Growing up in Hawaii, my ukulele journey began in the fourth grade where we first learnt our basic chords – C, F, and G7. My passion for the instrument developed a few years later during a resurgence of ukulele playing in Hawaii. Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole had just released his Facing Future album, Ka’au Crater Boys came out with Valley Style and Pure Heart featuring Jake Shimabukuro and solo ukulele albums by Daniel Ho were looming on the horizon. The mid-’90s brought ukulele back to the forefront of the local airwaves in a stripped-down acoustic format where you could hear each artist hitting the strings and even breathing in the studio microphones in quieter sections. I would listen to these albums on repeat, inspired by their playing techniques, which I still use in my performances today.
In middle school, I was thrust into a new world on the opposite side of campus, where the cool kids were ukulele players and they were playing all the songs I loved listening to on the radio. Not only were they having fun jamming, but people were listening – more importantly, girls were listening and singing along. Now my calling was clear: I would be a ukulele player.
My ukulele at home was a Martin soprano passed down from my great-uncle, who had worn a thumb groove into the back of the neck in first position and had worn the frets nearly flat from playing. I set out on the daunting task of teaching myself to play, pre-internet. My cousin’s friend, who happened to be a guitar player, helped tighten up the tuning pegs so they would hold their tune. My dad showed me how to tune the instrument using the piano and taught me the Hawaiian Vamp – D7, G7, C. My family helped me set up my first ukulele, but no-one thought anything of my new-found musical interest as I’d failed miserably on other instruments from a lack of motivation and practice.
I would have to learn a few basics on my own before I would dare take my ukulele to school. This presented a few challenges: one, I didn’t have a chord book, and two, I was supposed to be doing my schoolwork. I quickly discovered the best way to play in secret was to use my thumb. Using the side of my thumb as opposed to the nail made for a nice fleshy surface with a rich, mellow tone that was pleasant, subtle and quiet. It was perfect for late-night practicing propped up in bed when I was supposed to be asleep or studying.
While practicing in secret, I surprised my parents a few months later by playing IZ’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World off a photocopied chart from the Roy Sakuma school that I got for trading some choice baseball cards. Soon I was asked to play the song at every family party, wedding and funeral. The core of the IZ strum to me is the use of the thumb as a different tone in the strum.
Many flashy techniques use the index finger as the main strumming finger – the nail on the down-strum produces a brighter, harder sound that sonically cuts through. The techniques I enjoy playing the most use both thumb and finger in the strum. The juxtaposition of tones helps to create a more sophisticated sonic landscape and in many ways is easier to keep in time.
As an example, strum swung eighth notes using your index finger with down-strums falling on downbeats and up-strums on upbeats. Now accent the backbeat (beats two and four). You’ll notice you have to strum harder in order to accent. This change in velocity of your strum creates an accent, but also adds another variable to fall out of time. Now add a downbeat/down-strum with your thumb on beats one and three while keeping the finger down-strum on beats two and four. The trick is to use the same motion for both the thumb-strum and the finger-strum and let the different ‘picks’ create the accent.
The brighter nail sound of the finger on a down-strum will give you a natural accent without having to use as much effort. This translates to a more laidback-sounding strum and lets you play with more dynamic range because the thumb-strum can be made very quiet due to the fleshy nature of the thumb, while the nail of the index finger adds a loud and bright strum. Changes in volume and tone create a more textured sound, producing a more nuanced strum. This type of flow in a strum is one of the most magical sounds in ukulele playing.
For people new to using the thumb-strum, I usually recommend two practice approaches for incorporating the thumb-strum into your repertoire. First, use your thumb on downbeats only. Start with the thumb on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with your finger. Next, practice alternating thumb and finger on quarter-note down-strums, then incorporate up-strums with the finger.
The second approach is to use your thumb to play any of your go-to strum patterns. You’ll be using the side of your thumb on both the down and up-strums for a softer tone on both strums. Keep your thumb parallel to the strings and avoid using the nail on the up-strum – think of the feeling of swiping a touchscreen with your thumb. This will also ensure your wrist is relatively straight on the strum, which will help to minimise tension and strain and give you an even, mellow tone. Using your thumb on both the down and up-strums provides a tactile movement that will help you keep time by allowing you to physically feel the off-beats when incorporating both finger and thumb-strums.
I always use the example of listening to two very popular songs: IZ’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World and Hey, Soul Sister by Train. One strum is nuanced with an interplay of all parts of the strumming hand, while the other has a more static feel. Both fit perfectly in their respective songs – the nuances of an IZ-style strum would be buried in a larger arrangement of a pop song like Hey, Soul Sister, but there is something beautiful and meditative about playing quietly and subtly late at night while propped up in bed using your thumb-strum on your ukulele.
This article first appeared in Issue 11 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store