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3 February 2013

Ukulele Kung Fu

I've wanted to do a post on ukulele chords for a while now. A couple of key things have put me off doing it. Firstly: It’s such a dry, boring topic. Secondly: everyone on the internet has covered it in some way or other. Thirdly: I’m no expert; I've never had a music lesson in my life and my music theory is sketchy to say the least. A lot of the time I don't even know the names of the chords I’m playing. :-D Fourthly: It's a pain in the arse to pull together the diagrams. Finally: What do I know anyway?

King Uke's School of Ukulele Kung Fu

The good news is that none of this has stopped me before... I did share a chord chart with you a long, long time ago which should be enough to get anyone started with the basics. However, if you want to take it to the next level then I’m going to give you some ideas for things to try. This list isn't definitive and may not actually be accurate in some instances, but I don’t care. ;-) What I really want to teach you is that experimenting is good and that you have options when it comes to making a rendition of a song uniquely yours. These are just ideas to spark the imagination and to get those fingers working. If this post inspires you to pick up your uke and give it a strum then my work here is done.

Your so-called Kung Fu is really quite pathetic!

This post assumes gcea tuning, but the hints are applicable to any. I know that some of what I say below will be seen as heresy by some Ukulele purists, but you read my blog for a reason right? ;-)

Before we talk chords I want to quickly tell you about the wonderful work that Buz Carter is doing at Uke Geeks with Scriptasaurus. He has helped me to overcome point 4 in my introduction to this post. Buz has developed and shared code that can be used to print songs and ukulele tabs. Using simple mark-up you can get Scriptasaurus to prettify any song for printing or download to your eReader of choice.

Uke Geek's Scriptasaurus

All of the chord diagrams in this post have been produced with his fantastic tool. I urge you to go check out Buz and specifically the demo which I used myself to create the images below

C5 "Power Chord"

I couldn't have a post on interesting chords without a mention of power chords. You will have heard of these even if you don’t know how to play them. Typically power chords are achieved by playing two notes... it's the most partial of partial chords. Don't be afraid to try out power chords, even on an acoustic uke. Technically a power chord is known as "5" because it is made up of the first and fifth notes on the major scale.

I've purposely picked the C5 power chord to show you because it can be played with all strings but also because I want to highlight its relationship with the major and minor chords. I think you can tell by looking at the diagram above that C5 is bang in the middle... it is neither major nor minor, but more importantly it is close enough in sound to both to potentially be played INSTEAD of either. I find that it can add a special something when using the uke to accompany other instruments or simply vocals. Try it! It’s worth mentioning that there are other power chord "shapes" you can try. If you want to learn more about power chords than I would suggest checking out Live Ukulele's excellent tutorial.

F Major 7

The Major 7th is one of my favourite chords on the guitar. It has such a beautiful happy jazzy sound to it that I can't play it without a big smile on my face. It doesn't have quite the same effect on a ukulele, but it is surprising how many times it appears in "ukulele" songs. If you're tuned gcea, one particular chord... FMaj7 crops up again and again. It's a horrible shape to play and I know that it is a stumbling block for many new to the instrument.

All I want to call out here is that there are a number of techniques that can be brought to bear in order to tame a difficult chord. The FMaj7 illustrates this perfectly.

Trick 1 is to simplify the chord by playing less of it. See the simplified version I've shown you above. By not playing the first string, I've already made it easier for myself. It gives me the option of using less/different fingers to play the notes. Either dampen the "missing" string or do as I try to do... don't strum it.

Trick 2 is to find an alternative form of the chord. The problem with alternative forms is that they will sound subtly different. You'll need to experiment with them and use your ears to tell you whether they fit the music you’re playing. Specifically, I’m calling out one lesser-known variant of FMaj7 for you here. Try it!

Aadd9 / Aminor add9

Consider adding an extra note to your favourite chords... The results can often be surprising.

I want to call out the wonder that can be achieved through the simple trick of adding a ninth to a major or minor chord. The best and easiest chords to illustrate this are the A major and minor. Add a ninth and the chords take on a wonderfully dreamy quality. It really is quite beautiful to behold. Try it!

Seek out rare chords

This might seem too obvious to mention, but I'm going to mention it anyway. If you want to raise your game with chords, you’re going to have to travel paths less well-trodden. Take the D augmented 7 above. Play it and it simply begs you to follow it up with something like Cm7. Try it!

Open Strings

There is a lot of focus in the ukulele community on "open" chords. "Open" simply means that one or more of the strings in the chord are unfretted. Open chords tend to sound fuller and they're often easier to play. Once you start working your way up the fretboard you need to be a lot more precise with your fingering, and even if you finger correctly, this is where you'll often start to expose tuning problems with cheaper ukes .

I’m a fan of open strings and I encourage you to experiment with them whenever you can. Take the F major chord above. I’m showing you a variant with the additional note on the first string. Typically, this string is left open for this chord. I've done this to illustrate what can happen when you move a shape up the fretboard. Here, I move the F up two frets which will give me a G. Only, here I’m keeping the third string open. It's easy to play and it "almost" gives me a G. Try it!

I can't stress enough how great an area this is for experimentation. I urge you to take a look at barre chords and to begin to wonder what they might sound like with a strategic open string slipped in here and there ;-)

Fingers AND Thumbs

I've tweaked the chord diagram above ever so slightly to open your eyes to a possible alternative for playing the humble F7. See the "T" on the A note of the fourth string? It stands for "Thumb". Anyone who has watched Jimi Hendrix play will already know that a lot can be achieved with the thumb on the guitar. What you might not have realised is that this technique can also have value on the ukulele!

I'm not saying that this fingering should be used in all instances, but there may be times that this will dig you out of a hole. Be aware of it. Try it! I’ll use this on fast songs where the previous chord doesn't lend itself to a quick change or if I’m holding the uke in a "non-traditional" position lower down my body.


My final lesson is simply to urge you to never, never, NEVER be afraid to try "stuff". Just because you can't find mention of if in someone's book doesn't make it wrong. There is a time and a place for everything. Your challenge is to bend every rule and to STICK IT TO THE MAN! Ha ha!

Hopefully this post has given you a few ideas. Until next time..


  1. Experiment: WTF=Csus4?

    1. Also F sus2?... and probably a couple of more names. WTF may be the best name, though.

    2. Ha ha. I'd forgotten writing this post. The mystery remains unsolved! ;-)