By Christopher Davis-Shannon
A large part of playing jazz on ukulele is understanding the underlying harmony. Looking up chords only tells us where to place our fingers, not how the music works. Let’s put those chord charts away and work this out together on ukulele. With a little knowledge, you can learn to take chords that you already know and begin to mold them into new sounds.
Our diminutive four string instrument is perfectly suited for jazz, no matter what anyone tells you. I have long joked that the great jazz guitarist Johnny Smith was really just trying to get the sound of a high G uke with all of his close voicings. (That is a bit of his arrangement of “Moonlight in Vermont” in the beginning of the video above).
At first glance, a jazz lead sheet might seem more like solving a math problem than playing music. Much of the problem comes with being able to visualize how chords work on the instrument. We tend to rely on shapes more than thinking about the notes themselves and how their movement changes the sound. Pianists are spoiled in that regard, being able to see easily how the notes move within a chord in a linear fashion. Luckily, we can do this as well with one of the first chords every uke player learns: G major. Throughout this lesson we’re going to look at how to take a G major chord and turn into a host of other chords to better understand how chords themselves work.
Let’s start at the very beginning. While we may have played a G chord thousands of times, have we taken a step back to see what the building blocks of that chord truly are? Our G major chord is derived from the G major scale, utilizing the first note, G (open string and third fret of E string which we’ll call the root), the third, B, (second fret of A string), and the fifth, D (second fret of the C string). This is the most basic type of chord, called a triad as it contains three notes.
Now, we need to see what changing each of those notes does to the sound. There are only four options for us here: major, minor, diminished, and augmented.
The G will always stay the same in this case—it wouldn’t be a G chord otherwise! Let’s start by looking at what happens if we change the third. The third tells us the basic quality of the chord: whether it is major or minor. If we move the B down one fret to the first fret of our A string we are now playing a B♭, giving us a G minor chord. We can’t go up from the third as that would give us the fourth scale degree.
What about that fifth? If we have already have a minor triad with a flatted third we can also bring the D down one fret to give us a D♭ on the first fret, which is a diminished triad.
Let’s head back to the major chord. What happens if we sharp the fifth instead? When we raise the D to D♯, this is called an augmented triad. While these are the least common of the triads, you still hear them frequently. Heck, it’s the second chord in the A section Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
Let’s review our triad formulas:
- Major: root, 3rd, 5th
- Minor: root, ♭3, 5th
- Diminished: root, ♭3, b5
- Augmented: root, 3rd, ♯5
The triads are building blocks of harmony upon which nearly everything else is based. Now it’s time to add the most common extension to our chord: the seventh.
Much as with our triads, we are taking the seventh from our scale. The easiest way to think about this is that the seventh is the note before the root. In this case that would be an F♯. This is where the G chord really shines.
Since we have two Gs in the chord, we’re going to move about the one on our E string to see what happens. Much like with our fifth scale degree, we have three options for the seventh: major (F♯ second fret), minor (F first fret), diminished (open E, although we will name it an F♭). With that knowledge let’s look at our formulas to build seventh chords:
- Major: major triad, major 7th (notated as M7, Maj7, or a triangle)
- Dominant: major triad, minor 7th (this is what we mean when we say simply a “7th chord”)
- Minor Major 7th: minor triad, major 7th (notated as Mm7, this chord utilizes an augmented triad)
- Minor Seventh: minor triad, minor 7th (notated as -7 or m7)
- Half Diminished: diminished triad, minor 7th (also called m7♭5)
- Diminished: diminished triad, diminished 7th (notated as Dim7 or o7)
The focus here is looking at what we are adding to each of the triads that we already know, and this is why it is important to understand triads. Now, what about all those other numbers? The 9th, 11th, and 13ths are extensions we add on top of our 7th chords. Unless otherwise notated we assume that the 7th is minor, making a dominant 7th chord, and any lower extensions can be included. For example, m11 is a minor 7th chord with an added 9th and 11th. This is where the real fun starts.
As a musician, my math skills are rather limited, so counting to 9 is not an option. But there is an easier way to think of it. The 9th is the second degree of the scale (A in G Major), the 11th is the fourth scale degree (C), and the 13th is the sixth (E). Each of these can also be sharp or flat. So, let’s call them 2, 4, and 6.
Notice that the chords are now growing to 5, 6, 7, notes—oh my! This is where the ukulele really shines with your creative input. We can only strum four notes at once, but how do we decide which four? The 3rd tells us whether it is major or minor, which is rather important, and the 7th also imparts a specific sound on the chord. So, we want to do our best to keep both of these. That means the root and fifth are first to go.
With extended voicings you’ll find that many shapes you already know become other chords. Dm7? Well, maybe that is also a B♭maj9. E♭m7♭5? Perhaps that’s our C9. A chord only has a name in context of a progression in isolation—without functionality, it is merely a grouping of notes.
The next time that you run across a chord that you do not know, challenge yourself to figure it out. As long as you know any related chord you can mold that into the chord you need by adding and subtracting from it using our formulas. Take the C13♭9, for example. We all know C major. What do we need to add to our basic open position chord to get that sound?
Music is not math, but knowing a few chord formulas can open a whole new world of playing for you.
Christopher Davis-Shannon is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and educator based in Philadelphia. He spends his time pondering the next chord change and traveling the world preaching the gospel of the ukulele.