Here's how I go about learning new songs for ukulele (from a printed piece of music–learning by ear is another story):
First: are you familiar with the song already?
Since we're not too focused on reading music (usually), it can simplify the learning process if you can hear the song in your head. If you don't know it, look it up.
Remember: if it ain't on YouTube, it ain't worth knowing. 🙂
A song on ukulele is never going to sound like the record, but, hey, you can shoot for it!
- draw in diagrams for ones you don't know, or
- simplify complex chords to simpler versions you do know (Dm7 can be just a Dm, for example) (see “Tricky Ukulele Chords and How to Un-Trickify Them”)
- practice individual chord changes to smooth them out (see “Change is Hard”)
strum through once
- don't worry about strum patterns–just pound through the song once to get familiar with it
- note any trouble spots and focus on them
- note the structure of the song– first and second endings, coda, etc
- you're never locked in to a pattern–just because you start a uke song with a certain pattern, doesn't mean you have to stick with for the whole song. You'll probably want a base strum that you can come back to, but–see the following notes on variety.
- if you know the song, how can you strum to most sound like the song? (This may not be a “pattern,” this may be you free-styling it!)
- here's a big one: think like a drummer! You're not a robot synthesizer playing the rhythm, you're crazy Keith Moon, free to strum as you see fit. Listen to the drums on a song. Pay attention to how the cymbal accents a moment between lines, or a big drum fill fills the space between verses. You can emulate this with strumming.
additions–what else would sound nice?
- left hand damping or muting (also right-handed)
- full-chord hammer-on
- full stops
- slides up or down on single notes or chords
- melody notes plucked
- finger picking
- 2nd or 3rd position chords
- “jazz” chord substitutions
- strum variety, syncopation–move away from the “pattern”
- even the simplest songs (maybe even especially the simplest songs) can benefit from variety. Once you learn some of the additions, start throwing 'em in as you deem appropriate.
Your song will sound better and you'll have more fun!
Many of these concepts are covered in much more detail in my video course, Ukulele Strumming Master Class.