The Ukulele: A Guide for Guitarists – Playing Styles

By | March 30, 2015

Guitarists approaching the ukulele may wonder at the various styles of playing available to them. Of course, as any instrument, the ukulele can be played any way you please, as is famously demonstrated by James Hill. But there are some recognized styles that are established in books, tutorials and players who have mastered them. Here are some of these.

This is part five of a series I’m writing – a compendium of ukulele information with the migrating guitarist in mind. If you missed it, check out the previous installment: Buyer’s Guide

ukuele playing styles
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Rhythm/strumming

Most people start out strumming chords to accompany voice or other instruments. If you’re a rhythm guitarist, this should come naturally. What’s different about the ukulele is that strumming is traditionally done with the fingers, primarily the index finger and thumb. But the idea is the same. And there is no fine for using a pick if that’s what you prefer. Strumming on the ukulele can be developed as a serious skill and YouTube is full of various strumming pattern and technique tutorials. Ukulele greats Roy Smeck and George Formby are famous for their rapid-fire strumming techniques.

Fingerstyle

Fingerstyle is a style of finger picking popular with guitarists that combines an alternating bass line with a melody. This allows you to play the melody and accompaniment of a song at the same time. With the ukulele in particular, fingerstyle describes any finger picking style that results in melody and accompaniment played together on one instrument. It can be challenging but rewarding, especially if you’re not a singer. On the ukulele, the alternating baseline isn’t as readily available given the dearth of lower notes, but there are tons of arrangements showing it can be done to varying degrees. My video of Hilo March is a good example of a fingerstyle ukulele arrangement. And be sure to check out my huge list of fingerstyle ukulele resources.

Campanella

The late classical ukulele master John King popularized this method of finger picking that allows sequential notes to ring free as long as possible. Campanella is Italian for little bell, and the idea is to make the notes ring like bells. John King’s The Classical Ukulele is perhaps the definitive source of arrangements in this style. And here is a video of John himself playing one of them.

Chord-Melody

Chord-melody is a more approachable style of playing melody and accompaniment together for the non-singers, and it works particularly well in jazz arrangements. This style features strummed chords mixed with a single note melody. My arrangement of Blue Bells of Scotland is a good example of chord-melody.

Clawhammer

Clawhammer is a traditional style of banjo playing that translates well to the ukulele due to its re-entrant tuning. The style is easy to learn conceptually but quite tricky to master. Clawhammer gives the ukulele a great rootsy sound and opens up a lot of wonderful traditional American and bluegrass music. Aaron Keim’s book, Clawhammer Ukulele is highly recommended if you’re wanting to learn this style. Here’s a video of Aaron showing us how its done.

Lead

Like guitar, there is of course room for lead ukulele. Lead typically indicates single note solo over the accompaniment of other instruments (or a loop track as in the video below). While less common on the ukulele than on guitar, there are artists who’ve made a name for themselves with this style. Among them is Brittni Paiva, shown here playing Take Five.

Did I miss any styles? If so, please let me know in the comments below.

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