So you’ve decided to try your hand at learning the Ukulele? Great choice! It’s a versatile instrument that is every bit as appropriate for a young child as it is for a serious performing professional.
It can be the simplest instrument ever with super easy to hold chords, but also has the potential for tremendous technical growth to where you’re playing guitar solos or classical finger picked pieces.
One of the best things about the Ukulele is its simplicity, with just 4 strings it’s one of the easiest and most accessible incarnations of a stringed instrument around. So you’re going to be getting good, fast, which is incredibly motivating when you are a beginner. But at the same time, there is the potential to make the Ukulele a lifelong pursuit as you delve into more technical pieces.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, which is why today we’ve prepared a little introduction to the Ukulele which covers all the basics, from the anatomy of the instrument, how to tune, and a bunch of easy chords for your to learn which will set you up to be able to play literally thousands of great popular songs on the instrument.
- Anatomy of a Ukulele
- How to tune your ukulele
- Let’s start playing!
- C Major chord on Ukulele
- C Minor chord on Ukulele
- C7 chord on Ukulele
- A Major chord on Ukulele
- A minor chord on Ukulele
- A7 chord on Ukulele
- Am7 chord on Ukulele
- E Major chord on Ukulele
- Em chord on Ukulele
- E7 chord on Ukulele
- Em7 chord on Ukulele
- D chord on Ukulele
- Dm chord on Ukulele
- D7 chord on Ukulele
- Dm7 chord on Ukulele
- How to practice chords
- Let’s talk strumming
- Final thoughts on Basic Ukulele Chords For Beginners
Anatomy of a Ukulele
Before you start learning your first uke’ chords it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the instrument so you know what all the bits do!
Starting from the very right hand side we first have the headstock, this is where the ‘tuning pegs’ are seated. Essentially the string winds around a small peg put in the headstock and you can twist the tuning pegs to make the string tighter or looser, which in turn makes the pitch of the string higher or lower. We’ll cover this more thoroughly in the tuning section.
Moving on from that we next have the ‘nut’. This is where, after we have plucked the string, the vibration of the string ends. It’s a really important part of the instrument and without it keeping things in tune would be impossible!
Next, we have the guitar’s fretboard, situated along the fretboard are little metal bars called ‘frets’, these are what we press the string against in order to effectively shorten or lessen the amount of the string that is vibrating. This, in turn, raises or lowers the pitch of the string. This is the area you’ll be controlling with your left hand.
Then we have the guitar’s body, this is a hollow area that has a sound hole on it. It’s where the vibrations of the string will enter, bounce around a lot, resonate, and become louder. The body is also the area we will use our right hand to pluck the string and start it vibrating.
And finally, on the body we also have the bridge, this is where the other side of the string terminates, on the bridge are ‘saddles’ which is where the vibration of the string will stop on this side.
How to tune your ukulele
As we mentioned, uke’s generally have 4 strings, the bottom string (the one closest to you when you look down) will be the thickest, and they will gradually become thinner for each string until you get to the top string.
From lowest to highest string the standard tuning for a ukulele is G, C, E, A.
Before we go ahead and go through the process of tuning your uke, let’s first talk about why keeping your instrument in tune is important. When you play a note, it needs to vibrate at a particular speed in order to produce the correct note, if it vibrates too slowly it’ll cause the note to be too low (or flat) or if it vibrates too fast it’ll be too high (sharp).
So it’s important to keep your instrument in tune at all times so when you hit that C chord, it really sounds like a C.
To tune your ukulele you will need a tuner, for most people the most convenient (and cheapest) way to get access to a tuner is through a mobile phone app. There are many free ones you can download that will listen to the note you are producing and tell you whether you need to sharpen or flatten the string. If your string is not tuned highly enough you can turn the tuning peg clockwise for your top two strings or counterclockwise for the bottom two strings to make the pitch go up, or move it in the other direction to make the pitch go down.
Let’s start playing!
Great, so we understand the anatomy of the ukulele, it’s tuned up and ready to rock! What next?
Now we can start playing, the first thing we can start to learn are some easy chords. Chords are the foundation of music and by just learning a few, easy to play ones we’ll be able to play along to many popular and famous pop tunes!
To learn chords we often use what are called ‘chord charts’, these are essentially diagrams that show us which notes to hold and which fingers to use. Let’s take a look at some example chord diagrams:
If this looks a little confusing at first, do not worry! It’s far easier to read these than it looks.
