How to Fingerpick Melodies on the Ukulele

October 19, 2020

How to Fingerpick Melodies on the Ukulele

Now that you’ve learned a few basic chords and beginner songs, try a delightful and different way to make music on your ukulele: fingerpicking! After learning to strum chords, I was pleasantly surprised when my music teacher introduced this new (to me) way of playing the uke. Instead of strumming chords to perform songs, I could play and recognize the melody of each tune.

Give Fingerpicking a Try

This technique opens up a whole new world of playing and hearing songs on your uke. With fingerpicking, you can play one distinct note at a time, instead of a chord with multiple notes.

To fingerpick, use your left hand (which holds the uke’s neck) to press on a specific fret space of one string; with right hand, pick (or pluck) that same single string only. Do not strum all four strings.

I have to admit that when I first started fingerpicking, I used only my thumb to pluck each string. There’s no rule against using just your thumb; in fact, this method creates a smooth, mellow sound. Most teachers suggest, however, using three to four different fingers when learning to fingerpick the uke.

Two Ways to Fingerpick

Here are two different yet equally correct fingerpicking techniques:

  1. Use the thumbindex, and middle fingers: The thumb plucks either of the top two strings (G and C), the index finger plucks the third (or second to bottom) string (E), and the middle finger plucks the bottom string (A).
  1. Use the thumbindex, middle, and ring fingers: The thumb plucks the top string (G), the index finger plucks the second string (C), the middle finger plucks the third string (E), and the ring finger plucks the bottom string (A).

Either method is fine; try both ways to see which way you find more comfortable and nimble in movement. See this quick video demonstration of these two fingerpicking techniques.

How to Read Music for Fingerpicking

The musical notation or tablature for fingerpicking tells you which separate, specific notes to play and in what order. A tablature consists of four lines, each representing a string, from bottom to top: G, C, E, A.

Hold your ukulele as if you’re about to play it, with headstock to the left and body to the right. Then turn the instrument on its back to examine the neck and all four strings (this position is just for tablature explanation…of course you won’t hold the uke this way while playing). The A string is the top string and the G string is the bottom string; this layout resembles the four lines on the tablature.

A |-----------------------------|
E |-----------------------------|
C |-----------------------------|
G |-----------------------------|

Note: when you turn the ukulele back to its “normal” playing position and look down at the neck, the A string becomes the bottom string and G becomes the top string.

Marked on the lines representing the strings are numbers: this notation tells you which fret space to press on which string. Read the tablature from left to right for the correct order of which notes to play.

A |----3------------------------|
E |--------0---------------5----|
C |------------2-------4--------|
G |----------------0------------|


According to the tablature example above:

  1. First, pluck the A string while pressing the third (3) fret.
  1. Second, pluck the E string without pressing on any frets; the zero (0) means it’s an “open” string.”
  1. Third, pluck the C string while pressing the second (2) fret.
  1. Then pluck the open G string (0).
  1. Then pluck the C string while pressing the fourth (4) fret.
  1. And last, pluck the E string while pressing the fifth (5) fret.

The above example isn’t a pretty tune, but hopefully it helps illustrate how fingerpicking tablature works. For a visual explanation, watch this helpful tutorial.

Fun, Easy Songs to Fingerpick

A few beginner songs I enjoyed learning when exploring the wonderful world of ukulele fingerpicking include:

“Ode to Joy”

I particularly like this tune because it’s so upbeat and easy to play. Follow this fingerpicking tablature for “Ode to Joy” by UkuleleTabs. Play along to this tablature in action by Capotasto Music

“Happy Birthday”

This handy tune is festive for fingerpicking. See this tablature for “Happy Birthday” by Live ‘Ukulele. Watch and hear this soulful demonstration. This is also a fun first song to play with chords.  

“Amazing Grace”

You may already know simple chords to play this hymn. Here’s fingerpicking tablature for a simple version.

If you’re looking for more of a challenge, try fingerpicking this complex version by Ukulele Wizard.

“Scarborough Fair”

I love this traditional English ballad. Fans of Simon and Garfunkle also would enjoy learning how to fingerpick this song.

Listen to this more advanced version of “Scarborough Fair” with more a complex fingerpicking tablature.

“Jingle Bells”

Ring in the holidays with this cheerful carol. Can you play “Jingle Bells” with simple chords? Also try fingerpicking its melody.

To play it in a different key, follow along this tablature for “Jingle Bells” in action by New Easy Ukulele Tabs.  

“My Darling Clementine”

Playing this ballad with chords is fun; plucking the soulful melody of “My Darling Clementine” according to this tablature by Ukulele Tabs is even more of a hoot! Play along to this video of “My Darling Clementine” tablature in action. 

“You Are My Sunshine” 

Who can resist this cheerful tune? Strumming chords for this song is sweet. Now try fingerpicking the happy melody with this simple tablature of “You Are My Sunshine”. Check out this cool video of Antonis Mikelis of EZ Song Lessons; edited together are his simultaneous, parallel performances on the ukulele, strumming chords and fingerpicking the melody!

Have Fun Fingerpicking Tunes

With practice, you too can play both parts of all the songs above and more. Now you know how to read both types of tablature—chord and fingerpicking—to make the uke sing in two different ways. Experiment with the two distinct sounds and enjoy double the fun with your ukulele.

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