Once Again on Ukulele Strumming Patterns.

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15 Feb 2015

Once Again on Ukulele Strumming Patterns.

It has actually been a while since I ranted on this blog on this subject, but it seems that people still get me wrong on this subject. So, what do I really think about the whole 'strumming pattern' discussion? Does this happen with other musical instruments?

First off, if you are of the view that, 'that Baz from Got A Ukulele HATES strumming patterns', then, frankly you are dead wrong. And if I may say so, what a bizarre suggestion. You see, I use strumming patterns all the time - everyone does if they strum. Whatever you are playing you are strumming something of a pattern. It might be rigid and simple, it might be more freeform and abstract. You may just be making it up. Whichever, it is still a pattern of some sorts. So not a rant really, more a clarification.

If you are learning I totally support the concept of teachers recommending people work on basic patterns in order for them to start to understand how basic patterns can suit different styles of music and then can apply them to anything they play (Swing, Bossanova, Country, whatever). This is GOOD practice and will only help you as you develop your playing style.

So, no. I am not against strumming patterns in that sense at all and I would encourage you to get comfortable with quite a few of these in order to add some colour to your playing style. When you know how to play a pattern that, say, adds a Swing style to a piece of music, you can apply it to many songs that wouldn't normally use that pattern and then TOTALLY change the feel of that piece of music. This is how beginners move on from just playing rigidly to starting to feel the music and understand how they can put their own take on things.

What I do get irritated with is when people take a song sheet and feel so totally lost with the concept of how to play the song UNLESS they have a strumming pattern to tell them exactly how to play it. You also see lots of people so stuck on strumming patterns they find it impossible to move to any other rhythm. OK, OK, if you want to play the song exactly like somebody else, go for your life, but I think that is a bit limiting. Also bear in mind that the vast majority of stuff you may be trying to learn was not written for a ukulele in the first place, so any rigid pattern is only somebody elses interpretation. Sure, their interpretation might be a good one, but who says you have to copy them so precisely. I think this is probably the most asked question that gets posted on YouTube Uke performance videos: 'please let me know your strumming pattern...'

I fear there is another danger too. I have had many beginners get in touch with me who have not focussed first of all on the important basics and choose something complex (a song they love) with a complex 'pattern' and want to follow that rigidly. I have met beginners who get these patterns memorised and can play them accurately, but their basic rhythm and timing of chord changes is all over the place. Surely that is all the wrong way around?

Be my guest on copying patterns if you wish, but first ask yourself whether you have started to really understand the feel of the basic rhythm of a song.

  • Can you strum a basic up / down pattern in time with the beat of the song? Ignore chords to start with - can you keep time with the song in it's original tempo? I would suggest that if your answer to that is 'NO' then you should focus there before worrying about patterns.
  • Can you make the required chord changes cleanly AND in time with the song you are playing? Again, concentrate here if the answer is 'NO'.
  • Is your playing very up down up down simple? If you want to add flavour to your playing, then take a look at pattern suggestions for different 'styles' of music. I just don't believe that has to be a rigidly transcribed pattern specific to one individual song.

You may say (as I have had put to me) - but this is 'boring'... Sure, it might be, but then this comes down to the mythical assumption that the ukulele is easy. Learning the very basics of strumming an instrument like the uke just MUST be more important that launching straight into rigid patterns. I suppose it comes down to whether you want to play and feel music or just copy something parrot fashion.

But Baz, surely you need patterns to then move on to more complex stuff? Well, yes, I suppose they can help give you some inspiration, but I would always encourage you to have the confidence to go 'off piste' when you want to as well. If you have mastered the basic rhythm and chord and have a few stock strumming 'styles' in your repertoire you WILL be able to do this. Try playing some songs you can play well in different styles to experiment. This is where interesting and unique ideas will fall out of your play.

Some tips for this for those who are not yet fully confident with patterns - Try picking out a different beat in the song you are playing. Perhaps from the vocal line and play along with that. Mix that up with beats (strums) from the main songs pattern and see what you come up with.

But as I always say - your uke, your choice. I am NOT against patterns, I just don't feel that prescribed patterns for specific songs are all that helpful in the long run. Use them if you must, but don't ask me what my patterns are - I am not sure I have EVER written them down. Oh, and if your pattern is just Down Up Down Up Down Up forever... then I think you DO need to look at your styles repertoire.

In short, they are not the holy grail to learning the uke and I feel beginners have enough on their plates when learning than worrying about what some other player is doing with their strumming hand. Use your ears and your internal rhythm to feel the song. Start with the boring 'basics' and go from there. There is no right and wrong in covering a song if you get the basic beat and chord progression right. Listen to uke tutors and get some pattern styles under your belts for sure though. Just don't assume that beyond that you MUST apply them to certain songs.

Rant (clarification) over!




