How to Play Jazz on Your Ukulele: A Primer


In the early 1990s I began a decades-long quest to pierce the veil that seems to keep jazz in the sole purview of savant performers with higher music degrees. But I’ve found that it isn’t magic; it’s a journey, and there are a few important first steps and tricks that will take you a long way towards reaching the goal of playing jazz. 

The first trick is overcoming “jazz imposter syndrome,” the way that blues and rock players often feel when they try to play jazz standards. Virtuoso bassist Marcus Shelby once told me, “I hate that word—jazz.” He said just to keep it simple, and then took an insane arco bass solo over a one-chord vamp to prove the point. That was a big help to me. 

While the chord progressions of jazz are innovative, they are not that different from any other music. But somehow, following the chords through a song doesn’t usually get you the sound of jazz. That’s because maybe even more iconic than the chord progressions is the way jazz moves between the chords. 

The ukulele has been a jazz instrument since the 1910s, before there was a consensus on what to even call the music, or how to spell it. I find that working on the four strings of a ukulele has a great advantage, because all you really ever need to play to get a full sound is at most four notes, often three, a lot of the time just two, and sometimes even just one. 

In this lesson, I’ll introduce you to the chordal structures that define the sound of 1920s and ’30s ragtime, swing, and jazz. Now, I don’t pretend that any of this will help you understand what’s really going on with this endlessly complex and beautiful music, but I’m not sure you need to ever understand it all—I certainly don’t. And that’s not my point here anyway. The point is to play great tunes and have fun! So here are some ideas that I hope will help shine some light on how to play the music of the Great American Songbook.

The Basics of Jazz on Ukulele

First things first, it’s important to know chordal functions, expressed in Roman numerals, which stay the same no matter what key you’re in. For example, as shown in Figure 1, the I or tonic chord in the key of C major is C, while the I in G major is G; Em is the iii chord in the key of C but the vi in G. Note too that major chords are in uppercase Roman numerals and minor are in lowercase.

Chord number chart for ukulele

The I chord is the tonal center of the song. In blues, you can bet your dobro that it’ll be the first chord in the song. Think about the I as the musical home for the tune. Any other chord you add builds tension with the I chord, which lingers in the listener’s mind, creating interest. Other chords move you closer or further from home, adding or subtracting tension that you will resolve, satisfyingly, when you bring it back home to the I chord. 

The IV and V chords are also relatively stable chords, with strong relationships to the I. Try it out. Pick a key and play your I, then move to any other chord and hear how it creates tension. Then, resolve the tension by moving back to the I. This might be a different way of thinking about music, but it’s what you’ve been doing since you first strummed the uke or any instrument.

The V, which is usually going to be a dominant seventh chord (V7) in jazz, has a special musical relationship with the I. The V7 sends a powerful signal to your ear that it’s time to go back home, leading you back to the I chord. That’s why progressions often end on the V7, setting up the I chord for another run through the tune.

The I, IV, and V chords are at the foundation of the blues. So, if the chordal vocabulary of blues is made up of progressions using the I, IV, and V7 chords—and jazz is built on the blues—then you are already part of the way there. We’re just going to add a few more chords to that vocabulary. 


Adding to the Basics

It’s easy to remember the ii chord, because it’s just one whole step up from the I chord. So in, say, the key of A major, it’s Bm. Though the ii is minor in terms of conventional harmony, play it major and you open wide the doorway to ragtime. Try it: In the key of C major, play a I–II–V progression (C–D–G), as shown in Example 1.

Similarly, though the vi chord is minor in a major key, it can instead be played as major for jazzy effect. Adding the VI chord sets up a I–VI–II–V progression that takes you a lot further from home but winds you back to the I chord using the powerful V7–I relationship in an elegant musical way. Example 2a shows a I–VI7–II–V7 progression in C, and Example 2b transposes it to the jazz-friendly key of Bb major.  