This is essentially a picture of the first few frets of your ukulele, but it’s been turned to the side. So remember in the anatomy section we mentioned the nut of the guitar? That is the top horizontal line underneath the small circles. The horizontal lines underneath represent the frets of the instrument.
The vertical lines represent each string of the ukulele, so the leftmost vertical line represents the G string, then following left to right are the C, E, and A strings.
That’s the diagram covered, here’s how it tells you which notes to actually play. Above the ‘nut’ of the ukulele are some circles, these are telling you that you need to play that string, but not hold down any frets. These can also be referred to as ‘open’ notes.
The circles on the frets themselves tell you which notes you’ll be holding down with your left hand. Sometimes (not always) there will be a number inside that circle that lets you know which one of your fingers you should use to hold that particular note down. A number 1 refers to your index finger, number 2 refers to your middle finger, number 3 refers to your ring finger and the (rather rare) number 4 refers to your pinky finger.
C Major chord on Ukulele
Notes: C, E, G
Certainly a common chord that you’ll be using a lot, fortunately, it’s also exceptionally easy to hold, requiring you to play just straight open notes on the G, C, and E strings and just hold down the 3rd fret of the A string, which is another C note using your ring finger.
C Minor chord on Ukulele
Notes C, Eb, G
Now is a good time to introduce you to a little bit of music theory. The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that the C minor chord looks very close to that C major chord. The only difference is that the middle note (also called the 3rd) has been lowered by 1 semitone, changing it from a major third to a minor third.
This principle, of taking the 3rd and lowering, or raising it by one note to make a major chord a minor one (or vice versa) applies to chords in any key! A very useful trick to remember.
With that in mind, to play the C minor we simply take our index finger and lay it across all 3 of our strings leaving only the G string ‘open’.
C7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: C, E, G and Bb
C7 is a nice variation of the Cmaj chord you can use which adds 1 extra note to the mix. That is the Bb note which is the 7th note of the C major scale. You can play this very easily by simply using your index finger on the first fret of the A (top) string.
A Major chord on Ukulele
Notes: A, C sharp and E
Although we have covered the C major chord, it’s important to learn major/minor chords in different keys, because popular songs are often written in different keys!
For A major we can use our middle finger on the second frets of our lowest (also sometimes referred to as the ‘first’ string) and our index finger on the first fret of the second string.
A minor chord on Ukulele
Notes: A, C, E
So as we mentioned previously, to turn a major chord into a minor one we simply take the 3rd and lower it by one note. In this case that 3rd is on the first fret of the second string which we were holding with our index finger. Lift that up and you’re done!
A7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: A, C sharp, E and G
Another common chord you’ll encounter, in this case the ‘7’ that we are adding is a G note. So rather unusually we will actually be lifting up our index finger that was previously playing the second fret of the first string and ‘revealing’ that G note.
Am7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: A, C, E, G
Hopefully you’ve got the pattern down by now, this is essentially identical to the A7 chord but we just need to flatten the major third to a minor one, which is the first fret of the second string meaning we just need to play every string ‘open’ and we’re done!
E Major chord on Ukulele
Notes: E, G sharp, B
E is a fairly important key to cover as it’s used quite often in songs, but these are a smidge more complicated to hold than the C or A keys as they require more notes to be held down and there are fewer ‘open’ notes.
For E Major we actually have no open notes so we need to hold a fret down on each string. Starting with our index finger on the fourth fret of the first string, then we put our ring finger on the fourth fret of the second string, our pinky on the fourth fret of the third string, and finally our index finger on the second fret of the first string.
‘But why can’t we just barre those 3 notes?’ I hear you ask.
This is mainly because of the highest note you are fretting, if you barre those 3 notes there is a heavy risk of you ‘choking’ that top string out and it’s really important that each note of the chord rings clearly.
Em chord on Ukulele
Notes: E, G, B
This shape might look like there is more going on than simply ‘taking the 3rd and flattening it’. This is because notes appear over the ukulele’s fretboard multiple times, so occasionally rather than just taking 1 fret and lowering it, we actually play a whole new shape to make it easier on ourselves.
In this example we will be playing the low G as our open note, then fretting the fourth fret of the second string with our ring finger, the third fret of the third string with our ring finger, and finally the second fret of our fourth string with our index finger. This is a much more comfortable way of holding the chord.
E7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: E, G sharp, B
E7 presents an interesting challenge as we have notes on either side of an ‘open’ string. Here we play the 1st fret of the first string with our index finger, the second fret of the second fret with our middle finger, and finally the second fret of the fourth string with our ring finger, with the 3rd string being left open.
