View Full Version : ukulele theory for noobs

03-23-2009, 07:02 AM
i was thinking to myself that there are quite a few questions regularly about music theory from people just now starting with their first instrument ever. and usually, the discussion turns into a lesson in music theory that only the contributors have a clue about. to the person that asked the question in the first place, i could only imagine (like when i was first teaching myself music theory) how greek it all looks.

so i was thinking of doing a sticky series of music theory as it applies to ukulele, using layman's terms. im basically taking my experience with teaching children guitar, and getting them to understand it, and applying it to ukulele.

dont worry im going to go real slow. im going to surpass the whole how-to-tune and how-to-hold etc stuff. thats all elementary. im just going to make an attempt at clarifying some of the basic theory as it applies to ukulele and simplify the explanation as much as possible.

i am also going to lock the thread. i realize there are soooo many people here that have music theory coursing through their veins. and im sure the majority of those people understand it better than i do. but it is in that understanding that sometimes makes it difficult for your everyday joe to understand what youre saying in the first place. so as i know many of you may have some great suggestions on how to teach others, im going to try my way at teaching so that they can some day come to you guys for the finer aspects later one... when they can understand it hahaha. i mean this in no offense to any of you... but nobody likes to have more than one boss... how frustrating you think it is when you have too many teachers? hahaha.

03-23-2009, 07:37 AM
ok so lesson 1: notes.

every string on the ukulele plays its own note... when it is tuned. the strings are counted from the bottom... so:
1st string= A
2nd string= E
3rd string= C
4th string= G
but what about all the other notes on the fretboard when you fret them in different places? how do you know what note you are playing? well first you need to understand how the notes are laid out.

when you are trying to understand what note you are going to play on what fret of what string, you need to know how the notes are laid out. so this is probably the only thing that you need to keep memorized. it will help you make chords, it will help you transpose, it will be the basis of understanding almost all the fundamentals of music.

C# / Db
D# / Eb
F# / Gb
G# / Ab
A# / Bb

after B, you just go back to C again. so in other words, you can memorize it like this:
A# / Bb
C# / Db
D# / Eb
F# / Gb
G# / Ab

the reason there are two different notes togeter (A#/Bb) is because for the most part, they are interchangeable. so its the same note. so however you memorize it is up to you. i like to use the sharps (#) because its easier for me to follow that. as long as you understand that if you see a Bb, its basically the same as an A#. more on this later.

you will also notice that there are "groups" of flat/sharp notes. C&D sharps and F&G&A sharps. look familiar yet? have you ever noticed on a piano, the black keys are grouped the same way? well same thing.

now notice that there is no such thing as a B#/Cb, or E#/Fb. just like on the piano, there are no black keys between those notes.

if you have never seen a piano, or never looked at one with interest, next time you see one, take a look at it. if you have this order memorized by then, you will be able to figure out what key is what note on the piano. just like you will be able to do so on your ukulele.

next lesson:
what is happening when i fret a string?

03-23-2009, 07:52 AM
lesson II: so what happens when i fret a string?

fretting a string basically changes the length of the string. a shorter string will give you a higher note.

each of the frets on your fretboard raises the note up by one "half tone". from the sequence that i had you memorize, a half tone is just the next note up in the sequence. so if you fret the A string at the 1st fret, it becomes an A# (or Bb). and if you fret the C string at the 3rd fret, it becomes an Eb (or D#). etc etc etc.

now try it on your fretboard. put your finger on a string anywhere on the fretboard. first identify what string you are on. then count how many frets you are away from the nut (look this term up on the ukulossary if you dont know it). now, by using the sequence of notes that you memorized, figure out what note you would be playing on that string at that fret position if you plucked it.

when you are comfortable with doing this on all strings, you can move on to the next lesson: how do i figure out how to play any chord on ukulele?

03-23-2009, 08:36 AM
lesson 3Major: how do i figure out how to play any chord on my ukulele?

first of all, let me make this clear right now. a chord is a chord is a chord, whether you are playing it on piano, guitar, or ukulele. or any other instrument that can play multiple notes simultaneously. so if you get chords from a guitar site, the anwer is "yes you can play those same chords on the ukulele"

now this lesson is going to be broken up into parts:
Major Chords
Minor Chords
7th Chords
Minor 7th Chords
Major 7th Chords

there are others, but to explain those would just get too deep into it. these chords are going to be hard enough to understand for now.

this part will concentrate on Major Chords. this will be the basis of figuring out how to play all of the other chords. by minor variations to the major chords, you can play minors, 7th, etc etc etc.

first of all, when you see a chord annotated as just the note, it is already understood that it is a major chord. ex: A... is A Major. but you can just call it A. so if you dont see the word "Major" next to it... its just understood. simple enough right?

now what is a chord? in layman's terms? its a group of notes that, when played togeter, sound nice. we figure this out by looking at the sequence of notes that you have memorized by now... right? so lets take a A Major chord... or just A. the A note is going to be your "root note". your origin of your chord, if you will. now starting from A, go up the sequence 4 "half tones" (ha, if you you forgot what that is, go back a lesson). now you are at the C# note. now from there, add 3 more half tones, and you will have an E.

