‘Ukulele Picking Patterns: Learn 8 Ways to “Melt” a Chord

Sometimes a chord is just too much. Too many notes at once, too loud, too happy (but I thought the ‘ukulele was supposed to be happy…?). Problem is, you can’t just skip a chord! If you’re playing a song you still need the ever-important harmony aspect. However, that doesn’t mean harmony has to be a strummed chord.

A cool thing about playing the ‘ukulele is that we have two hands doing completely different things on the instrument at the same time. One holds down frets to create notes, the other controls when they sound. Let’s exploit both hands for this lesson and examine how to play picking patterns.

A picking pattern is a repeating string order that your right hand picks in sequence. Meanwhile, your fretting hand continues doing whatever it was doing. Nothing new to learn there. All that changes is how you attack the strings.

Discrepancies in musical terms are all too common and one appears here between “picking pattern” and “arpeggio.” They are related, but for ease of naming aspects of playing ‘ukulele, I think of them as different things. Arpeggios are the notes of a chord played one at a time. A picking pattern contains natural arpeggios, but the notes usually ring into each other and are only four in number (matching the strings). An arpeggio usually spans many notes in order, not just the ones held in a chord shape.

PIMA Picking

When you break into this style of picking the strings, it begins to make much more sense to pick with multiple fingers instead of just the thumb. This allows for more comfortable hand positioning and speed.

PIMA is a picking-finger notation system that assigns a letter to each digit, leaving the pinky out. The pinky finger is unnecessary for playing ‘ukulele in this style because there are only four strings. Four strings = thumb + 3 fingers. The corresponding PIMA fingers are as follows: P = thumb, I = index, M = middle, A = ring.

Much more can be found in my lesson about picking:

How to pick the ‘ukulele

The Patterns:

What follows are some picking patterns for ‘ukulele in tab format. You can hold any chord with these patterns, C is just an example for the tab. The important part is the picking order of the strings, which is shown as a number line. Read it from left to right. One number is a string pick and the strings are numbered like this:

  1. A-string
  2. E-string
  3. C-string
  4. G-string

Repeat each pattern in an endless loop for as long as needed.

The suggested PIMA fingerings are shown above each note, but are certainly not the only way to play each pattern.

4231: The standard “boom-diddy”

    P I P I
A |-------3-
E |---0-----
C |-----0---
G |-0-------

123-124: The backwards roll (Used often by Jake Shimabukuro)

    M I P M I P
A |-3-----3-----
E |---0-----0---
C |-----0-------
G |-----------0-

4321: The one-way

    P P P P
A |-------3-
E |-----0---
C |---0-----
G |-0-------

324142: The Ohta-San 6/8

    P I P M P I
A |-------3-----
E |---0-------0-
C |-0-----------
G |-----0---0---

1324: The reverse “boom-diddy”

    I P I P
A |-3-------
E |-----0---
C |---0-----
G |-------0-

4132: The outside, inside

    P I P I
A |---3-----
E |-------0-
C |-----0---
G |-0-------

142324: The outside, inside, outside 6

    M P I P I P
A |-3-----------
E |-----0---0---
C |-------0-----
G |---0-------0-

1421-4232: The fancy 8

    M P I M P I P I
A |-3-----3---------
E |-----0-----0---0-
C |-------------0---
G |---0-----0-------

Click here for a couple more song-specific examples.

These are only a tiny fraction of all the possibilities. All the four-string combos are explored below, but with every note you add to a pattern the options multiply by huge numbers. Create your own and experiment. The main thing is to practice getting your fingers moving independently so you can just freestyle picking patterns off the top of your head. The best picking pattern is the one you can pull out of thin air.

Four-String Combos

To give you an idea of four-string picking pattern possibilities, here is a list of all 4-digit combinations. Most sound pretty boring, but maybe you’ll find a couple you like the sound of. Read each pattern from left to right. One string number is shown per letter space. (A string = 1, E string = 2, etc…)


How to play 8 different 'ukulele picking patterns.