‘Ukulele Fingerpicking Patterns

A fingerpicking pattern on the ‘ukulele is a clever way of “melting” a chord you already know.

Sometimes strumming all the strings is more bombastic than a song requires. But you can’t just erase the harmony! However, harmony doesn’t have 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. The fretting hand controls the notes and harmony (chords). The picking hand controls when they are sounded.

Let’s focus on just the picking hand for this lesson as we learn some arpeggio patterns. The left hand can just hold your favorite chord as you practice picking with the right hand.

green ukulele

Picking Patterns: What are They?

A picking pattern is a repeating string order that your right hand picks in sequence while holding any chord. Many of these patterns intentionally target every string so the entirety of the ‘ukulele is used.

For instance, a common pattern is 4231. This means you pick the 4th-string, 2nd-string, 3rd-string, then 1st-string, one after another.

A pattern such as 4323 would also sound nice, but it doesn’t move quite as far across the tones of the chord.

Discrepancies in musical terms are all too common and one appears here. Here’s my interpretation:

“Arpeggio”

The notes of a chord played one at a time, in order, from low to high.

“Picking Pattern”

The notes of a chord voicing played separately, in any order.

A picking pattern often contains natural arpeggios, but the notes usually A. ring into each other and B. are played according to the pattern, not to the note pitch. An arpeggio usually spans many notes in order, not just the ones held in a chord shape.

PIMA Fingerpicking

When you pick the strings in a pattern-like way, it begins to make much more sense to use multiple fingers instead of just the thumb. This allows for more comfortable hand positioning and speed.

PIMA is a notation system that assigns a letter to each picking finger, 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.

How to pick the ‘ukulele using PIMA style

10 ‘Ukulele Fingerpicking Patterns:

What follows are some fingerpicking patterns for ‘ukulele in tab format.

You can hold any chord with your left hand as you play these patterns. C is used just as an example for the tab. The important part is the picking order of the strings. 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-------

413121: The “Europa” – Easy (a la Herb Ohta Jr.)

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

411311211: The “Europa” – Hard

    P M I P M I P M I
A |---3-3---3-3---3-3-|
E |-------------0-----|
C |-------0-----------|
G |-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 fingerpicking pattern is the one you can pull out of thin air.

Other Fingerpicking Resources

Al Wood, as always, has put together a nice collection of some patterns with video examples.

The excitable Aldrine Guerrero provides some tips on creating your own patterns in his video on Ukulele Underground.

Four-String Combos

To give you an idea of other 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…)

1234
1243
1342
1324
1432
1423
2134
2143
2314
2341
2413
2431
3124
3142
3214
3241
3412
3421
4123
4132
4213
4231
4312
4321

Arpeggio Meditations for Ukulele is a fantastic book built around fingerpicking patterns by Daniel Ward. If you want to whip your right hand into shape, this is the material to do it.

By Brad Bordessa

brad bordessa avatar

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me