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Know the Ukulele Fretboard Notes

Music Theory 101

by Jennifer VanBenschoten
Ukulele Freboard

Greetings, ukulele players! If you’re reading this, chances are you are curious about ukulele fretboard notes – where to find them, what they are, why you should learn about them, and tips for memorizing the ukulele fretboard! Ready to join me on a mini music theory adventure? Let’s take a look at our ukulele fretboard and get to know it!

When most people pick up a ukulele for the first time, they start out by learning how to strum and some basic chord shapes. These are the bedrock for a future of ukulele learning and fun, but you may be reading this because you want to learn more – how do those chord shapes actually work on a ukulele fretboard? What notes go into the chords, and where do you find those notes on the ukulele fretboard?

It may seem a little confusing at first when you start to unlock the secrets of the ukulele fretboard notes. But really with just a few bits of information, you can open a whole new world of musical joy on your favorite instrument!

Music Theory 101

Let’s start with a little mini music theory lesson. When you look at ukulele sheet music (which may or may not have tablature associated with it), the ukulele fretboard notes correspond to the notes on the G clef.

Looking at the sheet music, you’ll notice that it’s composed of 5 lines called a staff, with the associated symbol for a G clef. Each of those lines and spaces in the staff corresponds to a different note in music theory, and the G clef symbol to the left on the staff means that we’re going to be working primarily with the notes above middle C (and a handful below middle C if you’re using a low G ukulele).

Read more: Ukulele Repairs and Setups

I learned how to read music when I started violin lessons at the age of 7. My teacher gave me an easy way to remember the notes associated with the lines and spaces on the musical staff that I still use to this day!

Starting at the line on the very bottom of the musical staff, the notes associated with each line moving from bottom to top are: E G B D F – and the way you can remember that is by repeating to yourself, Every Good Boy Does Fine.

Starting with the very bottom space on the musical staff, the notes associated with those spaces moving from bottom to top are: F A C E – and you really don’t need to remember anything to go with that, just how to spell the word “face”.

Easy, right? It’s these notes located on the lines and spaces that correspond to different frets on the ukulele fretboard.

Whole and Half Steps in Music

Now that we understand a little more about where notes are located on the musical staff, let’s talk about the musical distance between notes. In Western music theory, musical notes (or tones) are given alphabetical names: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. There are only seven basic tones in this system of music theory, so once you get to G, you start over back at A.

Between most of the tones in the musical scale/alphabet are what we call “semitones”. These are notes or pitches that fall between two notes. They’re usually noted in sheet music by using either a “sharp” (#) or “flat” (b) symbol next to the note.

Looking at our musical notes and starting at C (which is right in the middle of the piano, and middle C is used as a reference point for many things in Western music theory), we can see that there are whole steps between C and D, D and E, F and G, G and A, and A and B. There are half steps between B and C and E and F.

An easy way to remember this is to look at your basic C major scale. The construction of a basic major scale uses this pattern of whole and half steps between the notes: whole whole half whole whole whole half.

Breaking that down with the C major scale, it means that C to D = whole step; D to E = whole step; E to F = half step; F to G = whole step, G to A = whole step, A to B = whole step, and B to C = half step.

Stay with me here! In a few minutes, we’re going to learn why all of this is relevant to learning the ukulele fretboard notes. But first, we’re going to look at the tuning of our ukes and make sure we know what type of tuning we’re using and why it matters.

Ukulele Tunings

Before we get started, let’s look at the two ways that most GCEA ukuleles are tuned. The first is using re-entrant tuning: this means that the fourth (top) G string is actually the G note located above middle C, and then the next (third) string moving down towards the floor is middle C. Moving down towards the floor, the second string is the E above middle C, and the first string closest to the floor (bottom) is A.

If you’re using a low G ukulele, then you may have already guessed that the fourth (top) string is the G below middle C. This is sometimes also called a linear tuning, but it means the same thing: that the strings are tuned from lowest to highest, starting from the fourth string to the first string.

Once we start locating the ukulele fretboard notes, the names of the notes on both the re-entrant and linear (low G) tuned ukuleles will be the same, but the notes on the G (fourth) string will be located in different places on the musical staff. But don’t fret! (See what I did there?) We’re going to take our time and really learn how to find the ukulele fretboard notes so that we’re confident ukulele players!

Ukulele Fretboard Notes

Remember how I promised you that knowing all about tones and semitones in the musical scale would come in handy? This is where we apply that knowledge to our ukulele fretboard notes!

