Want to increase your musical “awesome factor” by at least 10 points?
Learn to play the ukelele!
If you know how to play guitar, even at a basic level, you can transfer that information and make music on the ukelele much easier than you can on other instruments, such as mandolin, dobro or banjo, which makes the uke a perfect second instrument for guitarists.
Of course, the ukelele is all the rage these last few years, due to its appearance in a handful of popular forums: countless YouTube versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, American Idol, “Hey Soul Sister” by Train, virtuoso performances by Jake Shimabukuro (check out his phenomenal version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” if you want to see just how far you can take this instrument), etc.
According to the owners of Appalachian Bluegrass, the Baltimore institution where I recently bought my new tiny terror, 500 ukeleles were sold last year! Bottom line: The ukelele is everywhere and it’s much more mainstream than mandolin or banjo ever were (or probably ever will be). So it’s a great time for guitarists to expand their musical horizons and get some uke in their lives!
Note: The correct pronunciation is “oo-ke-le-le”, not “yoo-ke-le-le”, but honestly…it just sounds weird to a non-Hawaiian. Especially when you shorten it to “ook”. Pronounce it how you like – I won’t tell anyone.
Getting started on ukelele is actually pretty easy, but gaining a true understanding is a little trickier. It just requires that we clear up a few basic concepts. Let’s get our uke on, six-stringers!
Pick a Uke, Any Uke
The standard ukelele comes in three flavors: soprano, concert and tenor. Soprano is the smallest size and is the one people think of when they think “ukelele”. However, concert (the next size up) and tenor (the next size up from concert) are probably better alternatives for guitarists, since the longer fingerboard allows more room for fretting. All three of these sizes are tuned identically, making them interchangeable from a pitch perspective.
Note: I’m eliminating the baritone uke from this discussion, since it is lower-pitched and is really just a small guitar. It’s probably the least popular size due to the fact that it doesn’t have that classic, high-pitched ukelele sound.
The tenor, in particular, is a great choice for guitarists since it is closest to guitar size. It also happens to be the ukelele that I settled on. This is my Kala tenor, which is a limited edition cedar top with glossy finish and koa back and sides. I was so impressed by the easy transition from guitar to this size that I’ve been recommending tenor models to anyone who will listen! Here’s my partner in crime:
Unlike banjo or mandolin tuning, the ukelele is strung and tuned just like the highest four strings of a guitar in standard tuning, with two exceptions:
1 – The open strings are all tuned up a 4th
2 – The 4th string is an octave higher
Let’s review that again, shall we?
The relationships between the strings are the same as the guitar; that is…
The top four open strings are tuned like a major 6 chord:
The 3rd string is the root
The 2nd string is the major 3rd
The 1st string is the major 6
The 4th string is the perfect 5th
The difference is that a standard guitar is tuned like a G6 chord [D (5), G (root), B (3), E (6)], while the ukelele is tuned like a C6 chord – a perfect 4th higher than the guitar [G (5), C (root), E (3), A (6)].
NOTE: A perfect 4th interval is equivalent to 2-1/2 steps, or a 5-fret distance.
This means that the ukelele is equivalent to the guitar with a capo on fret 5. When you capo a guitar on fret 5, the open strings spell out a C6 chord…or uke tuning!
The 4th string is the same letter name as guitar, but it’s tuned up an octave. This is similar to the high G string (in the lowest position) on banjo. It’s called reentrant tuning and gives these instruments their distinctive sound. It may feel weird for a little while to have a higher pitch on a lower string, but you’ll become accustomed to it. Some uke players restring with a low 4th string, but I’ve elected to keep mine legit.
The high 4th string has some strategic advantages when plunking out melodies, but for the veteran guitarist, those advantages may be outweighed by the disadvantages of not being able to get any notes lower than the open 3rd string. Some time invested will help you to work through the uke’s limitations, though, and indeed, that is one of the characteristics that make it the instrument it is. Don’t fight it – just go with it!
How exactly does this tuning know-how help me play the uke?
Well, since the uke’s strings are tuned in the same pattern as the guitar’s – albeit a 4th higher – you can play the same chord shapes on the uke as you would form on guitar! Here are a couple “bullet points” for easy recall:
MUSICAL MATH: UP A 4TH
The only adjustment we have to make is a little “musical math”: rename the uke chord shape four pitches higher than the guitar chord.
