Building Your Own Ukulele Chords

When learning the ukulele, one of the first challenges is learning the chords. One page chord charts become indispensable for the beginner. (Here’s one.) However, as you gain experience, you realize that there are multiple ways to finger each chord.

Why learn different variations of the chords? As an example, think of a two chord song. You can add interest to the song by using different forms of those two chords. Even in more complex songs, it may still be useful to change to a different form of a chord from one bar to the next. (Here‘s a good video demonstrating switching between alternate forms of G and C.)

Here are some examples of some alternative fingerings for a couple of common chords:

(I especially like the 0454 form of A7. Think of the main chords in the key of D: D, G, and A7. When changing from G to A7, you just have to slide your fingers 2 frets up the fretboard.)

How does one figure out different chord variations? I’ve put together a couple of charts to help me come up with different fingerings. You can always learn the patterns for barred chords. However, if a chord includes one or more of G, C, E, or A, these charts can help you find easy alternatives using open strings. You can download the charts from here.

The first chart lists the notes for many of the chords we use. The notes are identified by Roman numerals. If you haven’t seen that notation, just think of the notes by their other names: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, and do. For example, a major chord consists of three notes: I, III, and V. (Or do, mi, and sol.)

The second chart represents the notes on a ukulele fretboard. The notes shaded in yellow are the notes of the open strings. The white area is for the notes on a standard soprano ukulele. The other notes (blue) represent notes found on bigger ukuleles, as well as an additional extension for convenience so you can see full octaves on the chart, even for the key of G#.

After printing out these charts, fold over the top edge of the second page (or cut it off) so that the top of the page is the edge of the fret board. The idea is that you can place the fretboard chart over the chart of chords and have columns line up.

How does this work? As an example,  let’s say you want to find a fingering for the Am7 chord. Line up the fretboard chart with the “min7” row on the chord chart. The root note of Am7 is A, and so line up the I column with an A on the top line of the fretboard. You can now read off the notes of the chord: A, C, E, and G. You’ll recognize these as the open notes of all four ukulele strings. But let’s find an alternative so your left hand has something to do.

The next step is trickier. We must now find A, C, E, and G from different places on the fretboard. It’s really guesswork at this point, but let’s start with the C at the 5th fret of the G string. We’re now left with the task of finding A, E, and G. We see an E at the 4th fret of the C string and a G at the 3rd fret of the E string, leaving us with an open A. These notes are all close together, making the 5430 a really easy way to form the Am7. (Since discovering this form of Am7, I seem to be using it a lot!)

Some notes: First, note that what is commonly called the “diminished” chord is really a “diminished 7th”. The row labeled “dim” is the true diminished chord, and not the diminished 7th. Second, the keen observer will note that the 9th chords have five notes. Since the ukulele only has four strings, you need to delete one of the notes. Usually, the III or V is omitted.

I always enjoy finding interesting chord alternatives. I hope you find these charts as useful as I do.

Cheers! Hans

A November Photo Walk

I’ve been rather antsy lately, so I really wanted to get out and do some picture taking. In the morning, I saw a blue sky. But the clouds started rolling in after lunch. That’s fine, I thought. If the weather is a bit dreary, I’ll just desaturate the photos.

November is one of my favorite times for photography. The sun is always low in the sky, the trees have shed most of their leaves, and it’s not too cold yet. There are always good opportunities for photos. If it’s cloudy and dreary, I still take photos. But in those cases, I try to take advantage of the conditions. I’ve always liked black and white photos. And I like the pure white sky you can often get in overcast conditions. But today, the sky was especially dramatic.

Here are some of the photos I took in downtown Kingston today. I wandered through the historic Sydenham Ward where you can find moody old buildings. And I braved the cold wind coming off the lake to snap some photos along the waterfront. You can find some more of the photos I took today at Kingston – Nov 18, 2011.

KUS – Our First Public Performance

Not long after I put out the call for ukulele players in Kingston, I got an e-mail from someone who wanted us to perform at her event. I had to reply that we hadn’t even had one jam yet! The Kingston Ukulele Society started jamming in September of 2010. But it took until March 2011, before someone suggested that we should work on a core repertoire. And so we began to think about performing in public.

