strum und drag

February 27, 2012 1:59 PM

I can't strum the uke. Help me strum the uke?

After decades of assuming I had no musical talent or aptitude I am doing okay at learning the ukulele and enjoying myself. I have been messing around with it for a few months and can play a few things that sound like songs of the "You are my sunshine" variety. However, I'm still having trouble doing the down-up-down thing strummingwise. I'm great with down, not so great with up. I've been watching YouTube videos and practicing but I don't seem to be able to strum UP without catching my fingers in the strings or other fumbles. So instead of sitting here and saying "Teach me" since I more or less know I just need to practice til it starts working, I'd just like a few suggestions or tips for what to do or think about when I practice this. How would you explain to someone how the upstroke of strumming is supposed to go? Thanks!
posted by jessamyn (11 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Try using a pick. I play with my fingers all the time - both electric guitar and nylon, and even though I'm more comfortable that way, certain things are easier with a pick, like strumming up.

Also: can't do a pick slide without a pick!
posted by dubold at 3:52 PM on February 27, 2012

Either you're using a pick or pinching your finger and thumb together so the nails sort of make a fat V-shaped pick (viewed sideways) with a bunch of fingery flesh in the middle.

Ie: - finger -> \|/ <>
Either way, the thing is the angle of incidence. With a proper pick, you want to keep the pick more or less at 90 degrees to the strings, so that you can make upstrokes or downstrokes with equal ease. With the finger/thumb thing, the same applies, only it's all a lot fatter, so the thing to do is to think about the V shape made overall, and keep the perpendicular line through the middle of the V perpendicular to the strings. That way, upstrokes and downstrokes are as easy as one another.

Obviously, in practice, it's never exactly 90 degrees, and you always angle it a little bit in the direction you're going, but if downstrokes are way way easier than upstrokes, you're angling things too far in the wrong direction - try and keep it more or less 90 degrees without going too bezerk about worrying about it, practice lots, and it should come.

posted by motty at 4:21 PM on February 27, 2012

Huh. Well that didn't work. I meant this:

finger -> \|/ <- thumb
posted by motty at 4:23 PM on February 27, 2012

When I'm playing fingerstyle (ie without a pick), the strumming is done like this:

-- form your hand into a fist (thumb outside)

-- now let it relax, but keep it somewhat curled up

-- now shake it as if you were trying to get the blood back in after it's gone to sleep

the action is all from your wrist, and the part of your hand which strikes the strings is basically the nail and the front of the last segment of your fingers. If you do it this way there is no possibility of getting your fingers caught up in the strings as the motion is basically symmetrical up and down.

If it's not obvious I'll post a youtube video of doing it.
posted by unSane at 5:48 PM on February 27, 2012

PS, if you're using a pick try starting with a soft one. Hard picks are much better for, y'know, picking, but soft picks are easier to start with and tend to have a nicer strum sound, less clicky and more sweet.
posted by unSane at 6:02 PM on February 27, 2012

It's hard to evaluate your technique without video (hint hint), but if I had to guess I'd say you need to use less wrist and more elbow in your strumming technique. The wrist is for rotating, which you don't necessarily want when you are trying to strike the strings at the same angle each time. The elbow is the joint for swinging, and will give you a more consistent attack across the strings. You still want to keep your wrist loose of course, but the elbow is where the major shape of your strum comes from. I dug this video up after about 5 secs on youtube. Does your forearm swing this much?
posted by grog at 6:58 PM on February 27, 2012

Imagine you're picking up an eraser between thumb and forefinger; that's how far apart your fingers should be.
posted by scruss at 7:08 PM on February 27, 2012

First: hold your wrist and arm steady, off of the ukulele, and strum just with your four fingers, downward (with your nails and/or fingertips hitting the strings.)

Second: same thing, but this time, just your forefinger.

Third: same thing, but this time, rest your thumb on your finger. Still just strumming downward.

Fourth: let your write loosen up, and as you pull your fingers back up for another downward strum, let the nail on your thumb drag across the strings. At first you won't roll your wrist to do this, but it'll become obvious that a little roll will help, so just roll with it.

Now, just do this over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. As you do, you'll start to realize that your body wants to do different things, and you should follow that lead. Perhaps it involves returning to all four fingers on the downstroke; perhaps separating your thumb from your finger a bit; perhaps moving your arm more; perhaps other things as well. Just follow your body's desires, the same way you would if you accidentally picked up a cup with your fingers in the handle uncomfortably, to change to a more comfortable grip.
posted by davejay at 8:59 AM on March 2, 2012

in step four, keep the strum speed the same, but of course you'll be double-timing the strokes by virtue of adding the upstroke
posted by davejay at 9:01 AM on March 2, 2012

(by the way, be flexible with your fingers; if I kept my fingers still on the downstroke, I'd sound awful and cramp up pretty quickly. Instead, I flick my fingers as if throwing water off of my fingertips or striking a match, so it isn't all in the arms or the wrist. Upstroke, I do something similar, but there isn't really a gesture I can think of to describe it that isn't "like you do when you play the ukulele.")
posted by davejay at 9:03 AM on March 2, 2012

Hey folks -- sorry to ask and run. I've been practicing getting better at just getting to play a few songs that I liked so had back burnered this a bit. Thanks very much for all the suggestions. I've found that having to concentrate on strumming makes it a little tough for me to remember the fingering so I've been practicing keeping rhythm just by strumming UP-UP-UP and not up-down-up yet. It's going okay. When I get back from traveling I'll try to post a video of how I'm doing and where I think I'm getting held up. You've all given me some really good things to thing about when I'm trying. I'm just so psyched to feel that I might be able to have some competency in a stringed instrument!
posted by jessamyn at 7:36 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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