In order to play any stringed instrument, such as the guitar, mandolin, or ukulele, you have to learn how to strum it. Strumming is an essential part to playing the ukulele, which gives it that true Hawaiian-Island sound.
If you’re going to learn how to play Hawaiian ukulele songs, you need to master the right strumming patterns.
In this article, I will discuss the different types of strum patterns used when learning to play Hawaiian ukulele songs and also the positioning of the hand to achieve these different strum patterns.
There are many different ways to start learning basic strumming on the ukulele. You will also see that, by looking at other ukulele players, everybody has their own style. Eventually, with proper practice, you will take suggestions and patterns and develop your own techniques and styles, as well.
To get you started, here are my suggestions to begin learning the common techniques and practices of strumming the ukulele.
What is the Hawaiian Strum on the Ukulele?
There’s nothing more traditionally Hawaiian than the strum of a ukulele – but what exactly is a Hawaiian strum? Technically, there are three Hawaiian strums, including:
- Classic strum
- Modern strum
- Olapu strum
In both the classic and olapu strums, the dancer strum begins before the first downbeat. In the modern strum, which is highly syncopated, the downbeat right before the third beat is emphasized.
Still not sure how to master the trademark “Hawaiian ukulele strum” that you need to play Hawaiian ukulele songs? Here’s a quick video that will walk you through it:
Hawaiian Songs on Ukulele Tutorial: Strumming Technique Explained
First, start off with a simple chord (for example, a C chord), and practice your strumming technique with just that chord. The most common and traditional way of strumming the ukulele is by using your index finger. With your right hand just over the sound hole of the instrument, strum down with the index finger, hitting the strings with your nail. When you strum up, just bring your index finger back up into the palm of your hand, and the strings will make contact with the flesh of your finger.
Another popular strumming method is to put your thumb and index finger together to form a semi-two-sided pick. That way you strum down with the nail of your index finger and up with the nail of your thumb.
In any case, it is always important to strum with your wrist and not your whole hand when strumming. Using your entire hand and arm to strum can get tiring quickly and you will loose control much more easily.
Easy Strumming Patterns: Ukulele Songs That Are Hawaiian Favorites
Now that you have the basics in strumming technique, let’s take a look at some basic strum patterns which you can use to play your favorite Hawaiian ukulele songs!
To help notate these patterns, I will use a “D” indicating a down strum and a “U” indicating an up strum. A “-” means that there is a pause or a missed strum.
The most common time in all music is the 4/4 (“four-four”) time signature. This means that, in one bar of music, you can count “1, 2, 3, 4,” and it fits right into one complete strum pattern.
This first pattern is a very common one and is very easy to do once you have the feel for it. My suggestion to learning this pattern is to try to play it slow. Do it once, and then stop the strings, and then do it again the same way. Once you feel comfortable with the finger motion, try repeating it but keeping it at a slow tempo. Lastly, play it at a faster tempo so that it sounds like music! This pattern is very common and can even be used in the song “Hey Ya!” by Outkast.
Strumming Pattern 1: D – D U – U D –
This second pattern is very similar to strumming pattern 1, although it has another “up” strum at the end to really connect the repetitions. This makes it seem a little harder; however, once you start using it, it may seem even more natural to do. You can use this pattern in the song “High Hopes” by Paolo Nutini.
Strumming Pattern 2: D – D U – U D U
This next strumming pattern is a really straight-forward one and is very easy to do. You can play this pattern in the song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys, and you will instantly hear it.
Strumming Pattern 3: D – D U D U D U
Now, lets look at what is known as “Half-Bar Patterns.” Just like the name implies, these are patterns which only make up two beats of the 4/4 (“four-four”) measure. These patterns are good to use on songs where the chords change quickly. This pattern can be used to play the “Sesame Street” theme song. Of course, like all patterns, this one gets repeated, so make sure you practice changing chords on every repeat.
Strumming Pattern 4: D – D U
This last pattern will use a new technique. When reading strumming notation, you may see an “x.” This is to indicate that you make a percussive sound, rather than a harmonic sound, when you strum. To do this, you simply relax the left-hand fingers, so they are touching the strings but not applying pressure. Then, when you strum with the right hand, you get a kind of “chink” sound. This next pattern uses that “chink” sound which you can hear in a song like “Betrayed by Bones” by Hellogoodbye.
Strumming Pattern 5: D U x U
Traditional Hawaiian Songs: Ukulele Chords
Now that you know a few strumming patterns for playing Hawaiian ukulele songs, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test. Let’s practice! Here are some classic Hawaiian ukulele songs, chords and strumming patterns included.
More Easy Hawaiian Ukulele Songs for Beginners
Here are a few more easy Hawaiian songs to play on the ukulele, with the chords and strum patterns included to help you understand.
1. “Lava Song”
The Lava Song from the Pixar film is another one that has easy to master chords. The Lava Song ukulele strum pattern is also relativiely easy to get the hang of!
Here’s a quick tutorial.
2. “Aloha Oe”
This song utilizes just four chords and has a slow tempo, making it easy to learn. It also has a very simple strumming pattern. Learn more here.
3. “Island Style”
This easy song has just three chords – C, F, and G7, along with easy lyrics that won’t be tough to sing along to. You can use a basic strumming pattern (the classic pattern works just fine) but throw in some finger picking once you get more advanced.
4. “Mele Kalikimaka, the Hawaiian Christmas Song” by Bing Crosby
Again, here’s another one of the simplest Hawaiian ukulele songs – this one with just five chords.
It’s a holiday classic that also utilizes a classic strumming pattern (but you can always use a different strumming pattern to shake things up too).
5. “Over the Rainbow,” by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole
Last but not least is this classic song that’s been covered and revamped time and time again – but nothing beats the original. It just has six chords and a simple tune (along with lyrics that are beyond simple to master). The strumming patter is simple, too, requiring yout o pluck the low G string at the first bar instead of strumming the whole chord when it first appears.
You’ll then move on to to a pattern of down-down-up-up-down.
Get the instructions here.
How Do You Play Hawaiian Songs on Ukulele?
When you’re first learning how to play traditional Hawaiian songs on ukulele, look for easy ukulele songs with chords and strum pattern details included in the sheet music. This is the best way to help you understand how to play these classic Hawaiian ukulele songs the right way!
Here’s a list of even more Hawaiian ukulele songs you can learn.
Knowing basic strumming patterns is a great first step to learning how to play Hawaiian ukulele songs. Be sure to spend some time practicing the patterns above to change up your practice and improve your technique. These patterns can be applied to other genres, as well.
Lastly, be sure to work with a ukulele instructor to really fine tune your uke-playing skills! A teacher can show you what you are doing well, or need to improve on, and will make your ukulele practice more effective and enjoyable. What have you got to lose?
Plus, after all, if you’re going to learn a ukulele song, Hawaiian is the way to go!
Photo by aaron gilson