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How to Play Ukulele Chords: Basic Ukulele Chords for Beginners

Posted on August 23, 2021

So you’ve decided to pick up the ukulele and start learning some of your favorite songs with this small, four-stringed instrument. Whether you already know how to play other stringed instruments such as the guitar or you’re a newcomer entirely, you’ve chosen wisely.

For beginners, the ukulele is a good choice as the first instrument to start with. You can find a fairly good ukulele at a reasonable price, whereas many other instruments can cost quite a pretty penny. However, you shouldn’t underestimate the ukulele. It’s a versatile instrument, and you can do some truly magical things with it — as long as you know how to play, that is.

Ukulele

“So how do I get started then?” you might be asking. Before getting to some more advanced playing techniques such as fingerpicking and playing with ukulele tabs, you’ll have to learn how to play the basic ukulele chords. These are the ones you’ll be using in most popular songs and ones that even the most advanced ukulele players started their playing career learning.

In case you don’t know what a ukulele chord is or what the difference is between a minor chord and a major chord, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through some of the best basic ukulele chords and teach you how to read ukulele chord diagrams. Soon you’ll be familiar with the basic chords for ukulele and strumming chords like a pro.

What are ukulele chords?

Like guitar chords, in order to play a ukulele chord, you have to play more than one string at the same time. With ukulele chords, this means playing three or more notes simultaneously.

To get the hang of strumming the ukulele’s four strings (starting from the thickest string, these are G-C-E-A), try strumming all four strings at the same time. Just use the thumb of your strumming hand (your right hand if you’re right-handed, your left hand if you’re a leftie) and strum all four strings downwards.

When you strum a string without pressing it down, you’re playing the string “open.” Before introducing any complex strumming patterns, try playing all four strings of the ukulele open, and then try strumming upwards.

Next, you can start to finger some basic ukulele chords and learn some simple chord shapes. First, let’s look at how to read ukulele chord diagrams, also known as ukulele chord charts. Chord diagrams will be a valuable tool when learning new ukulele chords to play, so it’s worth spending some time to get familiar with them.

Reading ukulele chord diagrams and chord charts

Let’s look at a simple ukulele chord diagram (or a chord chart) for the C chord.

On top, you can see the name of the chord (that’s C). The four vertical lines represent the four strings of the ukulele: The one on the left is the thickest G string. The G string is also the one closest to your face when holding the ukulele. Moving to the right, we have the rest of the strings: C, E, and A. Here we’re assuming that you’re playing a standard four-string ukulele and using the standard G-C-E-A tuning.

In this chord diagram, you’ll notice that there is a thicker line on top. This line represents the ukulele’s nut. The nut is the part that helps align the instrument’s strings to the tuning pegs. In the C chord diagram above, you’ll also notice some small circles, or the letter “o,” on top of the thick horizontal line. These are used to represent open strings.

As we already learned, a string is played open when it’s allowed to ring freely without fingering. If the chord diagram has a cross on top of the diagram instead of an “o,” this string shouldn’t be played at all.

The horizontal lines on the ukulele chord chart are used to represent the frets of the ukulele. The first fret is the space between the nut and the first horizontal line of the ukulele fretboard, while the second fret is the one below that, and so forth. When playing the C chord, you’ll have to finger the third fret of the A string. To finger the string, use your index finger to hold down the third fret.

The number 1 in this ukulele chord chart means that you’ll be playing the A string with your index finger. The number 2 refers to your middle finger, number 3 to your ring finger, and 4 to your pinky finger. Similarly, when referring to the four ukulele strings (G, C, E, and A), we can speak of the first string, second string, third string, and fourth string.

How to play chords on ukulele

Now that you have the shape of the chord ready, it’s time to strum all four strings and play the C chord on your ukulele. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? If you hear something odd, it could be that you are either pressing the string down too forcefully or not applying enough force on the A string.

Remember to also make sure that none of the strings that should be played open are obstructed (or “muted”) by your fretting hand. This is a common problem that can be fixed by bending your fingers into a more claw-like position.

What are major and minor chords?

When reading different ukulele chord charts, you might notice that some of the chord names include a lowercase “m” at the end of the chord name. One such chord is the Am chord.

We called the previous chord the major C chord. The one pictured above is the minor A chord (Am). As you might have guessed already, the small “m” indicates that the chord in question is a minor chord.

So what’s the difference between minor and major ukulele chords? Try playing the two chords we’ve looked at so far, and see if you can hear the difference. How does the minor chord sound compared to the major chord?

