Fingerpicking the Ukulele
by Richard Hefner

hand2Since fingerpicking requires the use of more than one finger on the right hand it can be a little more difficult than simple strumming. It’s really not that hard to do though and the results are well worth the practice it takes to get comfortable with it.

In my style of playing I use the thumb, index finger, and middle finger. The middle finger always plays the 1st string; the index finger usually plays only the 2nd string (sometimes the 3rd); the thumb always plays the 3rd and 4th strings but can also play the 2nd string, just depending on what’s going on in the song at the time. Notice also in the picture that I usually rest my ring finger and pinkie on the surface of the ukulele just below the strings to anchor my hand and provide stability for the three fingers that are doing the picking. This 3-finger style of picking has been commonly used by fingerstyle guitarists such as Chet Atkins and many others as well as almost all bluegrass banjo players. Of course the picking patterns have to be modified a bit because of the different number of strings on the uke.

You can play fingerpicking patterns as accompaniment while you sing instead of strumming, or you can mix it up by strumming in some places in a song and fingerpicking in other places. You can also play fingerstyle arrangements that include the melody along with fill notes. This type of arrangement will vary from song to song because it is based on the melody and tempo of the song. The fingerpicking patterns below will provide some insight about how fingerpicking works. All of these examples just use a C chord for simplicity but you should try playing them with different chords. At first you might want to try playing simple songs you know all the way through just repeating one pattern throughout the song . As you get more comfortable you can mix it up in any way that sounds good to you.

Pay special attention to the right hand fingering at the bottom of the tablature (T=Thumb, I=Index, M=Middle). It might seem odd, for example, to bring your thumb down to play the 2nd string, but this is sometimes done to achieve a balance with your right hand as the picking speed gets faster.



Pattern #1 -- I’ll begin with the pattern I play most often. The thumb keeps a steady beat throughout, alternating between the 4th and 3rd strings on each beat (1, 2, 3, 4) and is complemented by notes played on the 1st and 2nd strings with the middle and index fingers. Patterns #2 and #3 are simpler variations of this so if it’s too difficult to begin with practice those for a while before trying to master this one.




Pattern #2 -- This is a simple variation of Pattern #1, replacing the first beat with a quarter note instead of 2 eighth notes. The quarter note at the beginning puts emphasis on the first note in the measure, and mixing up quarter notes with eighth notes makes things a little more interesting than a steady barrage of eighth notes.




Pattern #3 -- This is an even simpler variation of Pattern #1, with quarter notes at both the count of 1 and 4, leaving eighth notes at 2 and 3. If you find fingerpicking difficult at first try practicing this one until you’re comfortable with it, then the others (#1 and #2) will be much easier.




Pattern #4 -- Here’s a simple picking pattern that works well for many slow songs in 4/4 time. Notice that the thumb plays consecutive strings -- the 4th and then the 3rd -- and the index finger consecutive strings -- the 2nd and then the 3rd.




Pattern #5 -- Again the thumb plays two notes at the beginning of this example, so like Pattern #4 it’ll probably be easier to play on slower songs, although it’s a simple pattern so it might work on songs that are a little faster.




Pattern #6 -- All of the previous patterns have started with the thumb. This one starts with the index finger on the 2nd string.




Pattern #7 -- The next five patterns (7-11) are based on bluegrass banjo rolls. The 5-string banjo and the ukulele are both tuned with a high note on the top string. This is different than all other popular stringed instruments and it makes many banjo techniques easy to incorporate into playing on the uke. The pattern below is called the forward roll and it is the most commonly used roll in bluegrass banjo playing. Be sure to play the first beat with your thumb.




Pattern #8 -- This is another forward roll, just a small variation from the previous pattern. The important thing to notice here is how your thumb comes all the way down on the first beat to play the 2nd string. There are a couple of reasons for this: (1) to put emphasis on the first note of the measure; and (2) to keep the thumb moving. Keeping the thumb moving is important as you gain speed with fingerpicking. Try playing this pattern beginning with the index finger instead of the thumb and you will notice that your thumb completely stops moving during this time. That’s no problem if you’re playing slowly, but when playing it fast the inactivity of the thumb causes the balance of the right hand picking to be off a little bit and makes you have to work harder to achieve the same speed.




Pattern #9 -- This pattern, sometimes called a mixed roll in bluegrass banjo, is easy to play. Since it is a simple pattern repeated twice in the measure it’s especially useful for playing a measure that contains two different chords.




Pattern #10 -- Banjo players call this a forward-reverse roll and it’s especially useful when fingerpicking a song on the uke and the melody falls on the third string.




Pattern #11 -- The reverse roll tends to be a little more difficult for most people to play. It comes in handy though sometimes when you’d like to play a bluegrass roll and the melody is on the first string.




Pattern #12 -- The final three patterns are for songs in 3/4 time. I included two measures of this pattern to demonstrate how you would alternate between the 3rd and 4th strings in each measure. In this example you begin with the 3rd string then alternate by beginning the next measure with the 4th string. Depending on the chord you’re playing it may sound better to begin with the 4th and alternate with the 3rd. Try both ways for different chords and see what sounds best. It’s a simple pattern, and you just pluck up on the 1st and 2nd strings on the count of 2 and 3.




Pattern #13 -- This is a nice smooth pattern that fits well into 3/4 time. Although the thumb only plays two notes in the measure, observe your right hand as you play it and notice the constant motion between the 3rd and 4th strings.




Pattern #14 -- Except for the first beat this pattern stays away from the first string. It’s great for playing as accompaniment to your singing for songs in 3/4 time or for working up solos when most of the melody notes are on the 1st string.