In this Bb progression, you can think of the VI chord (G7) as the V chord of the II (C). The effect is caused by the strong V7–I musical relationship, with the VI7 (G7) and V7 chords (F7) pushing you towards the I. You probably know the I–VI–II–V as the iconic 1950s progression, though Rodgers and Hart wrote “Blue Moon” in 1934. Whatever it’s called, it certainly works for countless tunes.

how to play jazz ukulele notation 1

Diminished Chords

Diminished triads (1 b3 b5) and diminished seventh chords (1 b3 b5 b7) are another prominent harmonic feature of jazz. The chords that we’ve talked about so far are relatively stable, with strong relationships to the key or tonal center of the song. A diminished chord has a special function. While a V or V7 chord is always trying to send you home to the I chord, a diminished chord is like an unclear street sign; it’s not sending you anywhere in particular or
it’s sending you everywhere. This can be unsettling, but it’s also liberating. That instability makes diminished chords sound spooky. But they are also very useful as connecting chords and for adding different colors. 

Another interesting aspect of a diminished triad or diminished seventh chord is that it’s perfectly symmetrical, made of a stack of minor thirds. So if you take any diminished chord up the fretboard three frets, you’ll arrive at the exact same chord, but with the notes reordered. Example 3, for instance, shows an F#dim7 chord (F# A C Eb) played at the second fret, then shifted upward. As you can see in the notation, each chord has those same four notes. This also means that there are only three different diminished chords, and each one has four possible names (not counting enharmonic equivalents). 

Just to be clear, sometimes diminished chords are part of a song’s progression and sometimes they work as substitutions for other chords. Plus, you can often drop a diminished chord in as a spicy way to add movement to a progression.

Connecting Things

Now let’s check out a few ways to connect chords to get your rhythm flowing. Start with a basic 12-bar blues progression in C (Example 4), and then insert some diminished chords (Example 5) before throwing in a couple more (Example 6). 

how to play jazz ukulele notation 2

Don’t be afraid to experiment with using diminished chords. Remember, there are only three of them, so you’re never far from one that will work. Also, voicings matter; to me, in the last bar of Ex. 5, the Abdim7 between the G7 and C chords is more satisfying when played at the fourth fret instead of the first. And if you hit a wrong chord, don’t panic; just slide the whole shape up or back a fret or two. Which brings us to another great trick.

The chromatic scale contains all 12 pitches. On the ukulele, moving chromatically means shifting one fret at a time on a string in any direction. One way to create motion between chords is to walk up to a chord from below or walk down to it from above. Take the blues progression and approach some of the chords via half step, as demonstrated in Example 7. Then, try the concept with three different variations on our I–VI–II–V progression (Examples 8–10).


how to play jazz ukulele notation 3

Invert It

Inversion is a fancy way of saying play the same chord in a different place on the fretboard using a different chord shape. Knowing how to play a chord in different places on the neck allows you to create motion in your playing. Every new voicing for any chord opens up all sorts of new sounds and possibilities, and it’s the journey—moving between chords—that creates rhythmic motion. Example 11, for instance, depicts a bunch of C chords, while Examples 12 and 13 show different inversions of F7 and G7. 

Inversion is a fancy way of saying play the same chord in a different place on the fretboard using a different chord shape. Knowing how to play a chord in different places on the neck allows you to create motion in your playing. Every new voicing for any chord opens up all sorts of new sounds and possibilities, and it’s the journey—moving between chords—that creates rhythmic motion. Example 11, for instance, depicts a bunch of C chords, while Examples 12 and 13 show different inversions of F7 and G7. 

how to play jazz ukulele notation 4

I’ve always found that the voicings that I know feel obvious and comfortable, and adding a new one is torture until I finally get the hang of it (think back to the first time someone showed you any chord). So the final trick, one that will take a lifetime to master, is to embrace the pain and keep adding voicings to your repertoire. 

I don’t expect this lesson to work for everyone. It’s hard to turn ideas into things that your fingers will do. But I’ve always found that I can improve my playing, step-by-step, by adding one thing at a time and practicing until it is no longer completely awkward. What’s here is pretty much everything I know about jazz. And I willingly admit that it is idiosyncratic. But these ideas help me, especially when I forget the whole mess and just play. So take what works for you and enjoy yourself! Remember that the great Duke Ellington didn’t like the word “jazz” either; he said there are just two kinds of music. And if you like it, then it’s the right kind.

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.