To put it simply, major chords sound happy and bright. Meanwhile, minor chords are moodier and sound a bit sad. Just like major chords, you can use minor ukulele chords to evoke an emotion (although a different one than major chords). A major chord consists of a root note that gives the chord its name, a major third, and a perfect fifth. For example, in the C major chord, the notes are C, E, and G. Similarly, minor chords contain a root note and a perfect fifth but a minor third instead of a major third. The Cm chord consists of the C, Eb, and G notes. Because of this difference, the two chord types evoke a distinct emotion.

You’ll learn more about the music theory behind minor and major chords, especially once you start exploring the world of scales. But we’ll dig into that more on another occasion.

Basic ukulele chords

We’ve already looked at the C chord and Am chord on the ukulele. Here are some other easy ukulele chords all beginners should get to know early in their playing career. Fret not if you find some of these hard at first. No one’s a master of any instrument when they start out.

G chord

The G ukulele chord uses three fingers. Use your index finger to play the second fret of the D string, your ring finger on the second fret of the G string, and your middle finger to press down the second fret of the highest B string. If you’re familiar with guitar chords, the shape you’ll make here is similar to the one used to play the D chord on the guitar. For the ukulele G chord, leave the lowest G string open.

F chord

The F chord uses two fingers: the middle finger on the second fret of G and the index finger on the first fret of E. Leave both the C and A strings open while making sure that the fingers of your fretting hand don’t accidentally mute any of the other strings.

A chord

The A major chord on ukulele is another one that uses two fingers and two open strings. Looking at the chord chart below and comparing it to the F chord, you might notice that the two look quite similar, making it easy to transition between the F and A chords. To play the A major chord, press the first fret of the C string down with your index finger, and place your middle finger on the second fret of the G string.

Am chord

Finally, let’s take another look at a minor chord we already encountered above: the Am ukulele chord. This one’s easy to play as you only have to use one finger to play the chord. Simply use your middle finger to play the second fret of the lowest G string. Play the rest of the strings open.

Playing ukulele with basic chords

Congratulations! You’ve just taken your first steps in the world of ukulele playing by learning some of the most important and basic ukulele chords every beginner should know. Keep practicing these easy ukulele chords before proceeding to some more advanced techniques and learning more challenging chords.

Make sure that you’re using the correct position when playing different chords on the ukulele. This way you can build muscle memory and make recalling the correct fingering of the chords much easier. Practicing your fingers and building muscle memory will also make chord transitions from one chord to the next smoother as well.

As you get the hang of the ukulele chords we have introduced today, you can start looking into fingerpicking, playing songs from ukulele tabs, and learning more advanced chords on the ukulele. One such chord is the barre chord.

Barre chords on the ukulele

So far we have looked at so-called open chords that have you fret a single string with your finger. To add a bit of a challenge, you can try your hand at barre chords. Looking at the ukulele chord charts below, you can see that barre chords require pressing down multiple strings with a single finger of your fretting hand. Knowing how to barre the strings helps, especially if you play chords lower on the ukulele fretboard.

Barre chords: D, G, and C chord

Let’s look at three different barre chord shapes that can be moved up and down the ukulele fretboard. This allows you to transition between chords without always needing to change the chord shape. Although barre chords may seem like a technique for advanced ukulele players, learning how to play them actually makes it simpler to move between chords.

Starting with a barre chord based on the basic C chord, lay your index finger across all four strings on the second fret to play D major as a barre chord.

Another common barre chord shape can be built on the A chord. Barre the third fret with your index finger and create the A chord shape with your middle and ring fingers. This is the barre shape to play the C chord on ukulele.

The F chord shape can be used to play G major as a barre chord. This time, you need to barre all four strings on the second fret.

Key takeaways from this guide to ukulele chords

When tuned to the standard ukulele tuning, the strings of a ukulele are:

G (the string closest to you)
C (the thickest string)
E
A (the bottom string)

When reading ukulele chord diagrams and chord charts, notice which strings are played open and which shouldn’t be played at all. Use the chord chart and its numbers to see which fret should be fingered and what finger to use.

If the chord name is followed by a small “m,” this means the chord is a minor chord. Otherwise, the chord in question is a major chord.

Always make sure that your fingers aren’t accidentally muting strings that should be played when strumming a chord. Listen closely to the sound of the chord to hear if everything sounds like it should. Adjust the position of your fretting hand if something sounds off.

To make chord transitions easier, consider learning how to play barre chords on the ukulele as well. With just a few chord shapes, you can play different chords by moving up and down the ukulele fretboard.

Keep these things in mind, and you’ll learn new chords and improve more and more as time goes on. Don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the journey. To make learning how to play the ukulele more motivating and fun, try Yousician and its interactive ukulele lessons. In addition to teaching you chords, Yousician helps you learn to play your favorite songs on the ukulele. Download Yousician for free and start learning today!

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