This beginner lesson is a continuation of my page on novice ukulele. It assumes you know how to:
- Hold your uke
- Tune your uke
- Fret F and C7 chords
- Keep a rhythm with a downstrum
- Play a two-chord song with F and C7
If you’re not sure about any of that, be sure to go check out that page and return here when you’re ready.
These lessons don’t attempt to cover everything. Instead I try to present what I feel is most valuable for an ukulele player’s given skill level and how to practice and improve it through videos, infographics, and links to more detailed pages.
Learning Some More Ukulele Chords
As James Hill recommends in this podcast interview (S1E6), F and C7 are the best chords to learn first on the ukulele. This is because they are super easy to hold, but are also very closely related to each other, musically.
To get the same relationship with other chords, you end up using more fingers. Which is why you should already know F and C7 from the first lesson – they’re easy!
Since we’re moving to the next level in this uke lesson, we’ll be playing in the tied-for-second-place, easy key of C.
Here’s the most popular chord on the ukulele:
Play C by holding down the 3rd fret of the bottom, A-string with your ring finger. Like this:
Here’s a video of how that looks, except, as noted above, you’ll usually want to use your ring finger instead of the index:
Adding Chords to Your Repertoire
Any time you learn a new chord, whether it’s super simple or super hard, you need to implement it. Learning chords for the sake of learning chords doesn’t achieve much.
With C and the F that you know from before, you can play a number of songs, but one of my favorites is a tune I teach in the live lesson below, “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog.
Index Finger Strum
In the novice lesson, you learned how to thumb downstrum. This is great for starting out, but not super expandable.
To create a better foundation for more complex strums, you’ll want to transfer to using your index finger for downstrums.
Make a loose fist with your right hand (as if you were going to do rock, paper, scissors). Now, let your pointer finger pop out at a 90 degree angle. Like this:
Try brushing the index finger down across the strings in a perpendicular movement. Angle your wrist slightly downwards and allow your finger to bend. This helps your finger brush across the strings without getting stuck.
Strum down over and over again with even timing until it feels pretty comfortable. Try revisiting any of the songs you already know and switch from using a thumb strum to an index finger strum.
Here’s another chord that is a family member to C major: G dominant 7th. This is almost always written as “G7” on song sheets.
To play it, place your index finger on the 1st fret of the 2nd string (just like in F). Your middle finger plays the 2nd fret of the 3rd string (one string down from where it is in F). And finally, your ring finger plays the 2nd fret of the bottom string.
Since you have to hold two fingers on the 2nd fret, you might need to turn your wrist outwards and down (clockwise) to get them both to fit.
Remember, thumb on the back of the neck, fingers parallel to the frets, and use the tips of your fingers to hold chord notes.
As a general rule for beginner ukulele players, use your index finger to hold 1st fret notes, middle for 2nd fret, 3rd for 3rd fret, etc… We’ve already broken this rule with G7, but it’s a good guideline when you don’t need to play two notes on the same fret.
Now that you know C, F, and G7 in the key of C, practice changing between these chords, strumming four counts in between. Try to think ahead to the next chord so you can switch to it immediately and don’t have to stop.
C//// F//// G7//// C////
Slashes are commonly used to notate basic rhythmic counts. They usually represent one beat – or one strum. In this case, the four slashes next to each chord represents four counts per chord.
Sometimes single slashes are also used to show “punches” – or strums where you stop and rest.
For more variation you can change the order of the chords, but the premise is the same: get comfortable switching between them. If you need some more help and ideas, check out this article on faster and easier chord changes.
With three chords you can play way more songs than you’d ever think. Here are some good choices that use C, F, and G7:
Try to sing them once you learn how the chords go (or have somebody else sing). It will give you a point of reference to keep you on time.
Any song can be written out or recorded in one of 12 main keys. Which one you use depends on what instrument you’re playing and what the range of your singing voice is.
The melody and chords will still sound the same, regardless of key since they are related the same way, they’ll just sit at different places in the register.
So you need to be cautious when pairing a chord and lyric sheet with a recording! They won’t always match.
Sometimes a song is recorded in a key that works for the singer’s voice, but isn’t very easy to play on ukulele. If somebody makes a sheet for ukulele players that uses an easier key, it won’t match.
This isn’t a problem if you’re singing the song yourself, but it will sound “wrong” if you play along with the CD. That’s why singing will make things easier because your ear will automatically find the right key to sing in.
Expand Your Chord Knowledge:
Eventually you’ll probably want to learn all of the basic major, minor, and 7th chords. It’s important to keep working on new songs as you go. The more chords you know, the more songs you can play, but it’s no use to learn chords if you don’t have songs to put them in.
I think of beginner chords in several different tiers. Each tier opens up new key possibilities. You could do worse than memorize the basic chords in this order:
- C, F, G7, C7, Am
- G, D7, Em, Dm, A7
- Bb, D, A, E7, F#m
- Bm, Gm, F7, Eb
- Cm, C#m, E, Ab
Most teachers start with strumming when they teach ukulele to beginners. They seem to think of picking as something that is out of reach. It’s not.
You use many fingers to hold chords, you only need one to pick a single note!
I’ve created an intro ebook guide to picking along a single string. This is the easiest way to get started since you can view the melody in a straight line and you don’t need to think about changing strings:
Improve Your Timing
As you improve, the most important part of what you play is the timing of how you play it. You want music to groove, right? To groove, you’ve got to be able to hold down a steady beat.
To get started, try finding the “1…2…3…4…” count in your favorite song. It’s where you normally clap your hands.
Here’s more information. Don’t get too carried away yet. A beginning ukulele player only needs to work on a steady beat.
There’s only one way you will get better. Practice!
If you are struggling with something you find hard, dedicate some time to it every day. You’ll be amazed where steady effort will get you in the course of several days.
There is no “get out of jail free” card in music. You get out what you put in and there are no shortcuts, though I do have some tips:
You’ve got to enjoy the music you make or you are wasting your time. So once you learn a song, just play it and enjoy the music you are making. Don’t judge, “Oh darn. That chord buzzed.” Just play it as best you can.
This is called “jamming.”
We all focus so much on improving that sometimes it’s refreshing to take a step back, realize how far we’ve come, and then just play. The best music comes out when you don’t even think about it.
The Next Step
Find a Local Kani Ka Pila:
A kani ka pila is a jam group that usually forms in a circle and everyone takes turns choosing songs. Usually the pace is very slow so it’s a fabulous place to hone your skills in a group setting without any pressure. This is how I learned to play ukulele as a beginner.
You’d be surprised how many groups there are across the country and around the world – you just have to find them. Got A Ukulele has a huge page of ukulele clubs. Scroll through to see if your area has one you could ask about local kani ka pilas.
Ukulele Basics 101 Live Stream Replay Series
This video series was initially a week-long set of live streamed lessons about the very basics of playing the ukulele. You can now watch the replays and follow along as we learn a handful of chords and some fun, easy songs.
Day 1: Strumming Basics & Hunger Strike
In the first lesson you’ll learn how to strum C and F and use them to play “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog.
Day 2: Just the Way You Are
Time for a couple new chords and a new song!
Day 3: Island Style
One more new chord and a song.
Day 4: One Day
One last song!
Day 5: Review and New Strum
Adding the D D DU strum to Hunger Strike and One Day.