When you’re playing the ukulele, it’s strumming that creates the beat of the music. Strumming isn’t that easy to learn and many beginners struggle with it. One of the frustrations for newbies is how to determine their strumming speed.
One of our customers asked the question below:
About to give up. I have your books (three) and still don’t understand how you determine how fast you strum on a song when you want to sing along. It looks to me like if you change your strum speed you would change chords faster. If you do that you would have to sing faster. I know that’s not right. So how do you decide strum speed?
You have asked a great question, one for which there is both a simpler answer as well as a more complex answer. I’ll give the simpler explanation first and then move on to the more complicated one. (The complex terminology is more accurate, so that is why it is used by professional musicians.) I’ve also created a video to help demonstrate what I mean.
Putting It Simply
The speed at which you strum depends on how many strums you do per beat.
The easiest strumming pattern is one down strum per beat. Use this pattern when you are first learning a song. Practicing this way helps you know when to change chords. It also helps you get your left hand coordinated with the words and melody without being distracted by your right hand.
When you can play and sing the song with one down strum per beat you are ready to add a fancier strumming pattern to your song. By ‘fancier’ I mean a pattern with more than one strum per beat.
The more complicated answer
There are different types of musical beats and rhythms.
The beat of any song is the underlying pulse. Pulse is what you might clap or march to if you were trying to keep time.
Moving at a different speed than the basic pulse is something called harmonic rhythm. Harmonic rhythm is how often the chords change in relation to the rhythmic pulse. Most songs will have many pulses per chord.
According to Wikipedia, ‘harmonic rhythm, also known as harmonic tempo is the rate at which the chords change (or progress) in a musical composition in relation to the rate of notes.’
When strumming you can have one strum per pulse, two strums per pulse, four strums per pulse or any other combination that you choose. These different combinations of strums per beat are our strumming patterns.
So, you can speed up your strumming a lot without changing the harmonic rhythm of the song. In other words, you can have lots of fast strumming going on without affecting the speed at which the chords change.
As long as you change chords at the correct time in relation to the melody, your strumming can be as fast or slow as you would like.
This concept is relatively complex; I did not learn the terminology I used in my answer until I was taking college music theory.
Here’s an example: Hush Little Baby
Learn this song first with four down strums per measure. Do one down strum for each beat of the song. Once you are comfortable playing and singing with all down strums, you can change to a faster strum. One option would be to double-time your strumming using a down up pattern for each beat. When performing the song with two strums per beat you would have 8 strums per measure. In spite of the faster strumming speed, you would be changing chords and singing words at the same speed you did when doing all down strums.
I put the sheet music to “Hush Little Baby” here, so you could refer to it.
You can download the sheet music using the link below.
There are four beats in each measure because of the two numbers 4/4 at the beginning of the song. So you can learn the song first strumming four F chords, eight C7 chords and then 4 F chords for each line of music. When you are good at that, do a down-up strum that is twice as fast. When doing the down-up strum you will strum 8 F chords, 16 C7 chords and then 8 F Chords.
The following video illustrates my point.
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I hope this post helps to reduce some of the frustrations you have been having with strumming speed. Please visit Struggling with Strumming? How to Develop a Sense of Beat on Ukulele to learn more about strumming.
I’d love to hear your comments and questions below.