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 in case you’re still a newcomer, you have chosen a great instrument to learn.
Especially for beginners, the ukulele is a good choice as the first instrument to start with. For example, you can find a fairly good ukulele at a reasonable price whereas many other instruments can cost you quite a bit. However, you shouldn’t underestimate the ukulele. It is a versatile instrument and you can do some truly magical things with it, as long as you know how to play, that is.
So, how to 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 for the ukulele and ones even the most advanced ukulele players have started their playing career learning.
In case you don’t know what a ukulele chord is or what is the difference between a minor chord and a major chord, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through some of the best basic ukulele chords as well as 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 with guitar chords, in order to play a ukulele chord you’ll have to play more than one string at the same time. With ukulele chords this means playing three or more notes simultaneously.
To get a hang of strumming the ukulele’s four strings (these are G-C-E-A starting from the thickest string), 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 or your left hand in case you’re a leftie) and strum all four strings downwards.
When strumming 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 of your first 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. These will be a valuable tool when learning new ukulele chords to play, so it’s worth spending some time to learn how to read these.
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 4-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 of the diagram. This line represents the ukulele’s nut. The nut is a part that helps to 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 the string. 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 shown in this ukulele chord chart means that you’ll be playing the A string with your index finger. The number 2 would refer to your middle finger, number 3 to 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? In case you heard 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 not obstructed (or ‘muted’) by your fretting hand. This is a common problem that can be fixed by bending your fingers more into a claw-like position, for instance.
Major and minor chords
When reading different ukulele chord charts you might notice that some of the chord names include a lower-case letter ‘m’ at the end of the chord name. One such chord would be the Am chord.
We called the previous chord the major C chord. The one pictured above is instead the minor A chord (Am). As you might have guessed already, the small letter ‘m’ indicates that the chord in question is a minor chord.
So what’s the difference between minor and major ukulele chords? Just try playing the two chords we’ve looked at so far and see if you can hear the difference. How does the minor ukulele chord sound compared to the major chord?
To put it simply, major chords sound ‘happy’ and have a brighter sound to them. Because of this major chords fit well to upbeat and positive songs. 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 with major chords.
You’ll learn more about the music theory behind minor and major chords, especially once you start exploring the world of scales. But more on that on another occasion.
Basic ukulele chords
We have already looked at the C chord and Am chord on the ukulele. Here’s some other easy ukulele chords all beginners should get to know early on during their playing career. Fret not if you find some of these hard at first. No one is a master of any instrument at first.
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. In case you are familiar with guitar chords, the shape you’ll be making is similar to the one used to play the D chord on guitar. For the ukulele G chord, leave the lowest G string open.
The F chord uses two fingers: middle finger on the second fret of G and 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 do not accidentally mute any of the other strings.
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 to 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 more advanced chord is the barre chord.
To wrap up, here are the key takeaways from this guide to ukulele chords:
- When tuned to the standard ukulele tuning, the strings of a ukulele are
G (the thickest string closest to you)
A (the bottom string)
- When reading ukulele chord diagrams and chord charts, take 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, as opposed to a major chord.
- Always make sure that your fingers are not 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.
Keep these things in mind and you’ll notice yourself learning new chords and improving more and more. Don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the journey!