Strumming is something that every ukulele player is familiar with. Whether it’s the calypso strum, the split stroke or just a simple down-up-down-up, what could be more enjoyable than strumming away on your ukulele and singing a song? But, as our guest blogger Matthew Quilliam explores, many people neglect to consider the fact that how they strum can change depending on what finger (or something else) they are using…
The index finger of our strumming hand is our first choice, because it naturally extends out from the hand whilst the rest of the fingers remain somewhat curled under. As we strum, the surface of the nail is making contact with the strings on both the down and up. The bright and crisp tone that this produces is perfect for upbeat or cheerful songs. Give it a try on one of the songs in your song book that could do with some ‘lift’…
The thumb is another popular strumming device, especially in Hawaiian tradition. Of course, Hawaii is renowned for it’s beautiful, laid-back approach to music, and seeing as this is where the ukulele comes from, it makes sense that the thumb strum would offer a warmer, mellower tone. As you strum, be sure to use an open hand and allow the fleshy pad at the side of the thumb to make contact with the strings. Try this on a slower or more emotional song to bring out the often-untapped delicacy of the ukulele…
We’re going back to the finger again, but this time the other three are also joining the action! As you strum, there should certainly be some wrist action, but a lot of the sound comes from flicking all four fingers simultaneously across the strings. This is sometimes referred to as a rake, although confusingly so is another similar technique, where you release the fingers one at a time. This staggered approach creates a ripple effect while a simultaneous tactic will produce a sound similar to the single index finger, but with a lot more power and energy behind it. Therefore, it’s great for dance tunes where you really want to get a sense of rhythm going…
4. Plectrum or not
For some reason, plectrums are controversial on the ukulele. I have never understood this, especially because the ukulele has its own plectrum! Invented by May Singhi Breen, the ukulele plectrum is thicker than the standard guitar pick, and is usually made of felt. This means that the sound it creates when strummed is warmer and gentler than that of a guitar pick, which is usually thin and plastic. That’s not to say you couldn’t use either, but if you’ve never played with a plectrum, give it a go and see how it feels and sounds…
5. Mixing it up
Of all the four strumming techniques above, you are bound to have tried at least some of them, but then settled for your favourite. I’d like to challenge you to get out of your comfort zone and try to get creative! Find four songs in your song collection that have very different feelings and see if you can apply a different strum for each of them. It will take time to get used to any technique that you’re not as familiar with, but your music will sound much more controlled, considered and beautiful as you go between the different tones. For a further challenge, perhaps find one song where you can use two techniques interchangeably throughout! Maybe for the verse a thumb strum might be more suitable, but for the catchy chorus, a rake strum would suit best?
I hope I have been able to open up a Pandora’s Box of ideas. Whilst strumming is something that feels second-nature to a lot of us, there is always something more to learn and discover. Why not try something new?
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Performer, teacher, composer and author, Matthew Quilliam is a fresh new talent on the ukulele, already making a huge impression.
Matthew’s primary instrument has always been the ukulele which has allowed him to grow a life-long connection and expertise with the instrument. Over his short musical career so far, he has already achieved so much; he has contributed to many ukulele publications and performed at some leading festivals in the UK, plus more.