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‘Ukulele Chord Shapes
“If you have questions about ukulele chords, Chord Shapes has the answers.” ~ James Hill

Arranging Songs for Solo ‘Ukulele – The Basics

“Solo ‘ukulele” or “fingerpicking ‘ukulele” arrangements are a matter of much interest to most ‘ukulele players. The reason being, when you cleverly arrange a song in this style, you can perform it with only one instrument and still carry all the parts.

I don’t claim to be a master at this, but all that I’ve spent years learning is presented here in a nutshell. My word isn’t the law – everyone has different ways of arranging for the ‘ukulele – but this is what has worked for me. Hopefully it gives you some places to start building your own arranging style.

The Big Picture

A good solo arrangement combines all three basic aspects of music: melodyharmony, and rhythm.

Rhythm” happens almost entirely on its own just from knowing the notes and putting them where they need to go. It’s second nature to play on time (or as close to it as you are able) so I’m not going to waste any words on it except for right here:

Play on time. Don’t rush and certainly don’t drag. Give each note and each rest its full duration and no more. Make sure all beats are accounted for. Don’t add more. Don’t take them away. Practice as slow as you have to to get your timing spot on, then slowly speed it up to performance tempo.

That leaves our main focus on melody and harmony and how they interact with each other, which will be detailed in a bit.

Choosing the Right Song:

When starting out it’s important to keep your arrangements *simple*. You need to learn the concepts behind an arrangement before you can carry the torch and try to create a solo version of Stairway To Heaven. You can always add more advanced features and concepts to your songs. But trying to run before you can walk will lead to frustration.

Pick a simple song with straightforward chords and a basic melody. Something like:

  • Amazing Grace
  • You Are My Sunshine
  • Puamana
  • Three Little Birds
  • Hi’ilawe

For this lesson I’m going to use Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for our demonstration arrangement.

Creating The Parts

What you should be going for with a solo arrangement is to play the melody as the highest note at any given point while adding complementary harmonies in clever places. This keeps the important parts in the spotlight and pushes groove of the song along.

Melody:

When playing a solo arrangement, the melody should be the highest note sounding on your ‘ukulele. Since the highest note of a chord is what a human ear hears most prominently, you can float the melody above the rest of the notes to make it stick out. If you bury your melody on the low end of a chord, your listeners will have a hard time picking it out of the mix. You will know it’s there, but it needs to be blatantly obvious for the listener.

In order to achieve a melody that is easy to play above your harmony, you should transpose the song to a key that places most of the melody comfortably on the A or E strings. If you can do this then you will always have room for at least two harmony notes lower than the melody.

This is the ideal situation, but sometimes a melody with a wide range will force you onto lower strings. Play around. Sometimes the obvious key isn’t the best. Because of this need to search out the right key and essentially “learn” the melody in each place to see if it works, it would be really helpful if you knew the tune of the song very well.

Here’s the melody for Twinkle, Twinkle is a few different keys:

In the key of C:

A |----------------|--0--0----------|----------------|----------------|
E |--------3--3----|--------3-------|--1--1--0--0----|----------------|
C |--0--0----------|----------------|----------------|--2--2--0-------|
G |----------------|----------------|----------------|----------------|

In the key of E:

A |--------2--2----|--4--4--2-------|--0--0----------|----------------|
E |--0--0----------|----------------|--------4--4----|--2--2--0-------|
C |----------------|----------------|----------------|----------------|
G |----------------|----------------|----------------|----------------|

In the key of G:

A |--------5--5----|--7--7--5-------|--3--3----------|----------------|
E |--3--3----------|----------------|--------7--7----|--5--5--3-------|
C |----------------|----------------|----------------|----------------|
G |----------------|----------------|----------------|----------------|

I, personally, like to play the melody as low as possible while still being on the higher strings. That way you aren’t squeezing harmony fingerings onto the high frets. To me, you get a richer sound when chords are played lower. So my choice would probably be the key of E. If I had a low-G I might use the key of C because of the easy and great-sounding chords you can pull out of that key.

Once you find a key that seems appropriate (it might not remain so once you get into arranging), you need to get familiar with it. Play through the melody a bunch of times before you start to try adding the harmony.

Harmony:

Melody is very straightforward to figure out since there’s only one way to play it. Harmony on the other hand can be as complex as you desire with infinite combinations.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The important part of harmony knowledge is which chord changes happen where inside the song. This is exactly the same as if you were singing the song and strumming along. Again, it is best to have a very solid understanding of the chords that make up the song. This shouldn’t be difficult. At the very worst you can print out a chord sheet to follow along with.

Play along with the song while singing and try and make note in your head of where the chord changes happen in relation to the melody. By knowing which words or which notes the changes happens on you will be able to easier piece together your arrangement.

In our case, here are the chords for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star:

I                IV     I 
Twinkle, twinkle little star.
IV    I      V7       I
How I wonder what you are.
I   IV       I        V7  
Up above the world so high,
I      IV      I      V7
Like a diamond in the sky.
I                IV     I
Twinkle, twinkle little star.
IV    I      V7       I
How I wonder what you are.
Notice how I’ve used Roman numerals instead of chord names in the song example. This is so we can play the song in any key that fits the arrangement – not just the one written. Read my lesson on transposing if you’re not sure about how it works.

