This lesson covers the different methods of ukulele fingerpicking with the right hand.
Lots of thought is put into what notes to play in a song, but attention to the right hand is often neglected. This is a shame because picking is the foundation technique behind almost every single note you play!
If it isn’t running at 100% you are losing a lot of potential attack power, precision, and tone. Sloppy fingerpicking technique just plain sounds bad!
Pair a technically-perfect left hand with a skilled picking hand and you’ll hear a great ukulele player. Pair it with a sub-par picking hand and you would be floored at the difference in tone and presentation. Personally, I’d take a player with a stronger right hand any day of the week.
In my opinion, timing is THE most important factor in music. I also feel like 99% of the time it’s the most under-practiced! (So get yourself a metronome!)
In addition to holding rhythm, the right hand portrays subtle tonal variations that breathe life into “simple” music. This is why master musicians like Herb Ohta Jr. can play straightforward, technically-plain songs (though not easy to play!) and make them sound stunning, evoking emotion in a listener.
Fingerpicking the Ukulele: Creating the Sound
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. Ukulele fingerpicking is usually a combination of the two in unison, but studying each approach by itself is very valuable in the long run.
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 ukulele 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 with your ukulele fingerpicking. 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.
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 standard notation pieces or ‘ukulele tabs. You don’t have to follow it, but it can make things much easier for difficult passages.
Plucking the ukulele’s strings with your thumb is probably the first kind of picking technique you should explore if you’re a beginner. It’s easy and sounds good.
To pick with your thumb, start by holding the bottom of your ukulele up with your pinky and ring finger in the curve between the upper and lower bout, where the sides dip in. Then, place your thumb or thumbnail so it rests on a string.
Looking down, your thumb should be at about a 45 degree angle to the strings. To attack the note, just move your thumb straight down through the string.
When picking the G, C, or E-strings you can finish the movement by bringing your thumb to rest on the string below it. This gives you a precise stopping point and can yield more controlled playing.
Try the 1234 exercise to drill your thumb picking as you learn it.
The trickiest part of fingerpicking any piece is always switching strings. This can be assisted at first by looking at your thumb while you pick. Just by seeing where your destination is, your brain can calculate the movement better.
Try playing any one of these picking patterns to further your thumb dexterity (there are also some good patterns here). Hold any chord with your left hand and repeat each pattern until it’s comfortable.
In “real life” this isn’t very practical. It’s difficult to get around the instrument in this manner. But it will whip your thumb picking into shape, after which you’ll probably want to employ additional fingers to help with a similar job in the future.
This style of fingerpicking is done in an upwards motion.
Start by placing your partially curled index finger on the bottom side of a string. When you pluck, your finger pulls towards the base of your thumb, up and out from the strings slightly.
The direction in which your finger plucks the string is important. Start by picking across the string at a 45 degree angle. This creates the best sound and ergonomics. You can also vary the amount your finger plucks outwards – straight out away from you or upwards along the plane of the soundboard. Again, 45 degrees is a good starting place. Experiment.
Picking along the string’s length – parallel to the string – can make your tone thin and “scratchy.” Picking at an exaggerated right angle – perpendicular to the string – can also work against your tone if you play with fingernails.
Practice the 1234 drill and songs in the thumb picking section above using only the index finger. Like many of these techniques, this practice is not practical in real life music. But taking the time to focus thoroughly on a single aspect allows you to master it much faster.
Once you find it easy to play with both your thumb and index finger separately, practice blending them together. This is a desirable next step since two appendages are more efficient than one when you’re playing across the strings.
Simply pick downwards with your thumb and upwards with your index finger, as described in the two sections above.
At first, try to strictly pick thumb, then index. As you improve you can abandon this rule for good judgement. Over time you’ll see where it makes sense to stay strictly back and forth and when to “cheat.”
Combining the independent picking motions of the thumb and index, a pinch is played using both at the same time on different strings. This creates a “double-stop,” or harmonized interval.
Place your thumb on the string closer to the ceiling and the index finger on the one closer to the floor. Now squeeze the two fingers together (as you would normally pick with each) so they create a crab claw motion.
As you pinch, your hand moves away from you slightly to allow the fingers room to pluck across the strings.
When using this style, the thumb usually plucks the G and C-strings and the index plucks the E and A-strings. There are no hard and fast rules though. If you wanted to pinch the E and A-strings you would move your thumb appropriately.
This style is very useful when you need to play two non-adjacent strings at the same time. This would be near impossible to play with a single motion from the thumb or index finger solo.
Adding Additional Fingers
Once it’s easy to play with your thumb and index finger, you can begin to expand your picking repertoire by adding additional fingers. Some fabulous players (Ledward Kaapana comes to mind) stick to playing mainly with their thumb and index. This works – no question about it. But having more fingers on the instrument can serve to ease your playing in many situations.
Incorporating any other finger “into” your picking hand can be practiced the same as the index. Just replace “index finger” with “middle finger” in the directions above. When you get comfortable playing with the middle finger using alternating and pinch styles with the thumb, you’re ready to bring the index finger into the picture for a thumb/index/middle combo.
If you’re inclined, adding your ring finger to the party will allow one digit for each string. This true PIMA approach is more classical than others and can be used to great effect in traditional fingerpicking arrangements. Practice as outlined in the previous paragraph. Though once you get to this point, you might find that your work with the other fingers makes using this last one a piece of cake. (I don’t recall ever practicing with my ring finger.)
With every additional finger, it becomes harder to suggest how best to study. If you get to the point of one-finger-per-string picking, I highly recommend Daniel Ward’s Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele. It was created for this exact purpose and is brilliant at incorporating technique into pleasing and intriguing arrangements.
There are many, many options for approaching the fingering of a piece. Often times you will use different picking approaches within the same song. Transitioning between them or choosing the most appropriate will become natural as you practice more.
One mistake to avoid is using the same fingering style for everything you play. For instance, even if you’re a dedicated PIMA fingerpicker, it’s silly force yourself to use only your ring finger to play a single note lead line on the A-string.
Here are some common practical fingerings and which strings to pluck with each finger (shown with PIMA).
P – All strings
I (flat-pick style) – All strings
P/I – P on G and C-strings, I on E and A-strings
P/I/M – P on G and C-strings, I on E-string, M on A-string
P/I/M/A – P on G-string, I on C-string, M on E-string, A on A-string
Index Flat-Picking 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.