This lesson covers the different ways to pluck the ukulele’s strings with the right hand. Lots of thought is put into what notes or chords to play in a song, but attention to the right hand is often neglected. This is a shame because your picking hand is the engine of most everything you play. If it isn’t running at 100% you are losing a lot of potential attack power, precision, and tone. Pair a technically perfect left hand with a picking hand with good technique and then one with bad technique and I think you would be floored at the difference.
Breaking it Down
Sounding an ‘ukulele string is a simple movement, but things that affect it are many. Here are some of the main factors.
Nails, Picks, Or Nothing?:
Topping the list of factors is whether you grow out your fingernails or use a pick as opposed to the flesh of your fingers.
- Nails – Provide a crisp, bright attack and precise follow-through.
- Picks – A sort of “synthetic nail” made out of plastic or metal. Similar response as a fingernail, but often with a fatter sound due to the thickness of the pick.
- Flesh of the finger – The warmest sound of all and zero maintenance! Has a sort of loose feel with less precision than a nail or pick.
Which you choose depends on the sound you want and whether your lifestyle allows for fingernails.
For the record, I’ve used my fingernails almost exclusively since my second year of playing. I’m also a hobby farmer so they get abused and surprisingly I haven’t had many problems with breakages. Just wear gloves, file them regularly, and drink lots of water.
Fingers vs. Thumb:
Which appendage you use the pluck a string is probably the biggest factor in defining the sound of a note. Because of the physiology of the human hand, you get different angles of attack from each finger and the thumb.
The strongest picker in the game. Used primarily in a downward motion. Because the thumbnail is stronger and thicker than any of the fingernails it tends to have a fatter sound.
The disadvantage of the thumb is that it doesn’t really point towards the strings when your hand is naturally relaxed in “attack position.” You sort of have to reach in towards yourself to get a clean attack – otherwise you’ll be using the fleshy side of your thumb. To maintain a comfortable and parallel attack position, many people use thumb picks. Get one and try it out to see if you like it. They are like $1, tops.
Used in an upwards curling motion in traditional fingerpicking scenarios. It can also be plucked downwards if you grow out your fingernail.
Mainly the index finger, but possibly others can be used in a flat-pick-like application. This is achieved by reenforcing the finger with the thumb so it is perpendicular to the string. It can then be used in both downwards and upwards strokes.
The nails on fingers tend to be a little less robust than the one on the thumb. This leads to a thinner sound I’ve been trying to counteract for years. What I’ve found is that the shorter the nail is, the fatter the sound. But too short and the flesh with start to catch on downstrokes. You’ve also got to make sure your nail is filed to give the smoothest release and remain evenly curved for strength. Upstrokes tend to be warmer – especially if you are using the “flatpick” technique.
For me, striking the strings has two parts of the equation: force and angle. How you combine the two really dictates the kind of sound that’s going to come out of your ‘ukulele.
Force is how hard you push your finger through the string. More pressure usually results in a fatter, stronger sound and vice versa. Try establishing your maximum loudness and softness on your ‘ukulele. Then find the middle ground and several places in between you can use to complement any song or feel. Keep in mind that if you hit it hard enough the string will eventually reach a maximum ringing arc. Trying to push it past this point will lead to buzzing or a hyper-compressed note that sounds like it just gave up. The angle you use to attack the string can give you some more “headroom.”
Angle is the X, Y, and Z movements of your hand and how the finger comes into contact with the string. How you turn your wrist and move your fingers impacts everything from the tone to how easily your finger slips off the string. There are a million variations on this so I’ll just give some pointers and observations to guide your experimenting.
- Pretty much the worst thing you can do is pick the string with your fingernail perfectly parallel to the string. This is almost guarantied to give you a thin sound and “tick” when your finger slips off the string. Don’t take my word for it – try it!
- Picking up and down uses each side of the fingernail. Angle (and file) them appropriately so that the nail doesn’t catch the string on the way by.
- Don’t forget about the other angles your hand can produce. Little changes make a big difference. Experiment with where the tip of your finger points (at the label sticker in the soundhole, at the neck block). Up and down too! (At your chin, at your belly button, at your groin .)
- Change how stiff you keep your 1st knuckle. How it deflects over the string will change the sound and release.
Plucking the ‘ukulele’s strings with your thumb is probably the first kind of picking you should explore. It’s easy and sounds good. You can pick using either the flesh of the thumb or the nail. The flesh has a warmer, soft sound, and the nail a more defined “pop”.
To pick with your thumb, start by holding the bottom of your ukulele up with your pinky and ring finger right in the middle of the instrument’s body, where the sides dip in. Then place your thumb or thumbnail on the string angling towards the bridge at about 45 degrees. To sound the string, just move your thumb straight down towards your fingers.
When picking the G, C, or E strings you might want to bring your thumb to rest on the string below it. This gives you a precise stopping point so you don’t float into other strings accidentally.
Index Picking (flat-pick style):
This is the way ‘ukulele players can pretend to hold a guitar pick. Plus, it gives you a lot of options and sounds. You need an index fingernail to do this type of picking. Troy Fernandez from the Ka’au Crater Boys plays like this a lot. If you play guitar with a pick, you are already close to knowing how this works. If not, here we go…
Pinch your index finger and thumb together and curve your index finger so that the tip of your finger is bent about 90 degrees to your thumb. The thumb should rest sort of in the crook of your last knuckle. Like so:
Just like how you pick with the thumb, just push the index finger through the string. The only difference is that you can also pick in reverse with this technique. You can anchor your hand on the ‘ukulele with your pinky and/or ring fingers.
Learning to play the ukulele with your fingers along with the thumb can be very freeing. Using just the thumb for picking works very well, but both the thumb and fingers together can give you more speed and precision. When you start learning how to play with your fingers it will seem near impossible, but it’s not.
Start with your index finger. Work on playing with different fingers one at a time, because the first finger will learn the motions. After that it’s easier to add more to the mix. Anchor your ring and pinky fingers to the soundboard below the strings and in between the sound hole and bridge. This lets you start the picking motion in the same place every time instead of floating around worrying about actually hitting the right string. Your fingers are going to rest at an angle to the strings, because your arm is going over the top half of the ukulele. This is fine, you don’t want to bend your wrist sideways to keep your fingers perpendicular to the strings.
Now place the tip of your index finger so that it’s resting on the bottom of the A string. Pick up and through the string. Imagine a string that runs along your arm, comes out your palm and attaches to your finger. “Pull” on the string and you’ll have a good start to the fingerpicking motion.
Once you get comfortable using the index finger to pick, start practicing with the middle finger too, then the ring. You shouldn’t ever need your pinky because the thumb plus three fingers covers all the strings.
PIMA is the system that is used to show what fingers to use for what notes. Each letter is an abbreviation of a Spanish word that stands for a finger.
- P = thumb
- I = index
- M = middle
- A = ring
Using this system, it is easy to show what fingers to use in a song. The PIMA fingering is usually shown above notation or tab. You don’t have to follow it, but it can make things much easier for difficult passages.
As a general guide, many players use their thumb for the top two strings, index for E, and middle for A. This is a good starting point when working on a song, but you’ll soon find your own combinations that work best for you.
Just to give you an idea how you can use more than a single finger to your advantage:
p i p i p i p i p i p i p i p
Using both your thumb and index finger, you can play the C scale much faster than you could with just your thumb.