Fingerpicking Ukulele – First Steps

Back in the olden days I had a fingerpicking mini-course available for people who signed up for my mailing list. It’s been unavailable for quite a while and a few people have been asking about it. So here’s the first part of it and the rest of it will be available once I work out what I want to do with it.

In order to tab fingerpicking, we need to introduce some new notation. The fingers of the picking hand are referred to as:

T = Thumb

I = Index Finger

M = Middle Finger

A = Ring Finger

The finger names come from pulgar, indice, medius, annular.

If you need a primer on reading ukulele tab in general, check out my series of posts on how to read ukulele tab.

Each of these fingers is allocated to an individual string:

Thumb – g-string

Index Finger – C string

Middle Finger – E string

Ring Finger – A string

Like this:

As you can see, I use my little finger as an anchor. This stabilizes the hand. However, there is a trade off. Letting you hand hover over the strings will give your fingers greater flexibility and make it easier to switch between picking and strumming.
Once you’ve got comfortable with that position, try this simple exercise.

Here, we’re picking through the each string in order while holding down a C chord. When picking a note, your fingertip should be very slightly underneath the string. You pluck it by bringing your finger up and towards your head (or up and away from you head for your thumb).

Make sure you let all the notes ring into each other so that, by the time you’ve picked all the notes, a full chord is ringing.

You can see a video (mpg) of me doing this (first slowly then sped up) here:

Example 1

Once you get the hang of this, you can try changing chords while playing it. Like this:

Example 2
This can feel like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. But a little bit of practice and it start to come more naturally.

View Comments

45 Comments

  1. L.Bo Marie March 24th, 2010 6:36 pm

    YEAH!!! thank you!
    I was just saying to someone the other day that I need to find some simple picking exercises- and here you are!

    mind reader?

  2. Sara March 24th, 2010 7:22 pm

    Excellent!

  3. Al Bruce March 24th, 2010 11:04 pm

    Fantastic! This is exactly what I’ve been needing. Hopefully this will help me get the hang of ‘Hoppipolla’ which I’ve just been using my thumb and index for thus far.

  4. Alec March 25th, 2010 9:01 am

    I think it’s really worth it when you start to dedicate your ring finger, as woodshed suggests. If you use it from the beginning, it’s fine to stop using it later (I don’t use it sometimes because it’s weaker and harder to get a perfect tone) but if you don’t learn to use it at the beginning, it’s unlikely you’ll ever play catch up later.

  5. Ron and Jeanne March 25th, 2010 4:28 pm

    Thanks for this, Al. We’re also really looking forward to the campanella-style lessons that you mentioned doing in an earlier post.

  6. Woodshed March 26th, 2010 9:15 am

    L.Bo Marie: Are you thinking of the five of diamonds?

    Sara: Thanks.

    Al Bruce: Good luck with it.

    Alec: Yeah, I do think it’s worth getting your ring-finger involved.

    R&J: That’s in the works.

  7. Leimomi March 30th, 2010 8:25 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. I reconnected with my uke.

  8. Woodshed March 30th, 2010 9:21 pm

    Leimomi: Thanks. That’s great to hear.

  9. tenaciousflea March 31st, 2010 3:57 pm

    great stuff. i use a Low G on my uke. i don’t have my uke here at work so i can’t try these patterns but does it make a difference if you have a low G or high G when it comes to finger picking? would you need to fingerpick certain patterns in a different order if you are using a low G?

    thanks!!!

  10. Woodshed April 3rd, 2010 3:51 pm

    tenaciousflea: The patterns will sound different with a low-G but it will still sound right.

  11. Garcia Sergio April 9th, 2010 11:00 pm

    Thanks for sharing this with all people interested on playing this wonderfu ¨guitar¨.
    I am from Guatemala and here,only very few people knows about Ukulele, so, looking for an Ukulele I had to travel to another country.Now I am learning and having lots of fun specially when visiting and reading your placeweb.
    I have a band of kids and they are also learning fast.
    Graciaaaaassss (thaaaannkkkssss)

  12. Woodshed April 11th, 2010 2:22 pm

    Garcia: Thanks. Hope the uke scene picks up over there.

  13. Adrian April 13th, 2010 3:38 pm

    It’d be cool if you add different patterns than just that simple arrpegio though, I can’t really figure out any good one’s on my uke.

  14. Peter May 23rd, 2010 7:19 am

    Sergio, Im also from Guatemala. Im desperately looking for a Uke down here. Do you have any idea where I might find one? UKe Hunt – thanks for the providing us with this info and the opportunity to share with others who are in the same boat (uke-less boat).

  15. Gomez October 30th, 2010 3:00 am

    using my ring finger makes my whole body cringe. dont know why. yet i am persisting through the cringe for the same reason as Al Bruce

  16. tannaz December 30th, 2010 2:34 pm

    my fingers can’t move that fast as yours do you have any trix or something that maybe can help me???

  17. Woodshed January 1st, 2011 11:53 am

    tannaz: It’s mostly down to practice, I’m afraid.

  18. Sam February 9th, 2011 7:46 am

    Brilliant website! Has helped me so much. Thank you very much!!!

