Right Hand Technique for ‘Ukulele: A Detailed Guide to Strumming & Picking

Harmonizing Melodies on the ‘Ukulele

Creating harmony on the ‘ukulele is one of the most pleasing ways to utilize the instrument. Harmonizing an interval sounds great, so when you use it on a melody the results can be outstanding!

Harmony Basics

Harmony is two or more notes played simultaneously on the ‘ukulele.

Most people are very used to hearing harmony in the context of chords which use three or more notes. (On the ‘ukulele you almost always strum one note per string: four strings = four notes.) If you already know some chord theory, great. It’s very similar to creating harmony.

When you limit your harmony to two notes – playing a pinch instead of strumming a chord – you end up playing an interval. An interval is the distance measured between two notes.

‘Ukulele players often call a two note harmony an “interval.” This is also known as a “double stop.” When you are “playing intervals” or “playing double-stops” you are playing two note harmony.
Intervals on the ukulele

Theory:

The name of an interval is determined by how many notes you pass in the scale going from the low note to the high note. For example, if you are in the key of C, the scale looks like this:

C D E F G A B C

If C is your starting note, the interval names simply ascend as you increase the gap between C and the next note in the scale:

C D = 2nd interval
C D E = 3rd interval
C D E F = 4th interval
C D E F G = 5th interval
C D E F G A = 6th interval
C D E F G A B = 7th interval
C D E F G A B C = octave
You can have compound intervals by going beyond the octave (9th, 10th, 11th, etc…). These are the same as the initial intervals above PLUS an octave. So a 10th interval is the same as a 3rd, plus an octave (C D E F G A B C D E).

On the ‘ukulele it’s difficult to play some of these large intervals practically so they don’t often get used. Even if you can make the large hand stretch required, often you run out of room on the fretboard before you can move very far.

The distance between notes can change even inside an interval of the same name. For instance, C to E is a 3rd interval. But D to F is also a 3rd interval. One is called a major 3rd, one is called a minor 3rd.

Why? Because of the distance between the notes in steps. A half step on the ‘ukulele is one fret. This means that the four fret difference between C and E is four half steps. The distance between D and F is three frets: three half steps.

To name this discrepancy you use terms like: perfect, minor, major, augmented, and diminished. All refer to the specific distance between the notes. Let’s look at them all, in order:

  • Unison: Two notes of the same pitch – C and C.
  • Minor 2nd: One fret apart – C to C#.
  • Major 2nd: Two frets apart – C to D.
  • Minor 3rd: Three frets apart – C to Eb.
  • Major 3rd: Four frets apart – C to E.
  • Perfect 4th: Five frets apart – C to F.
  • Augmented 4th/Diminished 5th: Six frets apart – C to F# (a “tritone”).
  • Perfect 5th: Seven frets apart – C to G.
  • Minor 6th: Eight frets apart – C to Ab.
  • Major 6th: Nine frets apart – C to A.
  • Minor 7th: Ten frets apart – C to Bb.
  • Major 7th: Eleven frets apart – C to B.
  • Octave: Twelve frets apart – C to C.

When you harmonize in a key using these intervals, you achieve a note pattern that offsets two parallel scales by a fixed amount. Basically, you start one scale from the melody and a second (of the same key) from the harmony interval.

If you want to play a harmony in 3rds it would look like this. Create a scale. Let’s use G major:

G A B C D E F# G

Now to find the harmony, you just offset that same scale by the interval amount: in this case three. The 3rd from G is B, so we start from B:

B C D E F# G A B

Putting them together creates the harmony:

G A B C D  E F# G
B C D E F# G A  B

You can use this staggered approach to find the harmony note pairs. The melody is in the top line. The harmony note is in the bottom line.

You can place the harmony note above or below the melody. However, in this situation, only if the harmony is placed above the melody is it a 3rd interval. The distance reverses and becomes a different interval if you put it below the melody.

Just shift the lower line of notes appropriately to find the other intervals.

Finding The Double-Stop Patterns

Once you find the notes of the harmony, you’ll begin to see shape patterns that emerge across the fretboard of your ‘ukulele.

