How do I strum and sing at the same time?

Ask Ukulele Underground

Dear Ukulele Underground,

I do like the Song Lessons but find that it is difficult to sing and play at the same time (I know, if it were easy everyone would do it!). On the strum pattern for I Shot The Sheriff (by Bob Marley), on the right hand you are doing a U, X, U, D and on the left you are muting on all strums except the last down. So you will only get one chord for each 4 count ... is this correct?


Click to watch the "I Shot The Sheriff" Play-Along!

Hey Jim!

Yup, that's essentially correct! For most reggae songs, the guitar/keyboard parts really only ring out on beats 2 and 4 of the measure. So for our strumming pattern (repeated) here:

Ask UU - Reggae Strum 1

Because you're muting everything and only lifting up on counts 2 and 4 to let the down strums ring out, it effectively becomes:

Ask UU - Reggae Strum 2

The rest of the strums just serve to keep you on rhythm (keeping your hand moving to the rhythm of the beat is easier than just trying to hit the 2 & 4 from a stationary position), and to add a percussive element to your playing (especially if you're playing by yourself with no drums or bass, this fills in all of the empty spaces that other instruments would fill). Practice strumming until you can do it effortlessly - staying on beat, just feeling the swing of the rhythm - and without having to think too hard about what you hand needs to do. Once you have that down, it should be pretty simple to add singing over it.

Here are 2 helpful tips to help you to start singing and playing at the same time:

(1) Simplify the strumming pattern.

Just like the graphic above, disregard all of the non-essential strums for now (just focus on the two important Down strums). You can always add the rest in later when you get more comfortable with the song & strumming.

(2) Map out your lyrics.

By writing out where the strumming lands in relation to the words of the song, you'll be able to visually understand where you're supposed to be. If you look up the chord sheet online, the chords usually appear pretty close to where the changes happen. Listen to the song and figure out the exact syllable of the word, where the chord or strumming pattern starts.

So for I Shot the Sheriff, the (1) simplified strumming pattern will be:

Ask UU - Reggae Strum 3

Then by listening to the song, (2) map out where the lyrics fall on the beats and strumming:

Ask UU - Reggae Strum 4

This way you can see exactly where your strums are coming in and what syllables of each word they should line up with. Without even worrying about chords yet, you can really get the rhythm of strumming and singing at the same time, slowly introduce chords, and by the time you know it, you'll be playing and singing at the same time no problem. After awhile you won't even have to write out this stuff, playing and singing will just come naturally, but you need to work through coordinating your brain with the component parts first before all the pieces fit together naturally.

Try this out for any song that you're currently working on, take it slow, and you'll get the hang of it. For more on Singing and Strumming at the same time, check out the Beginner Uke Minutes on Singing & Playing. And if you have any other questions, just send a message - we're always here for you!

-Aaron (& the UU Staff)

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