Building & Constructing Chords: Ukulele Chord Theory

This article is an excerpt from my book, Ukulele Chord Shapes. It contains 55-pages on how to use shapes up and down the fretboard to unlock over 2,000 chords.

A chord is built using two pieces of information: a scale and a formula. The scale tells you the family of notes you are working with and the formula tells you which family members to select.

Step 1: Find The Root Scale

Chords are always built with a major scale. Period. Which major scale is determined by the root name of the chord you wish to create. For example:

  • Cm is built from a C major scale
  • A is built from an A major scale
  • Ebm7#5 is built from an Eb scale

Always use a major scale, no matter what crazy name the chord might have.

Step 2: Number The Scale

When you find the correct major scale for the chord you wish to build, write it out. If you were using a C scale it would look like this:


Give each note an ascending number:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

The 8 is the same as the 1 which is also the root. After that it just goes around again…

With these numbers in place on paper or in your mind, it becomes much easier to communicate about scales without being restricted by the note names of one key. That’s why they are used in making chords: because a sequence of numbers can be applied to any scale.

Step 3: Know The Formula

Each different type of chord is made up of a combination of notes. These unique note combinations are what give each chord type its signature sound. Chord “recipes” can be represented by a number formula. This formula tells you which notes from a scale you use to make a chord.

Let’s start with the formula for a major chord: 1 3 5. That means you take the first note, 3rd note, and 5th note from a numbered scale like the one from the previous page to create a major chord.

Step 4: Find the Notes

Let’s try taking the formula and finding its notes in a scale. Use the numbered scale degrees from step 2 and cherry-pick the notes to fit the formula.

For simplicity, let’s start with a C major chord and highlight the formula (1 3 5):

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

You end up with C, E, and G. Those are the notes of a C major chord!

More complicated formulas often use b and # signs to alter a note. The b means to flat the note – or lower – the pitch by a half step (one fret). The # means to sharp the note – or raise – the pitch by a half step (one fret). Apply them to the scale degree where they occur. For instance, the formula for a minor chord is: 1 b3 5. The b3 tells you to move the 3rd scale degree down a half step from where it would be originally.

Step 5: Create A Shape

In the last step we came up with some formula notes for a C major chord – C, E, and G. You can put them on the ‘ukulele however they will fit – they can appear anywhere on the fretboard. It’s up to the musician to decide which ones to use and where. No pressure or anything… There are only about a million options!

To make the process a little less intimidating, let’s first look at a familiar shape: good ‘ol open C (0003). Let’s explore what makes it tick, note wise:




Scale Degree:

















If you look to familiar shapes for guidance in future chord maneuvering endeavors, you will start to notice some similarities. The main one is that a shape has to be user-friendly. Rarely will it span more than 4 frets. Further than that and playability really starts to depend on the situation and player.

With “zone” thinking in mind, let’s follow the breadcrumbs and see if we could find a second, higher shape for C using the same notes. Just look for the next place a C, E, or G occurs on each string. I come up with 5437.

But, while that might be great for people with stretchy fingers, I’d rather not work that hard. Keeping the 3rd fret, A string in the same place allows for a more compact shape: 5433. All three notes are still in the chord.

Check out this page on Ukuleles by Kawika for a more detailed-oriented approach and some great diagram charts showing the note relationships inside ukulele chords.

As long as all the notes are there, the sky is the limit!

The above (along with beautiful visuals) and much more can be found in my extensive PDF guide: Ukulele Chord Shapes.

The next piece of the puzzle is arranging chords in a key-based harmony system. I explore this in my article on diatonic chord scales.

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