There are few ukulele chords that sound better than some standard jazz shapes played in a simple progression. The harmonies and sounds they evoke have an inherently pleasing sound.
In this lesson I’m going to talk about the basics of playing chords that sound jazzy on your uke. From the common ukulele jazz chord shapes to common chord progressions to a songs you can use to learn the style.
To get started we’re going to need some…
Jazz Chord Shapes for Ukulele
You could play any of the following jazz chord progressions with standard chord shapes and they would sound very plain. Most of the magic of ukulele jazz comes from fancier voicings that highlight more interesting decoration notes in the chord.
There are lots of options for substituting chords, but I’m going to show you three families of shapes that I think are the best starting point and cover 95% of the songs you might want to play on your ukulele.
A substitution chord is simply a shape that you play in place of another – usually more boring – chord. They allow you to retain the core harmony, but also expand upon it for a more diverse sound.
The chord voicings in the progressions section can all be found in Ukulele Chord Shapes. It’s a monster reference of moveable shapes that any jazz player will find super useful.
I’ll tell you where to put these shapes in this lesson, but if you want to know how to move them into any key, you should buy the book.
It’s easier if I include the chord diagrams as we work through some of the progressions so keep reading to get to the shapes.
The 6th Chord
The major 6th family of ukulele jazz chords is a direct substitution for any MAJOR chord, regardless of key. So if I was playing a 1 4 5 in the key of G, I’d play: G, C, D. But if I wanted to substitute 6th chords for these plain majors, I’d play: G6, C6, D6.
There are four main 6th shapes. Any of these shapes can be used interchangeably. If you want to play a C6, you can strum any of the four inversions at the appropriate fret since all the correct notes are included in the shape. Doesn’t matter which shape you use except each puts you in a different location on the fretboard.
The Minor 7th Chord
Just like the major 6th chord is a direct substitution for major chords, the minor 7th is a direct substitution for MINOR chords.
Oddly enough, the minor 7th uses the same exact shapes as major 6th chords, but their roots are in different places so a C6 is in a different location than a Cm7. Try not to get confused!
For a minor blues in C you’d have Cm, Fm, Gm. If you were to substitute them with a minor 7th, you’d get: Cm7, Fm7, Gm7. This just adds an additional harmony note to the core minor sound.
The Dominant 9th Chord
Just like the others, the dominant 9th – or just “9th” – is a substitution for any dominant 7th chord in any key on the ukulele.
This jazz shape has a very smooth sound and is a super hip upgrade for a 7th with the added
9 tone to diversify the harmony.
Again, you can use any 9th shape at any point. Your selection will be fine-tuned by where on the fretboard you want the chord to land.
If you were playing a basic 12-bar blues in F, you’d have: F7, Bb7, C7. To substitute 9th chords for each 7th you’d just play: F9, Bb9, C9.
Jazz Strumming on Ukulele
There are always a million ways to approach the rhythm of a piece, but jazz chord accompaniment can be the most simple of any style. It’s surprising, but capturing a jazz sounding strum is super easy compared to the difficult chord shapes you’ll be expected to play.
A lot of jazz uke players just use the pad of their thumb for downstrums on the beat. So if the song count is 1…2…3…4…, you’d strum on the beat, plodding along.
To make it more interesting, you can maintain the steady downstroke, but incorporate a slight hesitation hiccup to the strum. So the feel would be more like “a” 1… “a” 2… “a” 3… “a” 4… This can be accompanied by a slight upbrush with the side of the thumb.
James Hill talks about it a little in this video – and certainly gives a good demonstration of how effective this can be.
Jazz Ukulele Chord Progressions
Now that we have some chord options that won’t sound too bland, we can begin putting them into progressions. A progression is a specific sequence of chords.
Here are some common progressions that you can play and use inside songs.
The heart of much of jazz music is the ii-V-I. Progressions are often shown in Roman numerals, but can also be rendered in Arabic numerals: 2 5 1.
The nice part about using Roman numerals is that you can visually show which chords are minor and which chords are major. If a numeral is uppercase, it’s a major chord, if it’s lowercase, it’s a minor chord.
So ii-V-I shows that the 2 chord is a minor and the 5 and 1 chords are major.
Finding the chords
Let’s render this in a key. C is always easy to visualize so I’ll use that for examples, but you should transpose this to as many keys as you can for more practice.
