Greetings, Ukester! One of the many wonderful things about learning how to play the ukulele is learning all the different chords that are the basis for all our favorite songs. For many of us, the first thing we learned on the ukulele was some basic chords and how to strum them. After a couple of years playing the ukulele, I decided that I wanted to learn how to write my own songs. Thankfully, my background in music theory helped a lot when I was just getting started with songwriting, because it gave me the foundation I needed to pick some really magical chord progressions!
Picking what ukulele chords go together isn’t a huge mystery if you have a little bit of music theory knowledge under your belt. Read on to find out more about chords, how to construct them, and how to find what ukulele chords go together to make some musical magic on your ukulele!
What Is a Chord?
The first thing we need to do is to understand what a chord is, and how to make them. A chord is made up of at least three different notes on the ukulele, either strummed together at the same time or played fingerstyle. Chords come in many different “flavors”, but the most common ones you’ll come across are major, minor, and 7th chords. (You may also see augmented and diminished chords, and we’ll touch briefly on those.)
To create a chord, we first need to understand the key that we’re using to compose our song, and the accompanying scale that comes with it. An easy way to start understanding this is by using the keys and scales of C major and A minor: they have no sharps and no flats and are easy to learn on the ukulele.
Read more: Why is My Ukulele Always Out of Tune?
The C major scale is made up of seven notes, starting on middle C (which is the open C string on any re-entrant tuned ukulele): C D E F G A B
An easy way to remember how to construct any major scale is by remembering this pattern: whole whole half whole whole whole half.
This refers to the number of steps between each note. On the ukulele, a whole step is made up of 2 frets. A half step is one fret. If you were to look on a piano keyboard, you would notice that all of the notes in the C major scale are played on the white keys only, with no black keys between the E and F notes (a half step) and between the B and C notes (the second half step).
Similarly, if you were to play the C major scale on your ukulele using just the C string, you would play:
Open C string
D (second fret)
E (fourth fret)
F (fifth fret)
G (seventh fret)
A (ninth fret)
B (eleventh fret)
C (twelfth fret)
Now to construct our major chord, we take the first, third, and fifth notes of that scale. In the case of the C major scale, we’ll use the notes C, E, and G. Strum them, and you’ve got your C major chord.
If you want to construct a minor chord using the same scale, you’ll take the same notes of the scale – the first, third, and fifth notes – but you’ll lower the third note by a half step. (This is usually noted with the symbol that looks like a lower case “b” next to the note.) So for your C minor chord, you’ll use the same three notes but you’ll lower that E a half step, so the notes will be C, E flat, and G.
A Quick Primer on Seventh Chords
A seventh chord is usually written with a “7” after the name of the chord, like D7 or E7 or C7. You’ll find these chords used a lot of give a slightly different “flavor” to melodies in chord progressions. Seventh chords are used frequently in jazz music and in certain kinds of rock and folk music.
To construct a seventh chord, you’ll add the seventh note in the scale of the chord, so it will consist of four notes instead of just three. A C7 chord would include the notes C-EG-Bb.
In some cases, it may be easier to substitute a seventh chord for the major chord in any given chord progression. As an example, there are times when you can swap out the dreaded E major chord for the E7 chord. But beware: substituting a seventh chord isn’t always pleasing to the ear!
What Is a Chord Progression?
Now that we understand a little bit about chords and how to construct them, let’s look at chord progressions. A chord progression is simply two or more chords played in a certain order in a song. Every single song that you’ve ever learned to sing or play on the ukulele is made up of a chord progression in the key that the song is written.
Most of the time, you’ll see chords written in symbols of either upper case or lower-case Roman numerals. For all of your major keys, the chord symbols will look like this: I ii iii IV V vi VII⁰.
So, in any major key, the chords that correspond to each note in the major scale will be:
7 Diminished (but we’re not going to get into those diminished chords right now)
You can create your own chord progressions to accompany a melody using any of these chords. Some of the most famous songs are written with just three chords: the I, IV, and V (1, 4, and 5) chords of any key. In the key of C major, these are the C major, F major, and G major chords.
If playing in the key of C major just isn’t your thing, you can take the I, IV, and V chords from any other major key and use them – also known as transposing.
Here are a few examples of chords in some easy major and minor keys:
Key I ii iii IV V vi
C major C Dm Em F G Am
D major D Em F#m G A Bm
F major F Gm Am Bb C Dm
G major G Am Bm C D Em
Bb Bb Cm Dm Eb F Gm
What Ukulele Chords Go Together?
So now that we have this information, let’s start choosing some ukulele chords that go well together! A few tips for choosing what ukulele chords go together:
- Start with using just the 1, 4, and 5 chords of any key. Play around with them. Mix them up. Throw in a vi (minor 6 chord) or a ii (minor 2 chord) for some added flavor.
- Keep a notebook. Or several. I always have 2 notebooks going at the same time: one for projects and songs I’m currently working on, and another one that I just dump all my ideas into when the inspiration strikes.
- Once I started creating my own chord progressions, I created “cheat sheets” for myself with all the major and minor keys and the chords that went with each note in that particular scale. They’re pretty worn out by now, but I use them all the time!
- Pay attention to what sounds good to YOU! Writing your own songs and chord progressions means learning how to listen with your musical ear, and also how to listen with your musical heart. If it feels good and it sounds good, it doesn’t have to follow the above formula! (For some examples of breaking the rules with chord progressions, take a look at some of the original chord progressions of great songs by The Beatles!)
- If a chord progression includes a chord you’re unfamiliar with, don’t shy away from it! Write it down and learn it! Learning these new chords can help expand your ukulele chord vocabulary and make you a better musician.
- Sometimes a chord progression will sound very different played on a baritone ukulele vs. played on a re-entrant ukulele. If you find a chord progression that you don’t like on one instrument and you have access to the other, give it a try and see what happens!
Ukulele Chord Progressions in Any Key
For these ukulele chord progressions, I’m using the Roman numerals – all you have to do is look at the chart and find the chord that corresponds with the number and play that chord. Remember that the major chords are written in capital letters, minor chords are in lowercase letters.
Major Chord Progressions That Sound Great Together:
I- IV- V I- IV- vi- V I- ii- I- IV I- vi- ii- V
I- V- vi- iv IV- I- V I-vi-V IV-iv-I
Try these out on your ukulele, substituting the Roman numeral for the chord in any key.
Now if you want a few chord progressions that are written out with the chord name, try a few of these on for size! Some of these are from classic songs that have been around for decades, so if you find yourself humming a familiar tune while you’re strumming these, don’t be surprised.
- Gm- Cm-D-D7
- F-A7-F-A7 (side note: I actually wrote an entire 4-minute song using only these two chords because they were the only two I could play after I accidentally sliced off a fingertip cooking dinner one night!)
Are you ready to learn more about how to pick great ukulele chords that go together like magic? Check out the 23 Ultimate Chord Progressions ukulele course on Uke Like the Pros! You’ll learn some of the most-often used and great-sounding ukulele chord progressions, how to play them, and tips for mastering these chord progressions! Once you order the course, you’ll get instant access and can progress through the course at your own pace! With dozens of helpful downloads, instructional videos, and play-along backing tracks, this course will have you strumming along to some of your favorite songs in no time!