How to Pick or Strum a Hawaiian Vamp on ‘Ukulele

Listen to almost any Hawaiian song and you will hear a signature riff connecting two parts. This instantly recognizable sound, called a Hawaiian vamp, is usually used to spread a song out and create separation between otherwise similar-sounding verses. It has a distinct Hawaiian flavor that people will recognize even out of context!

I remember vividly a visit to my grandparent’s house that defined the Hawaiian vamp for me. The family was sitting around the living room with one of my Grandma’s friends. She brought me an ‘ukulele that her dad had bought back in the day and said, “Play me something!” I played a couple songs I thought she might know – blank looks. Then I played a little Hawaiian turnaround and she exclaimed “Hey, I know that!” A simple two bar vamp is the sound of Hawaiian music for many people.

The Hawaiian vamp is really just a small structured chunk of a song. In this chunk there can be many things going on, but the main two are picking and strumming variations.

How to Strum a Hawaiian Vamp

Strumming Vamp Chords:

The chord progression (the order and length of the chords) of a Hawaiian vamp goes: II7, V7, I (or “two-seven, five-seven, one”). The roman numerals can also be just plain arabic numbers: 2, 5, 1. The “1” is the home note – or root – of the key. If you were playing in the key of C, the “1” is C.

That means the 2 and 5 can be found in their respective places in a C scale. So if you lay out the scale like this with numbers:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C D E F G A B C

You would get:

-2- 3 4 5 6 7 8
-D- E F G A B C

1 2 3 4 -5- 6 7 8
C D E F -G- A B C

-1- 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
-C- D E F G A B C

D, G, C are the chords of a vamp in the key of C.

Here’s a video lesson explaining the same thing:

To make the chords push each other through the progression better, it helps to make the first two chords seventh chords. (See Resolving 7th Chords.) That give us D7, G7, C. Hence the II7, V7, I progression we started with: the 7 tells you to make those chord a dominant 7th.

Strumming Vamp Timing:

The timing for a Hawaiian vamp progression is:

1 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Where the “1” is a chord change. So the first two chords get two beats (1 + 2 +) and the last gets four beats (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +).

D7 gets two counts, G7 gets two counts, and C gets four counts. The first two chords together take up a whole measure (there are four counts in a measure: 2+2=4 counts) and C takes up another measure by itself.

The most common strum pattern for a turnaround is down and up. Strum down on the number count and up on the “+”:

D7------G7------C--------------
D U D U D U D U D U D U D U D U
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Here’s what it should sound like: Strumming Vamp MP3

Video tutorial for above vamp:

All 12 Strumming Vamp Progressions:

Here are the II7, V7, I chords in every key.

  • C: D7// G7// C////
  • C#/Db: D#7// G#7// C#////
  • D: E7// A7// D////
  • D#/Eb: F7// Bb7// Eb////
  • E: F#7// B7// E////
  • F: G7// C7// F////
  • F#/Gb: G#7// C#7// F#////
  • G: A7// D7// G////
  • G#/Ab: A#7// D#7// G#////
  • A: B7// E7// A////
  • A#/Bb: C7// F7// Bb////
  • B: C#7// F#7// B////

F is a great key. Because it’s so great I made a video lesson showing the strumming vamp for it:

Need a hand with the chord shapes for some of the strange ones? I’ve got you covered:

How to play 7th chords on the ‘ukulele

How to play major chords on the ‘ukulele

For many more options, shapes, and chord tricks, check out my eBook:

‘Ukulele Chord Shapes

Chord Variations:

Using basic, open-position chords in a vamp is fine and very common, but you might want to branch out into more interesting voicings once those are easy for you to play. This gives the vamp more color and interest.

9th chords are popular substitution chords when you want a jazzier-sounding vamp. Just replace each 7th chord in the vamp with a 9th. The normal D7 G7 C vamp would become: D9 G9 C.

How to Pick a Hawaiian Vamp

The second part of a Hawaiian vamp can be layered on by picking single notes. These notes work around the chords to push the sound along.

