how to play ukulele

How to Play Ukulele: 4 Fingerpicking Patterns for Ukes

how to play ukuleleLooking to get a new sound out of your ukulele? Music teacher Willy M. shares four fingerpicking patterns that will take your uke sound to the next level…

It’s pretty amazing what the human hand can do when you think about it. Because of our opposable thumbs, we’ve been able to go all the way to the moon and back. But one thing that many folks learning how to play ukulele don’t know is that they can use their fingers to pick out beautiful patterns that will make their songs more memorable than ever! So, here – for the first time in print – is my rendition of four fingerpicking patterns for ukuleles!

Fortunately for you, I’m also a banjo player, so I will be taking some basic banjo rolls and applying them to the ukulele to help you get an incredibly unique style. There are a lot of similarities between the ukulele and the banjo, not the least of which that a lot of banjos have four strings just like the ukulele. This makes it super simple to cross banjo rolls with ukulele picking patterns.

The four fingerpicking patterns that I’m going to teach you in this article are all played with a triplet feel. A triplet is when you cram three notes into the space where only two should go. You can either play these fast or slow, depending on the type of song you’re playing. You can start by simply tapping your thumb, index finger and middle finger on your leg or a table and listen to the thumps made by each finger. 1-2-3, that’s a triplet!

1. The Forward Roll

Now, if you tapped in that order, you already know the first fingerpicking pattern! The first pattern that I want you to practice is the forward roll. The forward roll is accomplished by placing your fingers lightly over the strings. Your thumb will control the G and the C strings. The thumb can alternately pick either the G string or the C string in any combination you desire. The index finger will control the E string, and the middle finger will pick on the A string. The pattern is that simple: Thumb – Index – Middle. You can repeat this as much as you want for as long as you want.

Practice Tips – When practicing the forward roll, try to keep the rhythm smooth and even. Try this pattern in both three-four and four-four time. When you are comfortable, and can fingerpick this without thinking too much, start practicing this pattern with some chord changes over it. Start with simple chords that you know very well. Finally, when you get it down, practice alternating the thumb between the G and C strings.

2. Reverse or Backwards Roll

The next pattern I want to teach you is sometimes referred to as the reverse roll or backwards roll, and – you guessed it – it’s basically the forward roll in reverse. Middle – Index – Thumb. 3-2-1, a backwards triplet.

Practice Tips – You can use the same methods for practicing the reverse roll as you did the forward roll, except pay careful attention. Now that you’re an expert at the forward roll, don’t accidentally reverse the backwards pattern in the middle and throw your count off.

3. Forward-Reverse Roll Version 1

Finally, I want to tell you about two slightly more complex rolls that combine the two rolls that you’ve learned so far. I’ve seen this roll go by a few different names in banjo books, but I’ve always called it the forward-reverse roll. This is a roll that feels a lot like putting two triplets together. And you guessed it, it’s a forward roll followed by a reverse roll. Thumb – Index – Middle – Middle – Index – Thumb. It really is pretty simple, but it can be confusing the first couple times you try it out.

4. Forward-Reverse Roll Version 2

There’s another take on the forward-reverse roll that almost has a five-count feel to it. It goes like this: Thumb – Index – Middle – Index – Thumb. 1-2-3-2-1. Notice the subtle differences here between the two variations. First, instead of six beats (or two triplets), you have a five-beat feel, or one triplet and two eighth notes, or what have you. Secondly, instead of playing the middle finger twice, you only play it once before moving back to the index finger.

Practice Tips – As above, first practice these rolls smoothly and simply, then add the alternating thumb. You might want to work on the chord changes over these rolls slowly, because – especially with the second variation – you’ll find that the rhythm changes slightly when you have a five-count instead of a six-count.

So, that’s it! I hope you have fun with these fingerpicking patterns and that they help you on your way to learning how to play ukulele. May you become the next great uke player!

Learn even more ukulele skills by taking lessons from a private music teacher. Ukulele teachers are available to work with you online via Skype, or in-person depending on your location. Find your ukulele teacher now!

Willy M

Willy M. teaches guitar, ukulele, and mandolin lessons in Winston, NC. He is the author of the Dead Man’s Tuning series of mandolin songbooks, and is a former member of the American Federation of Musicians. Willy has been teaching for 20 years, and his students have ranged in age from young children to folks in their 80’s. Learn more about Willy.



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