Play through the chords in the key you plan on creating your arrangement in. For fun, do it in E since that’s a key I feel works well with the melody. Pay special attention to where the chord changes happen on the melody/words.

Putting Them Together

So much for keeping things simple! What follows is simply one interpretation of how to play the song. Ask 10 ‘ukulele players to arrange a tune and you will get 10 different versions. Use my example as a stepping stone for creating your own arrangements.

Remember that the melody always should be higher than the harmony. If you keep this in mind, every time you strum a chord with your melody, you should end up with a fairly clear-sounding arrangement.

The simplest place to start is the lowest common denominator: simple chords at their lowest playable position that is convenient for the melody. Let’s begin!

Check out the first line of the song:

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0------------|------------------|
C |--------------------|------------------|
G |--------------------|------------------|

The melody starts on an E note over an E chord. That means we must find E chord harmonies below the melody. For most of the chords in this tune I will just find the lowest place I can play a fragment of a familiar shape. In this case, a normal E looks like: 4442. Since the melody starts on the E-string and the harmonies must be below it, we won’t play the highest string – the A-string. But we will use the notes on the fourth fret of the G and C-strings. Like this (melody in blue, harmony in red):

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0------------|------------------|
C |--4----4------------|------------------|
G |--4----4------------|------------------|
If you play with a high-g string on your ‘ukulele, be sure to account for the higher octave notes. For instance, the 440X chord for the first note when played on a high-g will render a B note that is actually higher than the E melody.

A secondary work-around that should keep high-g’ers out of trouble for this lesson is to “roll” down the notes of the chord so that the melody note is played last. Like keeping the melody as the highest note, making it the last sounded note in a chord also helps it to pop out. For the examples here, this should do the trick, but keep an eye on your note layout in the future if you tune with a high-g.

Continuing onto the next note, we find a B on the first string. We’re still playing over an E chord so this 2nd-fret note is actually part of the normal E chord fingering. We might add it like this:

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0----4----4--|------------------|
C |--4----4----4----4--|------------------|
G |--4----4----4----4--|------------------|

In the next bar a chord change happens. This means our harmony is going to change from E to A chord tones. Now we will find notes from an A chord that are lower than the melody. The lowest inversion of A manifests as: 2100. Put that in the appropriate place like this:

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0----4----4--|--0---0-----------|
C |--4----4----4----4--|--1---1-----------|
G |--4----4----4----4--|--2---2-----------|
You might find that the lowest inversion of a chord doesn’t always make for a finger-friendly stretch when tied with the melody. The A here with a high C# note on top isn’t super hard to play, but deserves examining in this way. To find the next inversion, simply shift the chord tone on each string to the next highest one – everything just moves up to the next “zone.” For instance, the next A inversion would be: 6454. The highest note in the chord turns out to be the melody so we can drop the entire shape into the song:

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0----4----4--|--5---5-----------|
C |--4----4----4----4--|--4---4-----------|
G |--4----4----4----4--|--6---6-----------|

Both options work technically, but in this situation, I’d tend to stick with the 2104 shape for a richer sound.

The last note in the line is another B over an E chord. We’ve already harmonized this note over the same chord so we can use an earlier fingering:

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0----4----4--|--0---0---4-------|
C |--4----4----4----4--|--1---1---4-------|
G |--4----4----4----4--|--2---2---4-------|

That’s basically the idea. The only things that separates this simple concept and a complex arrangement by someone like Jake is the way the harmonies are incorporated with the melody. This mostly has to do with the rhythm and chord choices.

Artistic Considerations

While this example is fine and good, I would probably never play it like this. One strum of a chord on every syllable is very plodding and quite boring rhythmically. Instead, to continue pushing the song along, but retain some breathing room, I would emphasize the harmony on some beats, but not others. This creates a rhythmic pulse and allows the melody to come through unencumbered in places for a stronger effect.

The most obvious place to lean on are the strong 1 and 3 beats. Something like this:

     E                    A       E
     Twin-kle, twin-kle   lit-tle star
A |------------2----2--|--4---4---2-------|
E |--0----0----4-------|--0-------4-------|
C |--4---------4-------|--1-------4-------|
G |--4---------4-------|--2-------4-------|

Of course, in this example, the melody nicely lines up with beats 1 and 3. In places where this doesn’t happen, I would still probably put a chord strum in to hold the place and drive the song along. Because we’re considering the melody and harmony two separate things, we can fudge the rules to make a musical statement work. In this case were sacrificing a rest for a chunk of harmony and rhythm. Solo arranging on the ‘ukulele is all about compromise!

Another time I will almost always add a harmony strum is when a chord change happens. Since the melody doesn’t tell our ears the harmony, there’s no way to signal the change without playing a chord. That’s why I’ll add one, either with a melody note or on a rest, as a stand-alone chord strum.

Wrapping Up

Now that you have a basic idea how to put an arrangement together, try to finish Twinkle, Twinkle. You have the chords already. Just use your ears to figure out the rest of the melody and then try putting the two together. For even more practice, try it in a different key. All the fingerings and chord options will change giving you a good idea of why key choice is important.

Remember: keep the melody on top, add chords around it at will!