Because the note-to-note distance doesn’t stay consistent as you move through a key, there are two harmony shapes that happen on each string pair for any interval.

But… because of the tuning of the ‘ukulele the shapes are not always consistent across string pairs.

For instance, to play 3rds on the E and A-strings you have two interval shapes. But move to the C and E-strings and you’ll have to swap one of them out for a new shape.

Some shapes occur on two sets of strings since the G and C-strings are the same distance from each other as the E and A-strings (a major 3rd). Also, the G and E-strings are the same distance from the C and A-strings (a major 6th).

Here are all three shapes you use to play a 3rd harmony on ‘ukulele. Remember, you’ll only use two at a time so you’ll never find a real-world example in 3rds that looks like this, all on one string pair. It’s just for illustration purposes.

the three 3rd interval shapes on ukulele

The first shape is two parallel frets. In a run you usually fret it with your middle and ring fingers.

The second shape moves the lower note up one fret so now it’s at a diagonal. Use your index finger on the string closer to the floor and your middle finger for the one above it.

The third shape extends up one more fret for a long diagonal. Usually you play this with your index finger on the string closer to the floor and your ring on the one above it.

Where The Shapes Live

Now that’s fine, but it’s useful to know which shapes go on what string pairs. It’s super easy. There are only three adjacent string pairs and two of them are the same interval apart so they use the same shapes.

For the two outside string pairs – G & C and E & A – you use shapes 2 and 3.

For the inside string pair – C & E – you use shapes 1 and 2.

Easy. That means you won’t ever use shape 1 on the two outside string pairs and you won’t ever use shape 3 on the inside string pair. Assuming, that is, you’re sticking with 3rd intervals only. Other interval distances can and do use these shapes.

Putting Them To Work

The obvious way to get familiar with these shapes and the patterns they land in is to play harmonized scales.

Using thirds, a major scale is always going to follow the same shape pattern:

1 2 2 1 1 2 2 1

This means if you were to play a C major scale on the middle pair of strings, you’d use…

shape 1, shape 2, shape 2, shape 1, shape 1, shape 2, shape 2, shape 1
harmonized c scale in 3rds on c and e strings ukulele

Same goes for the two outside pairs of strings. The pattern is the same, just the shapes are shifted up one number.

shape 2, shape 3, shape 3, shape 2, shape 2, shape 3, shape 3, shape 2
c scale using 3rd interval shapes outside strings

Because of where it falls on the fretboard, the starting point is up on the 7th fret using shape 2. Many ‘ukuleles won’t have enough frets to play this all the way through so you can compromise and drop down an octave when you hit the 12th fret.

Bonus for low-G players: See if you can figure out the C scale on the two top strings. It will follow the same pattern started on the 4th fret.

Any note in a melody can be harmonized. How you do so can dramatically change the sound.

Also changing the color is which note in the interval is used as the melody. For instance, I can harmonize Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in 3rds in the key of F with the melody as the highest note, like this (melody in bold):

A |--------3--3--5--5--3-----1--1--0--0-----------|
E |--1--1--5--5--6--6--5-----3--3--1--1--3--3--1--|
C |--0--0--------------------------------4--4--0--|
G |-----------------------------------------------|

But I could also make the melody the lower note in the interval and get a completely different sound. Like this:

A |--0--0--8--8--8--8--8-----5--5--3--3--1--1--0--|
E |--1--1--8--8--10-10-8-----6--6--5--5--3--3--1--|
C |-----------------------------------------------|
G |-----------------------------------------------|

For consistency to the ear, once you play part of a melody in 3rds, you probably will want to play the rest with 3rds. If you use some 6ths, stay close to that 6th sound.

Harmonizing Using a 3rd Up or a 3rd Down?

Something to consider as we start using these shapes is which note captures the melody. If you want a higher harmony, the lower note will always be the melody, but if you want to harmonize using a 3rd below, the higher note becomes the melody.

