How to Jazz Up the Ukulele


You may have noticed that jazz players seldom play the chords exactly as they’re written in songbooks or fake books. Employing the mystic art of jazz alchemy, they enhance simple chord progressions and make them more interesting, subtler, and prettier. Well, uke maven Jim Beloff noticed this, and asked me, “How do you come up with those jazzy chord changes?” My resulting book and CD is called Jazzing Up the Uke, and it’s about chord substitution. It’s out, but here’s a sneak peek at a few jazzy ideas to start you on the road to thinking like a jazz player.

Getting Started with Jazz

While there are no substitution rules, there are some common ideas that allow you to vary a given chord progression, so you never have to play a song exactly the same way twice. You can make it fancier or simpler, busier or less cluttered, and change the tone and feel, depending on your mood. Sometimes it’s a matter of substituting one chord for another, like playing a C9 instead of a C7 (more on that later). At other times, you can play a whole series of chords where only one chord was written. There are 21 substitution ideas in my book—here are four of them, as well as tips on playing my arrangement of “Red River Valley.”

Direct Substitution

You can substitute any chord from the same chord type as the given chord. For example, instead of C7, you could play C9, C7 augmented (C7+), or C13, just to name a few, because all these chords are C7 with an extra note added (a ninth, a sharp fifth, and so on). They’re all variants of a C7 chord. [Fig. 1]

Relative Minor Substitution

For a major chord, you can often substitute or add the relative minor. That’s the minor chord that’s a sixth above the major chord. For example, A is the sixth note in the C major scale, so Am is the relative minor of C. Instead of just playing a C chord, you can play Am or a C followed by an Am. [Fig. 2]

Dominant Minor Substitution

Given a seventh chord, you can add or substitute the minor chord that is a fifth above it. For example, for a C7 you can substitute Gm (a fifth above C7), or play Gm followed by C7. [Fig. 3]

Jazz on ukulele lesson chord substitutions

Ascending or Descending Melodic Lines

You can also substitute a series of chords that contains an ascending or descending melodic line that harmonizes the song’s melody. The effect is like ear candy—two melodies happening simultaneously that harmonize with each other.


Jazzing Up ‘Red River Valley’

These four principles are illustrated in my arrangement of the old cowboy song “Red River Valley.” First, check out the basic tune, using simple, first-position chords. 

The first measure is a “pickup measure.” The first full measure matches the words “sit by my.” If we compare the basic progression to the one with fancier chords, most of the differences between the two can be explained in terms of the four substitution concepts discussed earlier:

  • Measure 1: Am is a relative minor sub for C.
  • Measure 2: Dm is a dominant minor sub for G7, because Dm is a fifth above G.
  • Measures 3–4: Am is a relative minor sub for C, and Cmaj7 is a direct sub for C. The series of chords (C, Cmaj7, Am, C) contains a descending melodic line on the top string: C, B, A, G.
  • Measure 5: Am is a relative minor sub for C.
  • Measure 7: Dm is a dominant minor sub for G7.
  • Measure 8: G7+ (G augmented, or a G chord with a sharp fifth) is a direct sub for G.
  • Measures 9–10: Cmaj7 is a direct sub for C, and C9 is a direct sub for C7. The series of chords (C, Cmaj7, C7) contain a descending melodic line: C, B, Bb, similar to the melodic line in bars 3–4.
  • Measures 11–12: F+ (F augmented) is a direct sub for F, and Dm is a relative minor sub for F.
  • Measure 14: Dm is a dominant minor sub for G7, and G7b9 is a direct sub for G.
  • Measure 16: C6 is a direct sub for C.

I know, some things are unexplained!

What about the G-diminished (Gdim) chord in measure 6, or the Fm6 chords (there are three of them)? Well, remember there are 17 more substitution principles that I haven’t described in this brief article. If you’re interested, you’ll find them in my book. (Remember, you don’t need to use all of these substitutions every time you want to play a jazzy version.)

I hope that this fancy arrangement and the explanations of substitutions will give you an idea of some of the possibilities in this realm. When you start applying substitution concepts to swing tunes, instead of folk tunes, it gets even more interesting. Have fun!

Ukulele Magazine Jazz Up the Uke Red River Valley chord chart with jazz substitutions by Fred Sokolow

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Ukulele.

book cover for ukulele basics – chords and harmony

Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth lessons on the basics of chords and harmony. Instructors and Ukulele magazine contributors Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, as well as the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.