When I studied music in college, I always wanted to be one of those people who could improvise a beautiful melody on the fly. But it wasn’t until I started learning how to play the ukulele that I actually learned how to improvise – and on the ukulele! If you have a song in your soul that’s ready to be shared with the world, learning how to improvise on the ukulele is a great way to start composing your own original music.
How to Tune Your Ukulele
Before you start improvising on your ukulele, make sure that your soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele is tuned properly. Use your favorite tuning app or get a clip-on tuner to make sure you have your instrument tuned to G-C-E-A. It doesn’t matter if you have a low or high G on your instrument, as long as everything is tuned properly.
Getting Started Improvising on the Ukulele
When you’re just getting started learning how to improvise on the ukulele, keep it simple at first. Start with something simple like the C major pentatonic scale – it’s just five notes, and when you’re using it to improvise a melody, you simply can’t play a “wrong” note! This is one of the easiest ways to start plucking out your own original melodies on the ukulele.
If you’ve never played the C major pentatonic scale, it’s just five simple notes. Starting on your open C (third) string, it’s C, D, E (open second string), G, and A (open first string). You can also use the C an octave above the open third string by playing the third fret of that first string. Stick within these five (or six) notes at first and see what kinds of melodies you discover.
When you stay within an octave using just these five (or six) notes, you’ll discover that there’s a whole world of musical possibilities!
As you pluck out each note in your improvised melodies, it helps to keep a recording device handy. This way if you discover a melody that you really love, you will have a way to capture it so you can go back to it later and add to it. (Most cell phones and mobile devices have recording apps on them, so it pays to spend a few minutes learning how they work.)
Using the C Major Scale for Improvising on the Ukulele
Once you’re comfortable with the C major pentatonic scale for improvising on the ukulele, try expanding to the heptatonic scale, meaning, using the full C scale. Just like with the pentatonic scale, try sticking to within just one octave to get started. Use the open C (third) string on your ukulele as your lowest note, and not go any higher than the third fret of the A (first) string.
Read more: 5 Ways to Use your Ukulele to Ease Anxiety
A few tips for using scales for improvising on the ukulele:
- Always come back to your base note – in this case, that’s the open C (third) string.
- When you feel “stuck” in your improvised melody, repeat the last note you played until you can feel the melody want to move up or down again.
- Try repeating notes as you move up and down the scale to add rhythmic interest.
- There are no “wrong” notes when you’re improvising – you’re just taking the melody in a different direction.
Another idea for using your C major scale is to have a “conversation” on your ukulele. Start by plucking out a short melody using the lower notes of the C major scale, starting with your open C string. Then move up to your open A string and pluck out another melody that is a response to your first melody. You can try repeating the melody in the upper register, or you can try creating a whole different melody as a response to the first one. Imagine that the two different strings are “talking” to each other – what are they saying?
Using Chords to Improvise on the Ukulele
Another way to learn how to improvise on the ukulele is to use a chord progression. Start by looking at the chords in the key of C major to keep things simple – each chord is assigned a number:
A common and popular chord progression is to play the 1, 4, and 5 chords – there are literally thousands of songs that use this chord progression, all with different melodies! Start by playing the C major, F major, and G major chords in that order using your favorite strumming pattern in a simple 4/4 time. Once you’re comfortable with those chords, start mixing things up!
- Vary the number of beats you play each chord. Start by playing each chord for four beats. Then try playing the 1 chord (C chord) for 8 beats before moving on the F major and G major. Rotate through each of the chords, playing each one for eight beats and the others for four beats.
- Start moving back and forth between chords playing each for just one beat!
- Look online for free backing tracks and use one of those to help you feel into when to change chords. You may also have other backing tracks that you’ve used for other ukulele exercises or songs that you can use as a foundation for creating your own original songs and melodies!
- Change up your strumming patterns as you move through your chord progression.
- Change up your time signature! Try playing something in 3/4 time to make it feel like a waltz!
Make Improvising a Musical Meditation
Learning how to improvise on the ukulele is a lovely balance between moving between your heart and your head. Using some basic music theory as the basis for your first steps in improvising can help you unlock the music that’s in your soul. As you move through the chords and the melodies you create on your ukulele, remember to relax and don’t forget to breathe.
Making your own music on the ukulele can be an empowering experience and give you more confidence in your playing! These techniques are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning how to improvise on the ukulele, but they’re enough to get you started creating original music.
Check out the cool courses available on Uke Like the Pros for loads of great material about chords and chord progressions and learning how to solo on the ukulele! Happy strumming!