Dear Uke Guru, How do I know how many strums to play when I see a chord on my music sheet?

For those of you who don’t know this, I am the editor and publisher of a Ukulele Newsletter, serving mostly the California Bay Area, but with subscribers all over the world. In this newsletter I have created an advice column called, “Dear Uke Guru,” and there I answer questions sent in from my subscribers. Here is one I think you might find helpful, depending on your level of musicianship:

Dear Uke Guru, 

You are our last hope – confusion about number of strums. When a song sheet contains a D, is it one strum? Or when a song sheet shows a D/, is it two strums? There seems to be a different opinion about what these mean. Inquiring minds want to know.

All Strummed Out

Dear All Strummed Out,
Thank you asking an important question – one that I’ve heard many times.  The reason you, and many others, find these types of song sheets confusing – is because they are.

The song sheets you are referring to – the ones with the chords over the lyrics – are best thought of as rough guides to songs one should already be familiar with. They contain the lyrics and the approximate placement of the chord over a particular word. The person creating these song sheets does their best to indicate any breaks or special rhythmic sections, but it is very difficult to accurately indicate anything, let alone specific musical information. And there isn’t really a standard – everyone does it a little different – myself included.

That being said, let’s move on to a more important aspect of your question: how many strums one plays. Let’s differentiate between the word “strum” vs. “beat.” A “strum” is merely the act of making a sound with your strumming hand. A “beat,” on the other hand, is a length of time a chord is played – usually 4 beats to a “measure.” How often you “strum” is entirely up to you. If a D chord is to be played for a duration of 2 measures, or 8 beats – you could strum once, or 64 times… these are two different things we are talking about, and indicating what to do is difficult with song sheets, as they are merely guides.

The best way to accurately indicate rhythmic breaks and chord durations is with actual sheet music using standard musical notation. This type of notation informs you on what chord to play when, as well as the notes of the melody and the timing – and then some. Of course, one must be familiar with reading this type of music; it’s not the type of thing a beginning ukulele player would know, unless they are serious about learning everything they can about music.

So, back to your original question: is it one strum or two? I don’t know. I, too, have asked the same question. It’s best to already know the music, and then try to guess what the author meant by his or her markings.

One way I prefer, is to do this to indicate number of beats on a particular chord:

D                                  Bm
/  /  /  /      /  /  /  /     /  /  /  /      /  /  /  /     etc.
la la la la laaaaaa la de da da da….

This example tells you that you are to play a D for two measures of 4 beats each, followed by a Bm for another two measures. Of course, this takes up more room, and it makes lining up words and slashes nearly impossible, so I only use it for trouble spots on a chart that need clarification.

I thank you for your question, and feel that it only points out the need for everyone who enjoys “playing music” to learn more and more about what experienced musicians know when they are playing. You don’t have to dedicate your every breathing moment to study, but learning the basics will open your eyes and ears to a fantastic world of music appreciation and participation.

The Uke Guru hopes this helped.





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