  19. Pat February 13th, 2011 1:35 am

    Bought a uke recently- stumbled onto your site – just what the doctor ordered – great stuff!!! fingers getting sore from scales – lots of great info….

  20. melissa March 25th, 2011 4:02 am

    What do the numbers mean on the picking, example 0 3 1?

  21. Woodshed March 26th, 2011 1:14 pm

    melissa: Those are tabs, you can learn to read them here.

  22. Jesi March 28th, 2011 7:01 am

    This helps SO much! Im just getting into the Uke, and I will be referring to this website often!

  23. Woodshed March 31st, 2011 2:34 pm

    Jesi: Thanks. I hope you enjoy the site.

  24. churlala April 11th, 2011 5:47 am

    hey woodshed; thanks for these awesome tutes. can you comment on the pressure with which your fretting fingers have to press down on the strings? sometimes my notes sound “choked” and sometimes it’s too tingy. i swear, i’m typing in english.

    thanks again…

  25. Woodshed April 11th, 2011 8:03 am

    churlala: Generally, I’d say use as little pressure as is needed to make the strings play cleanly. Any more than that is a waste.

  26. tomas July 16th, 2011 7:30 pm

    Fantastic post. As someone who just bought a uke and has absolutely zero musical background, I understand and am able to read this post clearly.

    Now whether I am able to actually play this is another story! I’m sure it’s just practice, practice, practice.
    Do you have any general “how to practice” helpful tips/ schedules for beginners?

  27. Adam August 1st, 2011 7:31 pm

    This is a great starter exercise. I’d love to talk about why I love it and all, but I think a simple thank you is suffice. It is truly a treasure to find someone kind enough to help others for free. Thanks again!

  28. Woodshed August 3rd, 2011 10:16 am

    tomas: Thanks for the idea. I might well write a post like that. Main tip: practice very slowly.

    Adam: Thanks very much!

  29. Ken February 16th, 2012 12:45 pm

    Great tutorial, thanks! I started to learn using the method you are suggesting here, with a finger per string. But I have seen others recommend using only three fingers, with the thumb doing double duty on the top two strings. Can you give any insight into the differences in these two styles or why you prefer one over the other? Thanks again!

  30. Norah March 6th, 2012 2:46 am

    very good, very easy to understand
    Thanks
    Norah

  31. Woodshed March 8th, 2012 12:44 pm

    Ken: It depends what suits the song best. I don’t really have any strict rules for picking.

    Norah: Thanks!

  32. Norah March 9th, 2012 9:24 pm

    Thanks so much. This is what I need. Now hopefully some more, in small jumps please

  33. Woodshed March 12th, 2012 6:45 am

    Norah: You’re welcome! The rest of the series is in the Ukulele for Dummies book.

  34. Norah March 16th, 2012 9:00 pm

    More fingerpicking, please, to follow up on this Intro.

  35. john hubbard June 14th, 2012 5:50 am

    I found your advice on which finger for which string very helpful. Like you I tend to use my ring finger a quite naturaly “as required”.I have noticed a lot of players do not a use what I call the banjo thumb and 2 fingers technique. There was me trying to avoid using the 3rd finger when it seems that achieved nothing and indeed required more movement of the right hand in fast sections which was limiting in fasteer peices.Have I got this right please.

    John

  36. Woodshed June 18th, 2012 11:00 am

    John: It depends on the tune, but I prefer using three fingers and thumb. Four strings and four digits makes sense to me.

  37. Hande July 24th, 2013 12:42 pm

    Hey Woodshed!
    This is my second week my uke and i’ve alredy learnt the basic chords and studying on strumming by learning new songs but i haven’t worked on any fingerpicking exercises..it is a little confusing for me and should i practise on both chords/strumming and fingerpicking exercises simultaneously or what? No one to ask around so hope you here me out..
    thanks!

  38. Woodshed July 25th, 2013 6:49 am

    Hande: It’s definitely worth focussing on chords/strumming first. Once you’re comfortable with that move on to fingerpicking.

  39. Hande July 25th, 2013 10:28 am

    thanks a lot! that was how i feel but i needed an expert approval :) also thanks for this great website.. i’m lucky that i bump into here..

  40. Woodshed July 25th, 2013 10:01 pm

    Hande: Thanks very much! Glad you like it.

  41. Annie September 23rd, 2013 6:35 am

    Love this guide! However, for the C E A strings, I don’t really get the up and down motion for plucking. Instead, I just run my I M and A fingers down like the thumb does. Any suggestions? The sound is pretty weak too!

  42. Woodshed September 23rd, 2013 8:49 am

    Annie: I’ve got a few posts on fingerpicking coming up this week so hopefully that’ll help.

  43. Bob December 9th, 2013 10:43 pm

    This is my first finger picking lesson. Thank you. So straight forward.

  44. Woodshed December 10th, 2013 3:49 pm

    Bob: Very glad you liked it.

  45. Charmian December 23rd, 2013 9:48 pm

    I know a few basic chords but I really struggle with chords (short fingers) and have taken naturally to finger picking. I have to keep learning the chords but it is very frustrating and I’m not sure how to overcome the obstacles I’m facing with them. Anyhow, I love your web site, it has a wealth of information, and I thank you for it.

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