The later is often used because the human ear always hears the higher of two notes played together. If you bury the melody lower than the harmony, you can’t hear it as well.

The Funny Harmony Shift

But I lied about the tab above. It’s not all in 3rds! Can you see where? It’s mostly 3rds, but not all!

Unfortunately, as nice as they sound all by themselves, 3rds and 6ths don’t always fit like a glove. They are 75% reliable, but you’ve got to be clever the other 25% of the time. This means moving to a different interval to fit around some chords. Enter 4ths and 5ths. These intervals will fit around some parts of a chord when the others won’t.

You’ll have to experiment what sounds good with all the other intervals, but for 3rds the root note of the chord you are playing over should be harmonized with a 4th interval anytime it’s the highest note in the interval (1st example). If you’re not sounding the root note of the chord you are playing over, go nuts with the 3rds and don’t worry about changing anything. Actually, if I was playing over a Bb chord in this example, the 3rd harmony makes it fit over the chord. But only because the highest note isn’t a Bb!

Look at the second tab example. The 4th interval is used for the second “twinkle” since it is an F note and the chord I’m playing over is F.

So ballpark exception when working with 3rds: use a 4th when harmonizing the root note of the chord you are playing over and it’s also the highest note in the interval.

Similar idea, but different “avoid” interval for 6ths: use a 5th interval when harmonizing the 5th note of a chord and it’s the highest note in the interval.

I’m sure the rules change when you play the melody as the lower note in the interval, but I can’t give you all the secrets! Experiment and use your ears.

How To Play Them

3rd Intervals:

Are played on two adjacent strings: either the A and E strings or the G and C strings.

A |--2--Or-----3-----------------------|
E |--3--this:--5--AND...---------------|
C |-----------------------2--Or-----3--|
G |-----------------------3--this:--5--|

Just move the shapes around to fit the scale notes on both strings. An F major scale in 3rds would go…

A |--0--1--3--5--7--8--10-12--|
E |--1--3--5--6--8--10-12-13--|
C |---------------------------|
G |---------------------------|

3rds on the middle strings are either of these two shapes:

A |---------------|
E |--2--Or-----3--|
C |--2--this:--4--|
G |---------------|-

Continuing from there you would get a D scale in thirds:

A |---------------------------|
E |--2--3--5--7--9--10-12-14--|
C |--2--4--6--7--9--11-13-14--|
G |---------------------------|

6th intervals:

A 6th interval is the inverse of a 3rd. Move the highest note of a 3rd interval down an octave and you get a 6th.

They are usually played on the 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th strings, but you can also play them on adjacent ones. 6ths look like this:

A |--3--Or-----5-----------------------|
E |-----this:-----AND...--3--Or-----5--|
C |--4---------5-------------this:-----|
G |-----------------------4---------5--|

Again, you will move the shapes around to fit the scale.

The shapes for adjacent strings are more of a stretch. The two outer sets make sense to learn, the middle set is a hand breaker so I won’t include it:

A |--7--Or-----8-----------------------|
E |--3--this:--5--AND...---------------|
C |-----------------------7--Or-----8--|
G |-----------------------3--this:--5--|

4th Intervals:

Here we start moving into slightly more obscure “patch job” shapes. By themselves they often sound too smooth and open, but in context with 3rds and 6ths they can make a line fit like a glove.

A |--1--Or-----3-----------------------|
E |--1--this:--2--AND...---------------|
C |-----------------------1--Or-----3--|
G |-----------------------1--this:--2--|

An A minor scale in 4ths on the bottom two strings would go like:

A |--0--2--3--5--7--8--10-12--|
E |--0--1--3--5--7--8--10-12--|
C |---------------------------|
G |---------------------------|

On the middle set of strings (C and E), the shapes change a bit:

A |---------------|
E |--3--Or-----5--|
C |--2--this:--3--|
G |---------------|

So a G major scale in 4ths would go:

A |---------------------------|
E |--3--5--7--8--10-12-14-15--|
C |--2--4--6--7--9--11-12-14--|
G |---------------------------|

5th intervals:

These are the most pure sounding of them all. Use with 6ths to smooth out the rough edges (see The Funny Harmony Shift above).

