Freshen Up Old Standards on Ukulele with Chord Substitutions


There’s something really satisfying about playing a popular old song like “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.” It’s simple and silly, everyone and their dog knows it, and the song has basically only three chords! It’s so easy to feel the form and to hear the basic chord progression working its magic. 

At the same time, “Coming ’Round the Mountain” offers a perfect foundation for plugging in all sorts of substitute chords, as I’ll demonstrate in this lesson. Because you know the melody so well, you’ll be able to feel and hear the effects of the new chords quite dramatically. Even if you are just getting started on your ukulele journey, the lesson will show you a bunch of new chords to play. For intermediate and advanced folks, I added a couple of more interesting chord shapes, and some useful info on how chord substitutions work in general. 

The Roman Numeral System

When I was learning music in college, I’d hear jazz folks talking about these cool ways to change the sound and feel of a jazz standard. Terms like “tritone substitution” just seemed intimidating. But the truth is, there’s a simple path to understanding chords and substitutions through the Roman numeral system used in describing harmonic function. 

 The chords found within any major scale are labeled as follows: I–ii–iii–IV–V–vi–viidim, with uppercase numerals standing for major chords and lowercase minor. So the chords of the C major scale are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim. Knowing just this little bit of information, you can look at the progression to “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” and understand how the chords function. [For more on how chords are built, see “Where Do Chords Come From?”]

Endless Variations

As shown in Example 1, the song starts with the I, C, which we call the tonic or home chord in the key of C major, introducing the V chord (G7) in bars 7–8 and the IV (F) in measures 11–12. It’s common to use this group of three chords (I, IV, and V) in simple songs of all types. The G7 chord shows us the power of the pull; its flatted seventh, F, has an unbalanced quality that leads the ear back towards the I chord. 

ukulele chord substitutions lesson music notation example 1

The C7 chord in bar 10 is our first example of a chord substitution. Because it contains the note Bb, C7 does not exist naturally in C major. It comes from the key of F, which has a Bb in its key signature. As such, the C7 works perfectly for transitioning to the IV (F) in bar 11. 


Now let’s play around with some more involved substitutions. Some of the following subs use chords that fall within the key of C major, and others are borrowed from outside keys. If the numerology or theory lingo is confusing, don’t worry. What’s most important is that your ear becomes accustomed to these different harmonic possibilities. 

Example 2  depicts a variation that in the first six measures—which originally sat on a C chord—includes a bunch of different substitutions from within the key. There are some colorful suspended voicings, Csus4 (C F G) and G7sus4 (G C D F). In these chords, the third is replaced by the fourth, so a Csus4 chord has the note F filling in for E, and G7sus4 contains a C instead of a B. 

In bar 5 you’ll find a iii chord (Em), which works well because the melody note is E, leading to the vi (Am) in the next measure. For a jazzy flavor, a ii chord (Dm) in bar 7 sets up a ii–V–I (Dm–G7–C) progression over the next several measures. In terms of borrowed chords, this variation includes E7 and Fm, which add color and tension. Bar 14 introduces a more complex chord, G7b9, in the middle of another ii–V–I progression (Dm7–G7b9–C). 

ukulele chord substitutions lesson music notation example 2

Our final variation (Example 3) starts out with a harmonic surprise—the ii chord (Dm7) rather than the expected I. The first four bars continue with chords all found within the key of C major, but placed in unusual places to transform the melody. Bars 5–8 are based on the bridge of the structure known in jazz as rhythm changes (based on the Gershwin song “I Got Rhythm.”) Here, a series of seventh chords (E7–A7–D7–G7) lead neatly into each other before landing on the song’s V (G7). 

In measures 9–12, things get pretty wild. Here we start simply, on the I chord, but in bar 10 use a tritone substitution—instead of a C7 chord, using one whose root is a tritone (three whole steps) away, F#7—to approach the IV chord (Fmaj7) in bar 11. 

The Ab and Bb chords in measure 12 are Beatles-sounding substitutions that barrel their way back to the C in whole-step movement. Finally, the last four measures bring us down from C again to Dm7, and in bar 13, another tritone substitution (Db7 replacing G7) makes for a progression that descends jazzily in half steps (Dm7–Db7–C). 

ukulele chord substitutions lesson music notation example 3

Don’t worry about understanding too many of these concepts right away. There is always time to digest the material and find the paths that lead to more information about harmonic substitutions. But for now, it’s time to go chew on these chords and sing along!

In this highly useful intermediate lesson book, Ukulele Explorations – Chords and Harmony, Fred Sokolow writes about how to better understand chord progressions and jazzing up your uke; Alec Poletsky explains moveable major and minor chords; Jim Beloff illustrates the step-up key change through one of his own tunes; and Jim D’Ville uses Beatles songs as a gateway to learning extended chords.