Looking at your ukulele, each fret represents a semitone or half step in the musical scale. So that means to create a whole step, you’d need to skip a fret between notes if you’re playing a scale. As an example, let’s start with our C (third) string, since it’s the same on both the re-entrant and linear tuned ukuleles.

If you want to play a basic C major scale on the ukulele, you can start by plucking the open C string. Now we know that the next note in the C major scale is D. If we press down in the space on the fretboard above the first fret, that would be a C#. So we’ll skip that space (and fret) and press down in the next space between the first and second frets – and that gives us a D.

We also know that there is another whole step between the D and E in the C major scale, so if we played the note at the third fret (usually there’s a dot there to mark it, either on the fretboard or on the side of the neck), that would be a D#. Skip that note and play between the third and fourth fret to find your E.

Sticking with the pattern of the major scale, we see that our next note – F – is only half a step away from the E. So just move your finger up to the next fret (should be the fourth fret) and play your F note!

You should be able to play the entire C major scale on any ukulele (even a soprano) by starting with the open C string and ending on the 12th fret, which is an octave or eight notes, above middle C.

Now that you’re familiar with how to find the notes of the C major scale on the ukulele fretboard, let’s look at a couple of other ways to learn your ukulele fretboard notes.

Using Major Scales to Find Ukulele Fretboard Notes

One of the great things about knowing how to find notes on your ukulele fretboard and knowing how to construct a major scale is that now you can play any scale in any key on your ukulele fretboard! Play around with the E major scale (starting on the E string) and the A major scale (starting on the A string) as well as the G major scale (which will start on the G string and can be played on that string whether you have a re-entrant or a linear tuned ukulele).

As you play your scales, say the names of the notes out loud – G, A, B, C, D, E, F sharp G, for example. You can also use a digital keyboard or piano app to help you locate all of the natural notes (white keys only) on the ukulele fretboard.

I’m a big fan of saying the notes out loud as you play them on the ukulele fretboard, because for my style of learning, it helps that information to “stick” in my head.

If writing things down makes it easier for you to learn things, you can find blank images of ukulele fretboards online, print one out (or if you’re really artistic draw your own!) and write down the names of the notes on each fret.

Remember that some of those semitone notes will have more than one name. For example, E flat is another name for D sharp, depending on what musical key you’re playing in.

So You’ve Mastered the Ukulele Fretboard Notes – What Now?

Well, maybe you haven’t mastered them quite yet. But if you learn the notes of a couple of basic scales like C major or A minor (keep ‘em simple at first), you have now unlocked a whole lot of musical ukulele potential!

Like what, you might ask? Well, if you’ve ever dreamed of playing amazing ukulele solos, this is where you start! Knowing the notes of the scales will let you play fabulous off-the-cuff ukulele solos and help you on the path to learning how to improvise on the ukulele.

You can also use the ukulele fretboard notes to teach yourself (or work with a teacher) and learn how to read music! Reading music isn’t for everyone, but for some of us, it’s a great skill that we can use for performing, learning new music, and even transposing music from one key into another.

Hey, if you’re looking for some great online courses in how to learn to read music and how to solo on the ukulele using these skills, make sure you check out the great online ukulele courses on the Terry Carter Music website! You’ll find all of this and much much more!

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Judy Corrette November 19, 2023 - 5:26 pm

Although I am familiar with the basics of music , I will keep this handy and use it whenever I might get confused or want to learn something new

Rachel Kopel November 19, 2023 - 6:47 pm

This is pretty good. I have been working on learning the fretboard. I think it would benefit from a keyboard graphic SHOWING the placement you mention. Also when you say *after you have mastered…..* you mention learning C major and A minor. If you are going to suggest minor chords , probably need to mention that their *recipe* is different. This is a tough subject to describe without having aural examples. Good on you for this post. 💕🙋🎶📜

Barry Smith March 17, 2024 - 4:31 pm

I believe the article is referring to scales not chords, The C major scale and the Amin scale share the same notes. Although. I do agree that if you are going to mention Minor scales you should explain what the difference is.

Rachel Kopel March 18, 2024 - 1:41 am

Thank you. I misspoke. Scales indeed. And the minor scale recipe would also fit nicely in this. 💕🙋🎶

Paul Edward Hevers November 23, 2023 - 11:49 pm

what about a similar blog for baritone players Please

Jerry Lloyd December 9, 2023 - 1:14 am

ditto on Paul Hevers’ comment needing a blog for baritone players… pleeese


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