By Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlan
Among other things, the ukulele is a strum drum. A single tone — say one produced by clicking two rocks together — when played over and over in a rhythmic pattern is music. Perhaps the most rudimentary music.
It behooves the ukulele player to visit this basic truth from time to time. Although there are many, many rhythms and time chunks, in this article I will stick with plain old 4/4. But the concepts we will look at can be applied to any time signature. Have a tuned ukulele in your hand and play along.
Play the one-finger C chord (ring finger on the third fret of the A string). Strum down with your index finger and count out loud: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Play this as evenly as you can for as long as you feel like it. This may seem like a silly step, but it’s actually very important. Play it long enough to feel you are laying down a nice, smooth, unruffled carpet of sound.
Now we’re going to mess with it.
Each time you play the 1 beat (the first beat of every measure), whip your finger energetically so the 1 beat stands out from the others: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Play this one-chord riff until you feel the drive of the syncopation. Might even help to shrug a shoulder or stomp a foot on the first beat. Do it until you own it.
Cool. Now do the same thing with the second beat: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… When you own that one, move on to the third beat, then the fourth.
You’re not done with this part yet. Put the same energy — accent — onto beats one and three: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4… Remember to count out loud. Continue playing it until you feel it in your heart and soul.
Finally, do the same exercise but accent beats two and four — Hey! Hey! Rock and Roll!
What we have just done is demonstrate to ourselves that we have control over the accents in our playing. We get to determine the personality of our strum.
But there’s much more we can do.
In our meanderings above, we accented certain beats by simply strumming harder and louder. But check this out — instead of striking the accented beat with an energetic index finger, try accenting it with a gentle sweep of your thumb. To really get a sense of this dynamic, start simply with an unaccented 1-2-3-4; after you’ve got it rolling, accent the first beat with a gentle thumb stroke. Though the accent is on the same beat(s) as before with the energetic index finger, the music now has an entirely different feeling or attitude. Even though it’s not brash like before, it is still an accent, a syncopation. The fat, fleshy thumb spreads out the notes, whereas the index finger sounds the strings almost in unison. It’s like the difference between a wall and a picket fence — there’s air.
Now here’s the thing, the basic truth about ukulele rhythm — it’s up to the player to decide what beats to accent when, and what to use to do it. In this lesson, we only looked at two accent strokes — the strong index finger and the thumb. There are numerous strokes a player can use to get the feeling he or she wants, but the job is always the same: to express one’s unique self and feelings by accenting pulses on the beat.