Ukulele is a great instrument for many reasons – it sounds good while strumming along and singing, it is small and fits into the hands easily, you can play both complex and simple music on it, and it’s great for kids and adult beginners as their first instrument. In this article, we will see a simple framework to start playing easy ukulele songs, TABs, and learn some practice tips to help you progress and play musically right from the start.
There are 3 main keys to learning and playing songs. This 3-part framework will show you the fundamental skills necessary to learn any song at any level, and as you progress, you will learn more details that fit into each part. We will introduce the 3 main elements to playing a song and some practice tips to fully grasp them.
The 3 main elements you must know for any song on the ukulele are as follows:
- The chords
- The count
- How the chords fit into the count
That’s it – it really is that simple! As you learn more skills and songs, you will fill in more details or expand each area, but you can always strip any song down to this essence.
Learn the Chords
Chords are the first skill you must learn to begin playing a song. To learn a chord, is really to learn finger positions or shapes on the fretboard. We can visualize those shapes as diagrams, pictures and with tactile sensations. Try this, for example: place your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 1st string. Now, look at your hand while squeezing the finger down hard for 2 seconds. Do this a few times. If you have access to a mirror, try this while looking at your hand in the mirror. Now, repeat this a few times with your eyes closed. Focus on the sensation of pressing, the way you’re positioning your hand and finger, and try to picture it in your mind as you squeeze. You are building a mental model for that chord shape based on visual queues and tactile inputs. We can reinforce the visual inputs with chord diagrams. Look at the following diagram for the chord shape you just practiced. This is a C major chord.
Now close your eyes and try to visualize the diagram while also holding the chord shape on your ukulele. You can even do this away from your instrument and practice in your mind by visualizing and imagining holding the chord and seeing the diagram and your hands.
Now, you must learn how to transition or move from one chord to another in the order they occur in the song. For example, let’s look at the song “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin. This is an easy ukulele song because it uses easy chords, only 3 chords total, and the chords just repeat for the whole song. We have the chords C, Dm, and F.
Learn each chord on its own first. Then ,practice moving from the C to the Dm. Then, Dm to F. Finally, F to C.
In order to play a song, you must learn all of the chords for that song. That is where tablature, or TAB for short, comes in. You can find good resources with TABs for many songs at the two sites here and here. Now, usually TAB means the system of notating notes on the fretboard. That looks like this:
—3—- There are 4 lines, which represent the strings, starting with string 1 on the top and
—0—- string 4 on the bottom. The numbers are the frets that you hold down with the
—0—- fretting hand. This is how the C chord looks in TAB form. Tablature is great for
—0—- single note playing, or melody, but not that great for chords. So, most music you
look up online will actually be what we refer to as lead sheets or lyrics sheets. This means you get the words with the chords, and that’s it. It is up to you to determine when the chords happen, what the rhythm is and how to put it all together to sound like the song. This is where the 3-part framework really helps. We’ve already talked about learning the chords for the song. Now we will look at how to count the rhythm.
Music is set to a continuous beat, and this beat is counted out and measured into units. For example, the most popular beat count is 4, where you find the pulse of the beat and count “1-2-3-4,” over and over again for the duration of the song. A good practice tip for finding the beats in a song will help develop your listening skills and your rhythmic skills as a musician – it just takes some trial and error. Try the following exercise:
- Listen to your favorite song
- As you listen, tap your hands on your lap as you normally would when really enjoying a song – this is most likely the beat
- Try counting out loud to match your tapping. Try saying “1-2-3-4” along with your taps first.
- Listen as you do this and see if it “feels” like it fits the song. It really is just a feeling.
- If it does not feel right, try again but start counting on a different tap. Most of the time, it feels off because we started our count on the wrong beat. For example, if the music is on beat 1 and we count it as our beat 3.
- If that still doesn’t work, try a different count. Your next best bet is “1-2-3.”
This might be challenging at first, but keep at it and you will get it pretty quickly. You can practice this without an instrument and wherever you hear music – while you are shopping, in the car, watching a movie, etc. The practice is helpful when done often. Let’s look at an example from one of our songs. In “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” we have a repetitive rhythmic pattern with the chords. I’ll give you the count so you can pick up on it and practice tapping and counting along – try counting “1-2-3-4” over and over. This is in a 4-count with the chords really coming in on beat 2 and 4. Once we establish the beat count and can line up our counting with the song, it’s time to bring the chords and the beats together for the 3rd part of our framework.
The Chords With the Count
As stated above, the chords to the song come in on beat 2 and 4. This is helpful not only in lining up our counting but also for tracking how many beats until we switch chords. As we count along, we must listen for the changes of the chords and establish how many beats each chord gets before changing. Again, it is helpful to practice listening for this when you know the answer already. Here is the chord and beats for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy:”
| C | C | Dm | Dm | F | F | C | C |
Each line is the beginning and end of a measure, and each measure gets a 4-count. So, the first C chord is counted “1-2-3-4” and then again for another count of “1-2-3-4.” Then, we switch to the Dm chord for two counts of “1-2-3-4.” Then, 2 measures for the F and ending on 2 measures for the C chord. In fact, the whole song can be reduced to just these 8 measures – just repeat the whole 8 measures for the whole song and you’ll be playing right along – the song does not have any other sections that have different chords or different measures for the chords. Told you it was simple! The end result of the 3-part framework is the creation of something that looks like the example above. I call it the “chord map” for the song. It shows the timing each chord gets as the song goes along. Practice tapping and counting along to the songs with the chord map and listen for the chords as they change.
Let’s look at a few more examples.We will see the chord maps and explore the counting for each song. Your practice will be to tap and count along and follow the chord map to hear the chord changes. Then, you can practice the chords and try playing along.
This is a great song to learn the 4 beginner ukulele chords. The chords are C Am F G7. Find a chord chart or diagrams if you do not know these already. The count is 4. The chord map for the song is:
| C | C | Am | Am | F | F | G7 | G7 | – repeat all 8 measures 2 times. Then go to:
| Am | Am | Am | Am | F | F | G7 | G7 | C | C | Am | Am | F | G7 | C | C | This whole form, including the previous 8 measures is then repeated for the rest of the song.
This is one of the great easy ukulele songs with just two chords. It is also counted in 4. Find the Hank Williams version and enjoy!
Intro – | G7 | G7 | C | C |
Song form (repeats all 8 measure until the end of the song): | C | C | G7 | G7 | G7 | G7 | C | C |
Take your time with each of these songs, tabs, progressions, and really grasp the concepts of the counting and the chord changes. It takes repeated practice to understand these ideas but it won’t take long. Use these songs as a way to navigate these ideas and then try to create your own chord maps with new songs as you learn them. When you create the chord map, you must answer the question about counting and the chords and you will create an easy way to follow and play along. Enjoy the process and have fun listening!