How To Play Octaves On The ‘Ukulele

An octave is a grip (chord shape) of two notes. A main note, and the note an octave above (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8). Octaves can be used to make a single note sound bigger without playing an actual chord. Jimi Hendrix used octaves a lot – in songs like Villanova Junction. I have also seen Jake Shimabukuro use octaves on his “Play Loud ‘Ukulele” DVD in the song Europa.

I have seen people play octaves on the ‘ukulele in three different shapes:

  1. X2X5
  2. 2X5X (low-G)
  3. 5XX3 (low-G)

I find that it is easiest to play the first two shapes with the index and pinky fingers of my left hand. The third seems to work best with the index and ring fingers of my left hand. The two strings that don’t sound are muted by any fingers you can use. Then you can strum just like you were playing a chord. Or you can just pick the two notes in a pincer movement with the thumb and index finger of your right hand.

Both notes are the root, so just move the shape around your ‘ukulele until you land on the note you are looking for. So a C octave would be X0X3 or 5X8X or 5XX3. A G octave would be 0X3X or X7X10 or 12XX10. (Etc.)

Try playing Jake’s Europa break. (In octaves): D E F E F A G F E E (or something close to that. Watch the video for the whole idea).

Europa Break MP3

Here’s a video lesson demonstrating the octaves technique:

Using String Sets to Jump Octaves

Because the G and C strings and the E and A strings on an ukulele are tuned in perfect 4ths (4 scale notes in between – G A B C, E F# G# A), anything played on one set can be played using the same shape on the other. The idea works on with a high-G, but for a more consistent sound, a low-G string might be in order. From the root of your first shape, to find the corresponding shape on the second pair of strings, move up 3 frets and skip a string down (or vice-versa). Arpeggios are a good way to illustrate this concept (arpeggios are the notes of a chord play one at a time instead of all together).

Here’s a Cm arpeggio played on the top set of strings (notes: C Eb G):

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

Now move the same shape to the bottom set of strings and up 3 frets. (Another way to do this is just to find the starting note 2 strings away.) You end up with the same sound, just up an octave:

A |----6-10
E |--8-----
C |--------
G |--------

Okay, here’s a D arpeggio starting on the higher set (E and A) and going backwards (notes: A F# D):

A |--12-9----
E |-------10-
C |----------
G |----------

…And down on the lower set (G and C):

A |-------
E |-------
C |-9-6---
G |-----7-

One more. A Gmaj7 arpeggio starting low and going high (notes: G B D F#):

A |---------|-----5-9-
E |---------|-3-7-----
C |-----2-6-|---------
G |-0-4-----|---------

This works for anything played on ether of the two sets.

Because of the major 3rd between the C and E string (different than the perfect 4th between the other two sets) once you try and play something using those two adjacent strings and move it, the position of the notes change a bit.

So to wrap it up and hopefully complete the picture, here is an excerpt from the chorus of “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson played in 3 different places:


A |-----------------------------------------------------------------
E |-----------------------------------------------------------------
C |-12---9-12\11---7-11\9---6-9---6-7-9/11---7-11\9---6-9-7-6-------
G |----9---------7--------7-----7----------7--------7---------9-7-4-

Up an octave:

A |-15----12-15\14----10-14\12----9-12----
E |----12----------10----------10------10-
C |---------------------------------------
G |---------------------------------------

A |-9-10-12/14----10-14\12-----9-12-
E |------------10----------10-------
C |---------------------------------
G |---------------------------------

A |-10-9----------
E |------12-10----
C |------------11-
G |---------------

…And on the two middle strings. As you can see, playing here requires more stretching.

A |-----------------------------------------------------------
E |-8---5-8\7---3-7\5---2-5---2-3-5/7---3-7\5---2-5-3-2-------
C |---4-------2-------2-----2---------2-------2---------4-2---
G |---------------------------------------------------------4-

By Brad Bordessa

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