Here’s the C scale with a number line. To find the progression you just pick out the chords that correspond with the numbers in the progression.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 C D E F G A B C
In this case we’re using:
- ii = Dm
- V = G (G7)
- I = C
(The V often benefits from a 7th sound so we’ll use G7 instead of G.)
You can play it just like that and it will be nice. But you came here looking for jazz after all, so let’s substitute those chords! Major = 6th, minor = minor 7th, 7th = 9th. Here’s how that turns out:
- Dm = Dm7
- G7 = G9
- C = C6
Finding the shapes
Deciding which chord inversions or shapes to use is probably the hardest part of jazz ukulele playing. You can use whatever shape comes to mind to get Dm7, G9, and C6, but the odds are they wouldn’t end up being in the same place on the fretboard.
I’m going to help you get started by hand feeding you shapes that exist in the same area on the fretboard.
In addition to being nearby, if you can get the fingerings to lead into each other with the least amount of movement possible, it will often sound the most smooth.
The more you practice, the more natural both of these considerations will become.
Let’s go! Our jazz chords are Dm7, G9, C6.
To start, let’s use this shape for Dm7. Start it from the 5th fret so that your finger barres:
After that we’re only going to move one note in the chord – the C note on the G-string goes down to a B. This creates G9, shown below:
The final chord is C6, but our G9 puts us kind of between two different shapes. You could use either the one here or the C6 in the following exercise, depending on the sound you want. Try this one first (it’s easier to play):
As far as rhythm goes, for practice you can just play each chord for one bar (four beats). Or if you want more of a challenge, two beats for Dm7 and G9 and four beats for C6.
Let’s try another set of chord shapes before moving onto another progression. We’ll use the same Dm7, G9, C6 chords, just with new voicings in a new location on the neck.
And here’s C6:
Again, the goal is to maintain as little movement around the fretboard as possible since this is pleasing to the ears and to the fingers.
Variations on I, vi, IV, V Progression
While by itself the foundation for countless simple do-wop songs, if dressed up a bit, this I, vi, IV, V7 progression works wonders on ukulele for creating jazz chord content.
It works well for intros and outros in swing-style songs. I end up using this for songs like “Sophisticated Hula” or “Little Rock Getaway“.
At its most simple, I, vi, IV, V translates to C, Am, F, G7. This is hardly jazz.
But if I make one small tweak and swap the minor out for a diminished 7th, things get way more interesting: C Adim7 F G7. Now it’s better, but to take it the rest of the way we can add our substitutions: C6 Adim7 F6 G9.
Try playing it and you’ll hear what I mean. You can use these shapes. C6:
Then Adim7. Don’t move your index and middle fingers! Just slide your ring and pinky down.
The same notes shift down another fret for F6, but it’s easiest to play as a barre instead of trying to wedge your ring and pinky fingers into the same fret as the index and middle.
Finally, you’ll recognize this change to G9:
The bigger part of this progression’s magic I learned from Kimo Hussey. He said that the most important thing is that it sounds good – it doesn’t matter what exact chord progression you use.
This was a big revelation for me since I, like many others, was convinced that there was always a formula for everything in music.
Even though I’ve already showed you a handful of common substitutions, there are many more you can try. Here is a chart of C substitution chords. You’ll recognize some of these already, but if you need more of a challenge, try some weirder options.
Here is a list of possible substitution chords for this progression. Pick any chord from the left column, and work your way across, picking one chord from each column. By the time you get to the right side you will have a snazzy intro or outro.
C | Am | F | G7 | C6 | Adim | F6 | G9 | Cmaj7 | Am7 | Fmaj7 | G11 | Cmaj9 | A7b9 | Fmaj9 | G13 | C6/9 | Am6 | F6/9 | G7b9 | Cadd9 | | Fadd9 | |
This, paired with 12 keys to transpose to should keep you busy for quite a while.
Once you get into playing jazz songs, your main challenge is learning whatever new shapes you need to strum the tune. Since the thumb downstrum gets the job done most of the time, that’s all there really is to it.
But to send you on your way, I’ll break down a tune so you can see what’s happening and how you can change jazz songs up to suit your abilities.
All of Me
This is a classic that many uke players start with. You can get the full sheet here: All of Me ukulele tab. It includes the melody and the chords. We’ll focus on the chords.
To make it easier to visualize, I’ll make a rough chord chart for the song where each bracket of | to | is a bar.
