UD#67 Good Tone From the Start

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Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 3.47.55 PMGood Tone From the Start (UD#67)
from Ukulele in the Dark
with Guido Heistek


Most players start out picking single notes with the thumb. So, one of the things that I have been trying to teach more clearly is how to get a good clean robust tone when you pick that way. I’ll talk about this technique today as it relates to picking AND to my first love on the uke.

Here is a little video from the studio. I am playing “Danny Boy,” a song that appears in The Chord Melody Book for Ukulele:

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that I pick the entire song with my thumb. I generally like to “drop” my thumb “through” the string to get the string to sound. I push down on the string with my thumb and then let the string go. And PLONG! It makes me think of letting go of the string on a bow. It’s definitely not the only way to pick notes but it works pretty well.

I’ve noticed that many of my students pick very gingerly with the thumb. They seem to be reluctant to “dig in” and make the uke ring. My students often pick the string with a movement that takes the thumb forward and away from the uke, not down, the way I like to do it.  I asked one student why he picked this way and he said:

“I don’t want to accidentally hit the other strings. It’s so difficult not to touch them.”

It makes perfect sense! He’s worried about sounding notes that he doesn’t want.

Happily, there is a simple way to pick with gusto and avoid unwanted notes sounding. Hope this is helpful. Keep in mind there are many ways to pick. This is just one of them. Onward.


The strings on most ukuleles are tuned to the notes G, C, E and A. We name the strings after the notes they are tuned to. My friend Ralph Shaw uses the phrase GOOD, CATS, EAT, ANTS to help people remember the names of the strings. Just remember, when you are playing your ukulele the “G” string is closest to you face and the “A” string is closest to the floor. Maybe that’s where the ants are!

Back to picking…

It’s pretty easy to avoid the other strings when you play notes on the “A” string (the one closest to the floor). But when we play notes on the “G”, “C” or “E” strings there is a danger of accidentally sounding the neighbouring string with the follow through of the thumb. This is especially true if we are using the thumb in a downward motion. That’s why it’s really helpful to let the thumb come to rest on the string after the note you are picking.

Here is a look at the process of picking the “E” string (2nd from the floor). The same process can also be used for the “C” and “G” strings of course:

1. First, push the “E” string down with the thumb.

2. Then let the “E” string go (Can you see it vibrating?) and let the thumb come to rest on the “A” string. This keeps the “A” string from sounding. Yay! Safe!

Practice using this technique for picking notes on the “G”, “C”, and “E” strings. If you pick this way you can really pluck the string hard to make a big sound and you don’t have to worry about accidentally sounding the next string. Try it! Dig in! Play that uke!

I hope this makes sense. There is a little video at the end of this lesson if you need a little more re-enforcement.


This whole “letting the thumb come to rest idea” also relates to Chord Melody playing in a big way. Let’s look at a few examples. Again, there is a video at the end of today’s lesson if you need a little re-enforcement.

Let’s use a simple C chord. The first chord that most of us learn.

The following examples show how to “bring out” different notes in the chord:

1. Make a C chord shape and strum all the strings with a downstroke of the thumb:

Strum the C chord with a nice lazy downward motion of the thumb. Strum through all the strings. Don’t hurry. Let it “roll” a little, so that the strings sound one after the other. Which note stands out the most? Probably you’ll notice it’s the last note you strummed, the note on the “A” string.

Let’s try something different.

2. Let the thumb come to rest on the “A” string.

Make a C chord shape. Strum the chord with a down-strum of the thumb, but instead of going all the way through, let the thumb come to rest on the “A” string. Remember to strum it nice and relaxed. Notice in the picture how all the strings are vibrating except the “A” string.

Sounds different doesn’t it? Do you notice that the “E” string is the one that stands out now? That’s because we strummed it last. Cool, eh?

Let’s try one last thing.

3. Let the thumb come to rest on the “E” string.

Strum the C chord with a down-strum of the thumb, but this time, instead of going all the way through, let the thumb come to rest on the “E” string.

Can you hear how the “C” string rings out now? It’s the last string that we strum so it sticks out.

Try the same process with other chords in the left hand and see how you can bring out different notes in the chord.

Can you see how this relates to chord melody playing? Tune in for more on this topic next lesson, when I’ll talk more on how chord melodies are created! Also, look for the yearly Holiday Chord Melody Arrangement coming up soon! Any requests for a holiday chord melody? I love to hear from you guys.

Here’s a video that reviews today’s lesson and also includes a little chord melody demo:


Thank you!