On the G and E, C and A string sets you would play these shapes:

A |--1--Or-----2-----------------------|
E |-----this:-----AND...--1--Or-----2--|
C |--3---------5-------------this:-----|
G |-----------------------3---------5--|

A Bb scale would go:

A |---------------------------|
E |--1--3--5--6--8--10-11-13--|
C |---------------------------|
G |--3--5--7--8--10-12-14-15--|

You can play those same pitches on the G and C, E and A string sets by making shapes like this:

A |--3--Or-----4-----------------------|
E |--1--this:--3--AND...---------------|
C |-----------------------3--Or-----4--|
G |-----------------------1--this:--3--|

So an Ab major scale looks like:

A |---------------------------|
E |---------------------------|
C |--3--5--7--8--10-12-13-15--|
G |--1--3--5--6--8--10-12-13--|

On the C and E strings the shapes change:

A |---------------|
E |--3--Or-----4--|
C |--0--this:--2--|
G |---------------|

10th intervals:

If you want a big sound, reach for a big interval. Because of our instrument’s small range there aren’t many options for playing these, but the ones we do have sound sweet.

A tenth interval uses a root and (count up ten notes – you will go around the scale again) a third an octave up.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
C D E F G A B C D E

This is probably the biggest interval that can be easily played in standard tuning on the ‘ukulele. These fingerings and shapes are only tenths on a low G string. An ‘ukulele with a high G will just sound a 3rd. You will be working on the two outside strings (G and A).

The two shapes that make up a 10ths scale look like this:

A |--3--Or-----5--|
E |-----this:-----|
C |---------------|
G |--2---------3--|

Here is a G scale in 10ths:

A |--2--3--5--7--9--10-12-14--|
E |---------------------------|
C |---------------------------|
G |--0--2--4--5--7--9--11-12--|

Unisons:

The unison is the most simple interval, but the hardest to play. It is made up of two notes of the same pitch played at the same time. It’s probably debatable as to whether or not it’s a real “interval,” but the idea is the same.

Here’s a separate lesson I wrote for unisons:

How To Play Unison Intervals On The Uke

Harmony is a really neat facet of music, it’s kind of a shame that there aren’t more harmonized ukulele parts.

Anytime you play a chord you are playing harmony. Anytime one or more people sing backup in a different interval they are singing harmony. But there is plenty of info out there about that kind of harmony. This lesson will focus on two ukuleles playing lead at the same time in different intervals. The Allman Brothers made this style famous with their simultaneous guitar licks.

I will use “E Ku’u Morning Dew” as an example for building a harmony part. It is in G. We start again with the lovely major scale.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7  8-1
G A B C D E F# G

The melody of “E Ku’u Morning Dew” goes like this:

|-------0-2-3-0-
|-----3---------
|---2-----------
|-0-------------

The notes are: G D G A B C A.

There are several common ways of harmonizing notes – 3rds, 5ths, and 6ths. There are others that have a different sound, but they are not so widely used. Any can be used in an ukulele part, so you will have to listen to them and decide what sound you like best. You are probably going to want to record yourself playing the main melody so that you have something to build from. Or if you have a friend who plays, that works too.

I’ll start harmonizing with thirds. To find a harmony note, first locate the main melody note in the scale. Starting with the first G that appears in the melody.

G a b c d e f# G

Then count up a third, counting the start note and end note.

1 2 3
G A B C D E F# G

The third note is the harmony note – B. To figure out the rest of the harmony part, just start on the melody note and count up a third.

Main melody: G D  G A B C A
3rd harmony: B F# B C D E C

To figure out the 5th harmony just count up a fifth.

Main melody: G D G A B  C A
5th harmony: D A D E F# G E

To figure out 6th harmony just count up a sixth.

Main melody: G D G A  B C A
6th harmony: E B E F# G A F#

You can add harmony to any melody or solo. Experiment.

By Brad Bordessa

brad bordessa avatar

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me