Part A: |C | |E7 | |A7 | |Dm | | |E7 | |Am | |D7 | |Dm |G7 | Part B: |C | |E7 | |A7 | |Dm | | |F |Fm |C Em |A7 |Dm |G7 |C | |
Let’s find all the 2 5 1 progressions we can. You’ll notice that these don’t necessarily follow the minor, major, major pattern we learned above, but can still give up lots of insight to the song structure.
- E7 A7 Dm (bars 3-8 of part A)
- E7 Am D7 (bars 9-14 of part A)
- Dm G7 C (bars 15 & 16 of part A, bars 1 & 2 of part B)
- E7 A7 Dm (bars 3-8 of part B)
- Em A7 Dm (bars 11-13 of part B)
- A7 Dm G7 (bars 12-14 of part B)
- Dm G7 C (bars 13-16 of part B)
There are only a couple repeats in that list! It really goes to show how important it is to practice and internalize 2 5 1 progressions since you can string them together to form the majority of most jazz songs.
Beyond these changes, there’s not that much that’s super weird. There are only a couple other things to mention.
The C to E7 change can seem a little random, but if you go read this article about the circle of fifths, you’ll see that this is a simple form of back-cycling. You’re probably more used to seeing this in tin pan alley songs.
Major to minor changes are also very common – especially for the 4 chord in a key. You can see this happen in bars 13-15 of part A and bars 10 & 11 of part B.
The chart I made contains the most plain version of these chords possible. To make All of Me way more interesting, you’d do well to substitute every chord you can possibly think of.
The Scrubbing Trick
When you “scrub” you move the notes of an ukulele chord up or down one fret for a moment, creating dissonance before moving back to the chord’s proper location.
James Hill does this a lot for his jazz tunes. Check out “Lyin’ In Wait” from his album Man With a Love Song.
If you were playing a G major and you wanted to do some scrubbing, here is what you could try. The first example just goes from a normal G and then drops down one fret, returning to the G on the next strum. The second is just the opposite:
Here’s one in a jazz situation:
This is just a simple C6 Ebdim7 F6 G9 progression, but with scrubs leading into every chord.
Some things to think about:
- It’s a good policy to always “finish” your scrub by ending on the proper chord.
- I find that a scrub below, in general, has a more normal sound. Scrubbing up is more “out.”
- A scrub can use as many or as few strings as are used in the chord – there’s no need to find an alternate closed chord for it to work. If you want to scrub the 3rd fret of an open C, go for it!
- The longer you stay on the “off” part of the scrub, the more tension you build.
- Timing is everything with scrubs. It’s almost more of a rhythmic thing than a note thing.
Jazz is really straightforward to break in to, but difficult to master. The good news is that much of the content you need to study has already been made for you.
You basically need two things to practice jazz: songs to work on and an ukulele chord reference to play them.
The best source for jazz songs I’ve found is the iReal Pro app available for Apple and Android ($14-20). It’s a song chart app that lays out tunes just by chord changes – similar to what I wrote out above. There is even a smart backup band that will play you through the song so you can practice keeping up with a tempo.
By itself, iReal Pro is only minimally useful, but what makes it a jazz gold mine are the free song packs that are provided by the community. Currently the jazz pack consists of 1,350 songs. (There are also packs available for other genres.) These songs are automatically loaded into your library and contain the chords to most standards and at least a handful of songs by each well-known jazz cat.
If you’re more old school or want the melody lead sheet to go along with the chords, you can order a copy of The Real Book. This is a fake book with the the basic melody in standard notation and the chords above it – lead sheet style. There are several of these tomes to choose from.
Glen Rose produces lessons and workbooks for jazz songs on the uke. The presentation is a little over-complicated from what I’ve seen, but it seems to help a lot of folks. If you’re not much of a DIYer and feel overwhelmed by what I presented above, his stuff might be worth a look.
You can find charts for the 6th, minor7th, and 9th chords discussed here via the link. However, if you’re really interested in getting to know jazz better, you owe it to yourself to understand the fretboard and what you’re actually doing with each chord.
I’d like to think that my writing in Ukulele Chord Shapes will help anybody accomplish this. It’s kind of like the anti-chord book or the neo-traditional ukulele chord book.
Whatever you call it, it presents a more comprehensive view of the fretboard than most books and teaches a simple method of shifting shapes around the fretboard. Many people have told me it’s the last chord book they’ll ever buy because it covers everything they need.
For a jazz uke player, it contains 99.9% of the chord shapes you’ll need. If it doesn’t include a chord you need (actually need – some charts are just written wrong making for confusing chord names), I would love to hear about it.