For example, if you hold a chord shape on the uke that looks like a guitar’s D, you would call it a G – four pitches higher than D. To confirm the name change, imagine capoing your guitar at the 5th fret and playing a “D shape”: the chord is actually G.
This makes the chord shapes easy to visualize and hold, but a bit tricky at first to name! Over time it will get easier, but initially you’ll have to do the “musical math”. If you’re already familiar with the circle of 5ths, however, you can use that knowledge to your advantage here, as it accomplishes the same thing. Simply move one letter name to the LEFT (counterclockwise) on the circle and you’ve ascended by a perfect 4th. So a D shape becomes G…a G shape becomes C…a C shape becomes F…and so on. Music theory for the win!
In this case, having no guitar experience actually works to your advantage, since the more time you’ve invested in the guitar, the more difficult it may initially be to rename the chords. For me, the renaming is the hardest part, since these chord shapes have been drilled into my head as a “G” or a “D” for decades. But little by little, I’m starting to gain some facility with it and you will too.
IMAGINE THE 5TH AND 6TH STRINGS
The other small issue is that, since we’re only dealing with 4 strings on the uke, you’ll have to imagine the guitar chord’s 5th and 6th string notes.
For example, a C chord on guitar has your 3rd finger on string 5 and a muted 6th string. On the uke, you would simply eliminate those two notes and just play that “C” shape with fingers 1 and 2. Add the “rename” and that C shape is now called an “F”, a perfect 4th higher than C, as if it were on capo 5 (it’s technically called “F/A’, since A is the lowest note, but I just think of it as a regular ol’ F chord):
BRING IT ALL TOGETHER
As a knowledgeable six-stringer, you can figure out plenty of chords on ukelele without the need for a chord book. Check it out:
1 – Pick a guitar chord. Let’s say open Am.
2 – Play it on the uke in the same position you would play on guitar (strings 4, 3, 2, 1 on frets 2, 2, 1, 0)
3 – Visualize where your fingers would go if you had strings 5 and 6. In this case, the Am chord does not require additional fingers since string 5 would be played open and string 6 would not be played.
4 – Count up the musical alphabet 4 letter names, starting on A as “1”. Answer = Dm.
5 – You’re playing a uke-style Dm chord.
Let’s try another that needs the visualization:
1 – Pick an open G.
2 – Play it on the uke at fret 3.
3 – Visualize where your fingers would go on strings 5 and 6.
4 – Count up 4 pitches. Answer = C.
5 – You’re playing a uke-style C chord.
NOTE: Counting up the musical alphabet is a “quick and dirty” approach to finding the 4th above the root. However, it is more accurate to count up 2-1/2 steps. An example would be an F chord converted to Bb, a perfect 4th higher. If you went the “quick and dirty” route, you would have said B. The “step approach” reveals the answer to be Bb.
It’s pretty easy to get started on ukelele in the open position, and you can plays lots of tunes with those chords, but as you probably know from your guitar studies, the musical world opens up to you once you learn your moveable shapes. And moveable shapes often involve barring across multiple strings.
Again, the chord shapes on the uke mimic the look of the barre shapes on guitar, minus the notes on strings 5 and 6. If you’re familiar with partial chords on the top four strings of the guitar, this will be a piece of cake. Just name them a perfect 4th higher than the chord that they would appear to be.
NOTE: The following chords are all shown as they appear on guitar. Simply rename them a 4th higher for ukelele.
To get to this “second level” of chords, make sure you can play the three common major chord shapes with their roots on strings 1, 2 and 3…
…as well as the three common minor chord shapes with their roots on strings 1, 2 and 3:
It would also be helpful to have some knowledge of the three dominant 7 chord shapes as well, as these will open up more song possibilities:
Look Ma, No Pick
No pick is necessary for strumming chords on the uke. It’s traditionally played with the thumb or index finger, with a strong preference toward the index finger. You simply strum downward by extending the index finger and striking the strings with the back of the fingernail. You strum upward to bringing the finger back into the palm.
It’s also somewhat common to strum with the thumb – usually for beginners – but I find that approach very limiting and would rather strum with the index finger. I do like to use the thumb, however, for emphasizing certain chords or melody notes. The pad of the thumb is much more sensitive to the strings than the back of your index finger, of course, so using the thumb to bring out melody notes or even to drag across a chord at an important spot in a song is what I would call a “best practice”.
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