so recap: you have your root note: A. your middle note: C#. and your last note: E. these are the notes that make up an A chord! now pat yourself on the back for figuring it out.

now, pick up your ukulele and find those notes, one string at a time:
1st string. A. already part of the A chord, right? so dont touch it.
2nd string. E. also part of the A chord. leave it alone.
3rd string. C. need to turn this into either A, C#, or E. so which would be the easiest to do? C#, because it requires the string to be fretted at the 1st fret. keep your finger there!
4th string. G. do the same thing. you will see that two halftones up from the G note will give you an A note. so fret this string on the 2nd fret. keep your other finger there!
now strum your ukulele. you just figured out the fingering for an A chord and played it.

so how do you know which fingers to use on what strings? well, there are suggestions, but it all comes down to you and what you are comfortable doing, as long as you are producing a clean sounding chord.

now try this same method for figuring out how to play a B chord.

take your time...

what you should have come up with is:
1st string 2nd fret
2nd string 2nd fret
3rd string 3rd fret
4th string 4th fret
if you didnt, go back and check again. if you got it, then read on. the reason i had you figure this one out is because it requires you to use what is called a "barre". this is when you use the length of one of your fingers to fret multiple strings simultaneously. now, you can either start with fretting all the strings at the 2nd fret, then adding two other fingers for the 3rd and 4th strings, or you can just fret the 1st and 2nd strings on the second fret with your "barre". either way. it does not matter what touches a string behind (closer to nut) where it is already fretted. that part of the string does not vibrate, thus doesnt create a sound.

now, continue doing this with all 12 of the notes in the sequence of the first lesson.

then we move to Minor chords.

03-23-2009, 09:12 AM
lesson 3m: how do i figure out how to play any chord on my ukulele?

so now youve figured out how to play a major chord. so what does it mean when you see that little "m" next to the chord name? well that means it is a minor chord. and by taking what you know from constructing a major chord, you can easily figure out how to construct a minor chord.

back to the A. the notes used are A, C#, and E. to turn this chord into a minor chord, you simply take the middle note (C#) and move it down one half tone, thus becoming a C.

so now, your new group of chords is A, C, and E... an Am chord! now go find it on your ukulele and play it.

now do it for all 12 of the chords you just figured out how to play! fun! hahaha.

as you are learning these chords and finger positions, take note of the similarities between them. i call them "shapes". you will start to see them forming as you memorize the finger positions and the fret positions. one of the most comon would be the B chord shape. looks something like this:

*| |
*| |
| |*

slide the WHOLE thing up one fret, and youve got a C chord. slide it up again two frets and youve got a D chord. dont believe me? check the notes youre playing!

same thing with the Bm chord shape:

*| |
*| |
*| |
| |*

move it up three frets and youve got a Dm

now try it with the F# chord shape:

*| |
*| |
| |*

move it up one fret and youve got another way to play a G.

see if you can find other chord shapes that can be moved up and down the fretboard to create other ways of playing the same chord. try it with the minor chords too!

ok i think thats enough info to wrap your brain around for this lesson. wait till we get to 7th chords. hahaha

03-23-2009, 10:35 AM
lesson 37th:

now, im not going to go into all the detail of why it is called a 7th chord. thats going to come later on down the line as you really start to understand how this all ties in together. but you will learn how to take a major chord and turn it into a 7th chord.

so back to A. we have A, C#, and E in the A chord. when you play this on the ukulele, you will have two A notes in the chord. they are played on the 1st and 4th strings. on a 7th chord you usually take the higher of the root note and drop it down 2 half tones. so in this case, you would need to take one of those A notes and turn it into a G. well you cant take the A string and drop it down, since its already played open. so take that A on the 4th string, that you are playing and just lift your finger off so that you are now playing a G on it. there you have it. you are now playing an A7 chord.

lets try it with a C chord now. you have two C's in this chord when played 0003. one low (3rd string open) and one high (1st string 3rd fret). bring the finger fretting the 1string back toward the nut 2 frets. now you are on the first fret 1string. this is a C7.

getting a little more complicated? good. but without the first few lessons, this would be even more confusing right? just wait. next up: minor 7th chords.

03-23-2009, 10:56 AM
lesson 3m7:

let me say at this point that if you are just jumping the gun and trying to find the information you seek without going through each lesson thoroughly and learning each one before moving on to the next one, you are going to be confused.

are you confused?
are you jumping the gun?

if not, then on to the next lesson. minor 7th chords. this is going to be quick! if you understand now how to make a minor chord, and you understand now how to make a 7th chord... then just combine the two!

Am7. take your A major chord... 2100. now turn it into a minor by dropping the C# down to C. and it becomes 2000 (Am). now incorporated how a chord is turned into a 7th by dropping the high root note down two frets. and it becomes 0000. thats right... Am7.

now try it with Bm7. start with 4322. make it minor... 4222. make it minor 7th... 2222. now and then do the same with a Cm7. pretty easy now right? lets make it easier. go back to the Bm7. a C is only 1 halftone up from B, right? so you basically take your Bm7, slide it up one fret higher, and you now have a Cm7.