Here’s an easy vamp:

----D7------G7----C--
A |-------------2-3-|
E |-2-3-2-3-1-3-----|
C |-----------------|
G |-----------------|

It sounds like: Picking Vamp MP3

Use the rhythm of the chords to figure out exactly where the notes fall.

Here is an MP3 example of both parts of the vamp along with backing tracks so you can practice picking and strumming.

Picking vamps can add a lot to a song. There are many to learn, but here are some more basic ones to get you started. As you can see, most follow similar note pattens. Changing just one note can give you a new vamp. Each vamp is divided by a measure bar.

Picking Vamps Key of C:

A |-----0---------2-3-|
E |-2h3---3-0-1-3-----|
C |-------------------|
G |-------------------|
A |-7-2---------2-3-|
E |-----3-----3-----|
C |-------4/5-------|
G |-----------------|
A |---12-10------8-7-----5-3-|
E |--------------------------|
C |-12---11-11-9---7-7-5---4-|
G |--------------------------|
A |--------------2-3-|
E |-/3-3-2-2-1-1-----|
C |------------------|
G |------------------|
A |---0-----0-----0---2-3-|
E |-3---3-2---2-1---1-----|
C |-----------------------|
G |-----------------------|
A |-3-5-7-3---------2-3-|
E |---------3-----3-----|
C |-----------4/5-------|
G |---------------------|

Picking Vamps Key of G:

A |-----------------|
E |-------------2-3-|
C |-1-2-1-2-0-2-----|
G |-----------------|
A |-2---------------|
E |---2---------2-3-|
C |-----2-----2-----|
G |-------4/5-------|
A |---2p0-----0-----2-2---2-5-2-|
E |-------0h2---2-3-3-3--3------|
C |-1---------------2-2-2-------|
G |-----------------0-0---------|
A |---7-5-----3-2-----0---|
E |---------------------3-|
C |-7---6-6-4---2-2-0-----|
G |---------------------4-|
A |------------------|
E |--------------2-3-|
C |-/2-2-1-1-0-0-----|
G |------------------|
A |---------------|
E |-----------2-3-|
C |-2-----0-2-----|
G |---2-4---------|

My favorite vamp in G:

I learned this lick from Uncle Sonny at the Kahumoku Camp. There is a three note chromatic lead in to A7. In the third measure is the connector lick that runs into the next vamp of your choice (I put a simple one in to give you an idea). Keep in mind that you can move this to any key. The first note in the 3rd measure is the root. Another thing to keep in mind is that you might not have a two vamp turnaround to work with. If that’s the case, just use the first two measures and end on G.

>           A7      D7        G                  A7    D7        G
A |-------|-------2---------|----------2-5-4-3-|-2-------------|---
E |-------|-----3-------2-5-|-3------3---------|---3---------2-|-3-
C |-4-3-2-|-1-4-------2-----|------2-----------|-----2-----2---|---
G |-------|---------5-------|----4-------------|-------4/5-----|---

For even more picking vamps in G, check out this post with 10 Hawaiian turnarounds with tab and audio examples.

Picking Vamps Key of F:

A |------------------|
E |--------------0-1-|
C |----0---0---0-----|
G |-/5---4---3-------|
A |--------------------|
E |------0---------0-1-|
C |----0---------0-----|
G |-/5-----0-2h3-------|
A |-----------------------|
E |-----------------0---1-|
C |---2---0---0---0---0---|
G |-5---3---2---0---------|
A |---5---5-3---------1p0-------------|
E |-1---1-----0-----0-----0-------0h1-|
C |-------------0h2-------------0-----|
G |-------------------------0h2-------|
A |---5-3-----1-0---------
E |-------------------3-1-
C |-5---4-4-2---0-0-------
G |-----------------3---2-

Secondary Strumming Vamp

Less recognizable, but just as widely used is a more simple version of the vamp that drops the II7 chord. This vamp becomes:

G7//// C////

It really depends on the song to decide which one to use. Often more jazzy or hula songs use the traditional II7 V7 I and more straightforward slack key-style pieces go for V7 I.

Vamps work in all keys, as does all of this info. The rest of the strumming vamps can be found here: Hawaiian Vamp Chords.

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