  1. Perfect. I know some who seem to have taken up the uke just to obsess over rules about strumming and try to enforce them amongst the rest of us. Sucks every bit of fun out. So missing the point. Thanks for this!

  2. In my view, strumming is the first part of the creative process of ukulele. Chord shapes and progressions in songs are prescribed. You can't really "make them your own," but you CAN change the rhythm, tempo, and/or beat emphasis to have fun with the tune. Like making "My Girl" into a bluesy swing number..
    In short, I actually kind of hate strumming instructions.

  3. When I teach, I teach three basic patterns: (1) the beginner's strum - ududud... (2) the swing strum DuDuDu... (capital letter denotes emphasis), and (3) what I call the #2 pattern - d-du-udu.... Those are the basics. I don't believe that you need to "memorize" more than a few more. Basically, the strum is a percussive action. Listen to a song, find an interesting beat by drumming on your table or steering wheel, and then copy this beat in your strumming. I once came across an old ukulele workbook that listed hundreds of strum patterns. How ridiculous. Find your own strums and have fun!

  4. Personally, I like the great variety of strums out there, but not to the detriment of enjoyment. I am a drummer, so complex strumming patterns are quite appealing to me, but I don't push them on anybody...

  5. I like complex patterns too Linus - quite agree - just like the ones I work out for myself for songs I like them on. There is no 'correct' pattern for any song

  6. When I was first learning, reading strum patterns felt really awkward for me. Even now, I learn strum patterns much better by sound than by reading. If I can hear it, I can mimic the sound very quickly, much faster than trying to read U's and D's.

  7. Well said Barry. I run a group strum in the U.S. and am constantly annoyed and frustrated by stupid questions and the steady influx of "I just got a ukulele and don't know how to play it but I'm looking forward to your next meeting." (Oh, lucky me!) Before every song there's always someone who asks "what strum pattern," as if their $30 uke in a group of 50 is going to make a difference. To them I would say maybe if you listened for a change you'd catch on. These are people with their noses in the book the whole time, as if the chords are going to miraculously change from verse to verse. While I'm ranting may I also say if you can't learn 3 songs for an open mike, do 2 songs. If you can't learn 2 songs, do 1 song. If you can't learn 1 song, then you have no business at an open mike. Rant over. Carry on!

  8. I completely agree. Strumming patterns are the mechanical, technical part of producing a musical rhythm. They are good to learn as a technical exercise, but they are to rhythm what scales are to melody or what chord shapes are to harmony. Baz alluded to the 'easy to play' myth about the uke, and this is where it really shows. People copy from a how to play book and mistake strumming patterns and chord boxes for rhythm and harmony. It might be easy to learn how to hold down 3 chords on a uke, but unfortunately the 'music' part of learning the uke is no easier than it is on any other instrument, and because it's not easy, uke players often just skip it, and forever play nothing more than the strums they are told, using the chord shapes they are told (whether they be right or wrong)!

  9. Thanks Phil - Good to have you come in on this!

    On the whole it seems 'common sense' to me, but I would never claim to be a teacher unlike you. The most common question I think anybody who puts anything out socially gets must indeed be 'what is the strumming pattern'? There is a far more sensible way to learn!

  10. When I play in a large group at TUSC, I always try to play something a bit different to the basic strum that everyone else is doing. Sometimes out of interest, other times just to be heard. I often find I'm playing just the offbeat, to get everyone synced and to encourage them to emphasise that beat (no "white folks clapping" at TUSC!). I suppose I fall back on five or six basic patterns when I'm jamming a song I don't know too well. But I'd hate to try and write them down. In short: I agree with Baz and Phil D.

  11. I totally agree. Though, people like guidance in the first instances, so I help them with that.

  12. Nothing wrong with guidance and teaching pattern styles to beginners - what get's me down is when someone puts some chords up online and someone automatically responds saying 'what is the strum pattern'?

  13. Late to the party here, but this post really hit home after our local jam this week when we played The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek." A couple of people didn't know the song and another was fairly rigid in strumming style, so the performance was pretty much a disaster. How do you dictate a strumming pattern for a song meant to be played so loosely and freely? Can't be done.

  14. I do think that strumming correctly is the last thing you learn and is the most difficult. Like you Barry I learned guitar first a long while ago and I seem to think it was the last thing I mastered, and years later I'm still improving on. When I was learning guitar there was no such thing as strum patterns, you picked it up by watching, listening and playing along, and that still applies today with the ukulele. With people I'm teaching I'll play it slowly and gradually speed up. You may have to do this over and over before they get it. I would think it is very difficult in room full of 50 ukes. That's where a one-to-one comes in.

  15. What I did with my school ukulele group was give them ring shakers. They then moved their strumming hand in time to the song I was playing, and when they were confident, they used that rhythm to strum with. It worked great.

  16. Totally agree Barry. Too much "stuff" running through your head can be very off putting. I reckon that different players can use different patterns - as you say, there's no holy grail. Happy new year.


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