WHETHER you’re strumming along to your favourite ABBA songs at the weekly kanikapila (jam session) or sitting at home working out a Bach Invention, good ukulele technique will increase your enjoyment, minimise frustration and prevent repetitive stress injuries. There is no right or wrong when it comes to technique. Hands and ukes come in different sizes and shapes, so the best gauge is if it feels comfortable to you. Here are a few suggestions to consider:
Holding the ukulele
Try to hold the ukulele in such a way that your hands are completely free to play the instrument.
The classical playing position supports the ukulele best when sitting. The ukulele is placed between the legs with the waist of the instrument resting on the left leg. Four points of contact – the right leg, left leg, chest and right forearm. Keep the instrument stable and allow the left hand to move freely around the neck.
When standing, I always use a strap. This relieves your hands of the responsibility to hold up the instrument. Bach Inventions are even harder to play when you’re squeezing the body of the ukulele between your right forearm and chest and cradling the neck in your left hand!
Use the tips of your fingers to depress the strings. The fingernails on your left hand should be as short as possible, preferably no longer than your fingertips.
Unless you are barring a chord, make sure your fingers are always curved. They have more strength and leverage this way.
Keep your fingers as close to the fretboard as possible. Pay careful attention to your pinky, as it is difficult to control.
To minimise excessive wrist movement, keep your fingers generally parallel to the frets. An exception to this rule would be a G7 chord, which is more comfortable to play by slightly angling your fingers.
Your thumb should press against the back of the neck, not to the side or over the top. It should function as a counter-pressure to your fingers playing the strings.
The neck should not be sitting in your left hand between your thumb and index fingers. This limits your fingers’ access to the fretboard, particularly the first string (‘A’ string).
Classical-guitar technique is ideal for the ukulele because it uses the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers to pluck the strings – four fingers for four strings – perfect!
The left sides of the fingernails should glance the strings at a slight diagonal – the index, middle, and ring fingers pluck up towards the right forearm, and the thumb plucks down towards the right. Picking this way generates a smooth, full attack and a warm tone.
To produce a clear and balanced tone, pluck the strings over or around the sound hole.
There is no specific way to strum. Use whichever fingers feel natural to you and remember to keep your right hand relaxed. Most of the movement should be in your wrist and fingers, not your forearm.
Similar to fingerstyle playing, the strings are strummed over or near the sound hole. Down strokes sound heavier and are often played on the downbeats. Up strokes are lighter and used to accent syncopations and upbeats.
I hope these suggestions help you to enjoy the ukulele even more and allow you access to a broader repertoire of music. If you start to feel pain while playing, try to identify the cause and modify your technique accordingly. If it continues, you may be playing too much and should probably rest your hands. Too much of a good thing is wonderful…but it can hurt.
Daniel’s instructional books are available at danielho.com