominant hand, i.e. if you’re right-handed you will use your right hand, or vice versa. It is important that the up and down movement comes from your wrist, rather than your forearm or any other muscle (that would tire you out much faster!).
You can actually use any finger or combination of fingers to strum. To avoid getting your fingers caught between the strings, position your hands at an angle, not perpendicular to the strings. Strum on the lowest part of the fretboard, not over the sound hole.
For a gentle sound, use the flesh of the thumb to strike the strings in downward motion (that is, holding the ukulele parallel or near parallel to the ground). For a bigger or metallic sound, use the nail of your index finger or nails of more than one finger to do the downstroke. Similarly, you can use the flesh of your index finger or the nail of your thumb to do an upstroke. The upstroke is generally made on the off-beat, and the loudness of your strum has more to do with the speed than the force of execution.
When reading ukulele music, the down strum is usually represented by a down arrow or the letter D. A capital D means strum down with emphasis (loudly) as opposed to a lighter strum (d). It is indicated by the letter U or an up arrow. Again, a small letter u means a soft up stroke as opposed to a loud, fast stroke indicated by a capital U.
Because the right hand controls the rhythm, you want to get your right hand to move up and down like a metronome. With regular practice you will be able to play without having to consciously think about whether your right hand is up or down.
Here are a few exercises excerpted from our Uku Global curriculum for beginning ukulele students:
- Practice down strokes while counting 1, 2, 3, 4. Represented by D- D- D- D-
- Practice upstrokes on the “and” while counting 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. -U -U -U -U
- Combine them in down and up strokes while counting 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. DUDUDUDU
- Practice doing air strokes, i.e. down and up strokes without touching the strings. This down and up motion mimics that of the regular oscillation of a metronome. This air stroke is useful when you don’t know the chord or can’t change chords fast enough with your left hand.
- Finger chords with your left hand and strum with your right. There are many possibilities:
- One down stroke on each chord
- One down stroke on each beat. There can be four down strokes for each chord.
- Down Up: DU – on each beat, thus DU DU DU DU
- Alternating down and up: D- DU D- DU
- Reggae feel, emphasize the off-beats: d- DU d- DU
- Varied accents and combinations of down and down-up: d- D- du du; d- d- du DU
- Waltz: D- DU DU
What are you waiting for? Grab your uke, grab some space on the couch, and start practicing!