Every key on the ukulele has a major or minor counterpart. This is called a relative minor or a relative major. It’s a common phrase that you will hear when playing ukulele and I want to break it down in this article and show you how it works.
Each key basically comes in pairs. There’s a major version and a minor version. The minor version of a major key is the relative minor, the major version of a minor key is the relative major. These are so closely related because they share the same notes on the ukulele.
For instance, G major uses the notes:
G A B C D E F# G
Its relative minor, E minor, uses the same notes starting from a different place:
E F# G A B C D E
Same notes, different key. Compare the sharps and flats for yourself. Let’s try another one.
In the key of Bb major, you use:
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
The relative minor of B-flat major is G minor, which looks like this:
G A Bb C D Eb F G
Same notes as the major key, different starting location. Try playing these on your ukulele for practice. If you need a hand, check out my scale resources.
If you examine these note lines, you’ll notice that the relative minor starts from the same place each time: the 6 note.
This is true for every relative minor. To figure it out simply, just add number identifiers to each note in a major scale. Like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 G A B C D E F# G
Then you can count up to the 6 note and figure out what the relative minor is for any major scale.
But if you want to go down the rabbit hole, you can start by checking out my article on diatonic chord scales on the uke. In it you’ll learn that each note in a key has a corresponding harmony.
So what is the relative minor good for? Nothing really on its own. It’s mainly a way of organizing how scales work in your mind. Instead of learning 24 scales – 12 major and 12 minor – you can basically learn just 12. By changing what note you start and stop the scale on, you can dictate whether it’s the relative major or the relative minor.
Because it works both ways, let’s take a look at how the relative major can be found from a minor key. The relative major is the 3 of a minor key. So if we start with E minor and add numbers to it:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 E F# G A B C D E
You end up with G as your relative major. Same as the first example above which led us to the relative E minor for G major. It works both ways.
Let’s try G# minor for one more example:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 G# A# B C# D# E F# G#
Here are the 12 keys laid out with major on the left and minor on the right. The relative keys are bolded.
MAJOR - - - - - - - - - | MINOR - - - - - - - - - C D E F G A B C | A B C D E F G A Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db | Bb C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb D E F# G A B C# D | B C# D E F# G A B Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb | C D Eb F G Ab Bb C E F# G# A B C# D# E | C# D# E F# G# A B C# F G A Bb C D E F | D E F G A Bb C D Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb | Eb F Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb G A B C D E F# G | E F# G A B C D E Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab | F G Ab Bb C Db Eb F A B C# D E F# G# A | F# G# A B C# D E F# Bb C D Eb F G A Bb | G A Bb C D Eb F G B C# D# E F# G# A# B | G# A# B C# D# E F# G#
Knowing how to switch back and forth between the relative keys can save you a good deal of time when learning ukulele scales and it’ll also help inform your playing as you move between major and minor keys. There’s not a lot to study here theory-wise, but practically, as you learn the scales, there’s quite a bit to work on.
If you want to learn more about ukulele theory, check out my additional lessons on building scales and building chords and other topics.