It’s very easy to ‘choke’ or ‘mute’ that open string if you don’t leave enough room for it to vibrate. If you’re having trouble with this try lowering your wrist so you are fretting the notes more with the tips of your fingers giving the string enough room to vibrate.
Em7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: E, G, B and D
For this chord, we’ll be removing our index finger from the first fret of the first string to reveal the open G which is our minor third. But now the pressure is on even more as we have 2 open strings in between two fretted strings, a little tough but if you follow the advice given on the E7 chord description you’ll have it down in no time!
D chord on Ukulele
Notes: D, F sharp, A
Finally, we’ll cover D as the last and one of the most common keys you’ll play chords in. These have even more fretted notes and fewer open notes than the E chords, so once you have mastered this you should be able to tackle anything!
For D major we’ll be holding the second frets of the first, second, and third strings using our index, middle, and ring fingers respectively. With the fourth string being left open.
Dm chord on Ukulele
Notes: D, F, A
Not dissimilar from how you’d play this on guitar, you just take what we were originally holding with our ring finger and lower it by 1 note, or to put it another way is taking the major third and making it a minor third. But to make it easier to hold we actually rejig the fingerings to make it easier to hold, so this time we use our middle finger on the second fret of the first string, our ring finger on the second fret of the second string, and finally our index finger on the first fret of the third string, with the fourth being left open.
D7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: D, F sharp, A and C
This one might look quite difficult at first glance, but it’s actually pretty easy. All we do is use our index finger and barre across all the strings on the second fret. Then we use our middle finger on the 3rd fret of the fourth string to complete the chord.
Dm7 chord on Ukulele
Notes: D, F, A
This one is a little bit more tricky, even though we are just changing that one note to make it minor, it requires a whole new hand position to make it work and be comfortable to play.
You start with your middle finger on the second fret of the first string, your ring finger on the second fret of the second string, and your index finger on the first fret of the third string, essentially the Dm chord. But this time we also add our pinky onto the 3rd fret of the fourth string to complete the chord.
How to practice chords
So you’ve memorized a bunch of chords and have a quite respectable chordal vocabulary on the ukulele, congratulations! What’s next?
Now we need to practice them in order to be able to really start using them in music.
One of the fundamental things that underlines all instrument playing is muscle memory, as you play chords or change between them for the first time it’s easy to find yourself fighting with your fingers, they’re not landing on the notes fast enough, notes are getting choked out and it can be a frustrating experience.
Do not worry!
This is a normal and natural part of the learning process. Every single time you play a chord, or make a chord change you are programming your muscle memory. Every failure brings you one step closer to success so it’s important to embrace the fact you will have failures along the way and they are completely inevitable as you strive towards becoming a great musician. Trust in this process, don’t get discouraged and your musical journey will be much more pleasant.
Here are a few chord progressions you practice from popular songs. But of course, if there is another song you would like to learn, the beauty of the internet means it’s only ever a google search away!
Taylor Swift – Shake It Off:
Chords: Am, C, D and G
Adele – Rolling in the Deep:
Chords: Am, Em, G, F, E7#5 and E7
Jason Mraz – I’m Yours:
Chords: Am, C, D7, F and G
The Beatles – Yesterday:
A, A7, Bb, C, C7, Dm, Em7, F, Gm, G7 and Gm6
Let’s talk strumming
Knowing the chord shape and being able to hold it with your left hand is the first part of the puzzle. But once you have that down it’s time to pay a bit more attention to your right hand.
Each song has its own strumming pattern that consists of a mixture of upstrokes (indicated by a U) and downstrokes (indicated by a D). An example strumming pattern will look like this:
As you learn more songs you’re going to get more comfortable playing all manner of different patterns and variations to the point where it will become second nature to you.
A few things to keep in mind as you play this is to try to ensure your picking movement comes from your wrist and not your elbow, this will give your playing a more natural feel and also prevent any injury from being too tense all the time!
Also try to manage the grip you are keeping on your pick, if you clench the pick too hard it’s going to make the notes sound harsh and inconsistent. But if you hold the pick too loosely it will sound weak and lacking in vibrance, or even worse the pick is liable to go flying across the room and put an eye out. There’s no hard and fast rule for this, just use your judgment and be conscious of it.
Final thoughts on Basic Ukulele Chords For Beginners
We hope the information provided today gives you a good grounding and solid place to start your musical and ukulele journey on. While of course, the journey ahead is a long one, ensure you’re always having fun, always learning and you’ll soon find how enriching the musical pursuit and learning to play an instrument can be!