In April, we started jamming at the RCHA Club, a great place that’s very supportive of local musicians. A new venue meant a new schedule, with jams on even-numbered Wednesdays. An unfortunate consequence of that schedule meant that there would often be three week gaps between jams. How can we survive such a long time between jams? Well, I think we should do something different in those long intervals. For example, we should perform at an open stage or open mic.

Well, it so happens that every Sunday at the RCHA, there’s a folk open stage. I suggested that we do a set on May 29. I didn’t know how many of my fellow ukesters would join me. But I figured that if no one did, I would just do a solo set. Fortunately, a few days before, I started getting confirmations from people. First, Mary said that she was interested, even though she hadn’t been to any jams. That was fine. After church on Sunday morning, we ran through the song list. If no one else showed up, we could easily do a duet. But later in the afternoon, I got more replies.

All together, we had five ukulele players spanning the stage. As we started into the opening chords of our first song, (D, D6, and Dmaj7), some people in the audience recognized the song and started clapping. We knew something special was about to happen. As we played Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, the mood was electric. I had trouble concentrating on my part since I got distracted by the wonderful music we were making!

I then introduced the people on stage: Heather, who was the first person to answer my initial call for Kingston ukulele players, and then Mary, Jane, and Colin. Our second song was “Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen, followed by “You Are My Tech-Shine”, a traditional song with new words written by someone at our church.

The audience certainly enjoyed our short performance, and later we were asked if we’d be the feature act for a future folk evening! Well, that now puts a bit more pressure on us! So far, we’ve been a very informal gathering of ukulele players. But definite gigs require definite commitment from members of the group. Do we have the critical mass to get enough ukulele players to show up for shows? And do have enough good material for a longer show? I think the answer to both questions is Yes!

Over the past year, I’ve seen improvement in practically all the ukulele players that have jammed with us. Although I always try to bring at least a few easy three-chord songs to each jam, most people don’t seem to get fazed by the more complicated songs I throw at them. But then again, we don’t need tricky songs for a show. What we need is a good selection of fun, entertaining songs that we can all learn easily.

Anyways, I think we all had a good time that evening. There’s something magical about a person playing a ukulele. And even more so with a group of ukuleles. I hope that we’ll have more opportunities to play in public.

Cheers! Hans

Busking in Support of Joe’s M.I.L.L.

Ever willing to push the limits of my comfort zone musically, I eagerly plunged into volunteering for a couple of busking sessions a few weeks ago. The idea was for area musicians to busk for a half hour on Kingston’s market square and donate the proceeds to the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library.

Now then, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the greatest musical performer. But I also admit to an ulterior motive, to try to raise awareness of the ukulele in this city. So I picked out about 20 of my best songs, and went downtown.

My first session was at 11AM at the corner of Brock and King, at the north end of the market. On market day, this is the busiest, and noisiest, corner. Most people just walked by, few willing to admit to the presence of a street performer. I was relieved about 40 minutes later by a guy playing blues on a resonator guitar.

I then signed up for another session, but at a quieter corner of the market. Fewer people walked by, but there were a few sitting close by listening to the performances, sometimes commenting on the songs. This time, Roger, the librarian at Joe’s M.I.L.L. joined me on acoustic bass for a few songs, which was much appreciated.

What did I learn from this? First, I’ll never make a living by busking on the ukulele! But more importantly, I now know first hand what it feels like on the other side. I’ve always enjoyed listening to street musicians, and generally, I always try to be supportive, even if I don’t have time to stay and listen. But most people just pass by quickly, not even wanting to risk the shortest eye contact. While I was performing, frankly, I didn’t care that much about the loose change thrown into my ukulele case. I just wanted at least some small acknowledgment from the passersby.

So my point is this: Be kind to street musicians. They’ve all practised for years to get to the point of being able to perform in public. Even if you can’t spare some change, at least say hi, or offer some sign of support. It doesn’t take much effort on your part, but can mean a lot to the performer.

Omnifariously yours, Hans