03-23-2009, 12:03 PM
lesson 3M7

Major 7th chords. annotated by a capital M in the middle. if you have gotten all the previous lessons down pretty well and understand them well, this is even easier now. if not, this might not make sense to you.

go back to what you know about turning a major chord into a 7th chord. this time, when you take that high root note and drop it, make it only 1 fret instead of two. so from a C major chord, the high C note is now a B.


C major = 0003
C7 = 0001
CM7 = 0002

lets try with a G now...

G major = 0232
G7 = 0212 (the second string was the G, now dropped 2 frets from 3rd to 1st)
GM7 = 0222 (G note is dropped down to F# on 2nd fret)

03-23-2009, 03:31 PM
for those that have trouble putting text to action, here is a video i did explaining things real quicklike.
http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v176/pEsCaDoR/ukuleleunderground/th_chords.jpg (http://smg.photobucket.com/albums/v176/pEsCaDoR/ukuleleunderground/?action=view&current=chords.flv)

03-24-2009, 07:04 AM
lesson 4: tone vs. half tone. octaves. and introduction to KEY

we've already talked about the half tone. this is also know as semi tone as you may have noticed in the previous video. and by now we know that on the fretboard, each fret represents a halftone. so if one fret is a half tone, then what is a tone aka full tone aka whole tone? well its simple math. how many halves make a whole?.... 2. i dont know exactly why this is, but if i were to guess, by looking at the initial sequence of notes, for the most part there are two steps from letter to letter. what i mean is, from C to D, there are two steps because there is a C# in the middle. thus, a D note is a whole tone away from a C note. makes sense to me that way. hope it makes sense to you that way too.

when you look at the sequence of notes i put up, you will notice that there are 12 notes from A to G#. but within those 12 notes are 7 notes that, when played in a certain key, will sound "right". then the 8th note goes back to the root note. this is called an octave. more on this later.

so what is a key? it is basically a way to group notes and chords together to work well with each other, based on the root note. ex: if i know that a song is in the key of G, i can tell what notes i can play along with it to improvise a solo. i can also anticipate what chords would be incorporated into the song if i am trying to figure out how to play it.

so how do you figure this all out and put it together? up next...

03-24-2009, 08:14 AM
lesson 4a:

start with a note that you want to figure out your key in. common ones are G, A, and C. so we will pick C for now since it is so easy. now start your note sequence, all 12 of them, starting with C and ending with another C (yes i know that makes 13, but bare with me here).

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C

i left out the redundant flat note annotation to avoid confusion. so long as by now you understand in this case that the C# is also Db.

so lets start. i have another sequence that i want you to memorize now. it goes like this:
tone, tone, half, tone, tone, tone, half
or you can do it like this: T-T-H-T-T-T-H
or you can use "whole" or "W" instead of tone or T. whatever is your preferrence.

ok lets put it to use. start at your root note... C. and go up a tone. you are now at D. again, go up a tone and you are at E. now go up a half tone and you are at F. now a tone... G. and another tone... A. and yet another tone... B. now half tone you are at C again. take a look:
C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C
now write them all out and you have a "scale" in the Key of C
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
this is also called one octave. the C on the right is one octave higher than the C on the left.

now try it for the key of G.

take your time...

you should have started with this:
G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G
and using the WWHWWWH or TTHTTTH formula, come up with this:
G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G
or: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
good. you have figured out a scale in the key of G

now lets make it a little harder and do it in the key of F.

take your time...

start with this:
F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F
then mark your notes:
F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F
see anything weird here? yep there are two A's in the scale. but remember, that an A# is also a Bb. so in this case, we must annotate it as a Bb when we write it out, even though its the same note:
F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F

try this with other keys, and in the next part of this lesson... we apply it!

03-24-2009, 08:15 AM
lesson 4b:

now its time to go figure out where these notes fall on your ukulele. a good start would be the key of G, since all of the open strings' notes fall in the key of G and many songs are written in the key of G. and just concentrate on the notes that fall within the first four frets. we will call this "position I", with your index on 1st fret, middle on 2nd, ring on 3rd, and pinky on 4th.

start with the first string. open string is A. B is on the 2nd fret and C on the 3rd fret.
now with the 2nd string. open string is E. F# is on the 2nd fret and G on the 3rd fret.
now with the 3rd string. open string is C. D is on the 2nd fret. E is on the 4th fret.
now with the 4th string. open string is G. A is on the 2nd fret. B is on the 4th fret.

now play them from the open C on the 3rd string all the way to the high C on the 1st string in order from lowest note to highest note. you just played a scale in the key of G on your ukulele. and now you understand why it is a scale in the key of G.

now find your favorite song in the key of G and play it. how do you know its in the key of G? you play the notes that you just figured out in position I. all of them. if they sound good with the song youre golden. if not, pick another song. when you find it.... JAM ALONG!!! hit any note you want to out of that scale. now try different things... like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, etc and see what sounds good to you. this is your time to express yourself musically! any music you make from here is yours and yours alone!

exciting isnt it?