What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the ukulele? Is it of someone playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“? Or a singer/songwriter playing a soft ballad? Something like the volcano love song in the Pixar short film? I’m here to tell you that the ukulele can do so much more than that. Don’t get me wrong, I love sentimental ballads, but the ukulele can also lead ragtime, jazz, blues, or strange, ethereal tunes, too.
Read on to learn how to play ukulele in different genres and styles!
Change Your Ukulele Strings
By now you probably know how to tune a ukulele in standard tuning, but If you want to be able to play different types of songs and music, you need to make a few minor tweaks to your ukulele. First, I recommend replacing the high G string with a low G string. This gives your ukulele a broader range and a little more versatility.
*Note: you can’t do this with every type of ukulele. You need a concert or tenor ukulele in order to change to a low G string. If you have a baritone ukulele, it already comes with a low D string.
Learn New Chord Voicings
The next step to play ukulele in different genres is to learn new chord voicings. For instance, instead of playing a C on the third fret (C-reg below), play it starting on the fifth fret (C-new below), and instead of playing a G7 on the second fret (G7-reg below), play it starting on the fifth fret (G7-new below).
Experiment by finding familiar notes and chords in new places on the neck, and then adding new notes that weren’t possible with the standard chordal voicing.
Learn New Ukulele Chords
OK, now that you’ve got your low G string and you can play familiar chords in new places, it’s time to learn some new chords! For jazz, the C7 shape and the Bm6 shape are invaluable. Try alternating the two shapes as you walk down the neck.
For instance, start with a C7 and then go down to a Cm6, then to a Bb7 and then a Bbm6 (check out the video below to see how this sounds).
Believe it or not, the ukulele can play the blues pretty well, too.
Check out this turnaround in C:
To play this in other keys, play the root on the A string, start on the same fret on the G string, and walk down chromatically on the G string while keeping the root note on the A string.
End the turnaround with a 5 7th chord. You can play the minor pentatonic, or blues scale, too.
If the root is on the G string, the pattern is:
*Note: the fret numbers will change depending on your root note, but the pattern is the same
If the root is on the C string, the pattern is very similar:
Again, the fret numbers will change depending on your root note, but the pattern is the same.
If you’re getting tired of playing songs in a major key, try the minor keys and you will get some surprisingly surreal sounding songs. The key of Fm has a particularly haunting sound on the ukulele. I also like bouncing between minor chords; starting on the C string (Ebm below), to major chords starting on the G string (Bb below) while putting in some lead melodies on the A string, where appropriate. You will notice a definite change in sound with a low G string here.
I hope these tips gave you some new ways to play ukulele. It’s a powerful instrument and deserves some recognition beyond the singer/songwriter status. Happy practicing and have fun!
Need some help changing your strings or playing new chords? Search here for a ukulele teacher near you!
Photo by Phil Thomas