BY DANIEL WARD | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Many famous musicians have lived their entire professional lives using only chord shapes to guide them. They have played guitar, banjo, and ukulele without any knowledge of staff notation, music theory, or even tablature. Their careers have been spent playing and writing great music just by navigating through chord shapes. In fact, if you know your shapes well, playing and writing songs is as easy as pushing down the chord names on an autoharp.
I don’t usually encourage folks to ignore notes and music theory, but if you take a look at the way chord shapes work on guitar, baritone ukulele, and the standard C–tuned uke (reentrant or linear), you can unwind some big mysteries in a short amount of time. In this lesson, you’ll use the shapes from standard uke and baritone/guitar tunings to play the same song. This is a simple way to take the shapes you already know and learn how to get around in new ways that will change your playing for the better and forever. I’m inviting you to just go in blindly on this one and see what comes from playing the examples.
On a personal note, I came to the ukulele from guitar and was humbled at first by how hard it was to find my way around. Even though I knew that all of the chord shapes were the same as those on the first four strings of my guitar, it was taking a long time to learn to call the same shape a different chord, and it felt strange to reduce chords to just four notes. I finally put a capo on the fifth fret of my guitar so it would be tuned as if I had a standard uke with a low G and bound the bottom two strings with masking tape so that they would be easy to ignore. I then played what would be a D major chord on a guitar or baritone uke and finally saw with my eyes why it sounds as a G chord—it is a G chord! I was playing a G chord in the D shape as I knew it, and after a little more exploration I saw that there was an easy pattern to all the shapes without having to think too hard about transposing notes up a fourth or down a fifth in my head.
Let’s begin with open position chords—the garden-variety shapes everyone learns before tackling moveable barre chords. There are five basic major shapes that show up if we start with the simple open chords. On a ukulele in standard tuning, these are C, G, A, D, and F. If you are coming from the baritone/guitar side, this set of shapes is exactly the same, but named G, D, E, A, and C.
This is where the confusion starts, so instead of trying too hard, just try fingering the chords as shown in Examples 1a–b. Think of it as knowing the same words but in two different languages, and don’t worry if you don’t have two instruments to switch back and forth. We’ll get to why this is important when we play the song. But before then, try the minor and seventh counterparts of the same chords, as shown in Examples 2a–b. Most of these shapes are really easy, except maybe the F minor if you aren’t used to it—just remember to keep your thumb behind the neck.
Let’s put these basic shapes to use and play my little song “Going Home,” starting from the home key of each shape, as shown in Examples 3a–7b. It’s a very simple three-chord tune, but the first chord turns into a seventh as it moves to the second one. Each two-part example shows how the same set of shapes results in different keys on the standard-tuned and baritone ukes. Heads up: you need to throw in a new chord shape—Bb/F for Exs. 7a and b.
Notice how many shapes show up over and over. Once you get past the initial shock of calling the same shape a different chord, it becomes easy to pick up a guitar or baritone ukulele and find your way around. The same is true for guitarists and baritone uke players who pick up a C–tuned ukulele.
In Examples 8a–12b, I’ve reharmonized “Going Home” to include some minor chords, opening up a few more shapes for you to try out. Note the use of barres for the Bm/F#m and C#m/G#m forms. Before you play through this, I’ll share one more trick that helps with the theory but is still easy and works every time. If you play a C shape on a standard ukulele, it sounds C; the same shape on baritone uke sounds G. The baritone is lower in pitch by a fourth, so if you count down four letters it will give you your root note for that tuning.
If you are playing a C on the baritone and move it to a standard uke, it will sound up a fourth, so it will be an F. To put it another way, the F shape to a ukulele player in standard tuning is the C shape to one on baritone. That’s it! By playing through all of these shapes and looking at how they work, you have just upped your game. It takes a little extra work to understand all the notes with flats and sharps added, but in the end there are still only 12, and with the help of moveable chords it’s only a matter of sliding up or down a fret. A good grasp of the shapes goes a long way, and if you add a little knowledge of notes and theory later, the road becomes even clearer.