Learn to Play Ukulele Chords Up the Neck and in Any Key


One of the things I dreaded most during my college years was the piano proficiency exam. It required us to sight-read, perform a prepared piece, and navigate through scales and cadences in all 12 keys, all while being scrutinized by the old-guard professors! To say it was nerve-wracking would be an understatement, but in the end, I believe the skills acquired were well worth the stress. 

On that note, the cadence we’ll discuss here is an invaluable tool for capturing the essence of any key. It’s a concise and common progression (I–IV–I–V7–I, to be exact) that incorporates two major chords and a dominant seventh. Throughout this lesson, we will use this progression to delve into moveable chords.

Moveable, or closed shapes, are chords that lack open strings. By fretting all the strings, these shapes can be shifted up or down the fretboard, creating new chords with higher or lower tones. This becomes especially handy when you encounter a song that doesn’t quite match your vocal range—knowing the shapes allows you to shift them up a fret or two, instantly adapting the song to a more suitable key for your voice. 

In this lesson, we’ll first explore chords in the open first position and then move them up the fretboard to understand which fingerings are needed to recreate the same shapes in closed position. There comes a point when you need to take the plunge and commit to learning these shapes so you can expand your repertoire and become more proficient on the ukulele, so why not start today? Let’s get going!

Opening Up

Begin by practicing the basic progression using open C, F, and G7 shapes, as shown in Example 1a. Next, explore other common open shapes to transpose the progression into different keys. For instance, try it in G major, as demonstrated in Example 1b


Learn to Play Ukulele Chords Up the Neck and in Any Key ukulele lesson music notation example 1a-1b

You’ll find that your ear quickly adapts to the new key. Repeat this process in D (Example 1c) and A (Example 1d), and conclude by trying it in F (Example 1e), which contains your first shape with no open strings, Bb, which is identical to the open A chord but moved up one fret, giving you a taste of what’s to come in this lesson. 

Learn to Play Ukulele Chords Up the Neck and in Any Key ukulele lesson music notation example 1c–2a

Behind Barres

The next few figures exclusively feature barre chords. Example 2a is constructed using C, F, and G7 shapes, transposed up two frets to place the progression in the key of D major. Initially, apply gentle pressure with your fretting fingers to avoid straining while working on the barre. 

As you become more comfortable, attempt to maintain consistent barre pressure throughout the chord changes, ensuring smooth transitions.

In Example 2b, we begin with the G shape, shifted up two frets to accommodate the key of A major. Playing the A chord in the G shape necessitates using all four fingers, which may initially feel like a considerable stretch. If this proves challenging, start by positioning your second, third, and fourth fingers simultaneously and then lightly reach back with your first finger. This approach will help you develop the ability to handle more demanding stretches in the future. Next, introduce the IV (D) and V7 (E7) chords, which correspond to the C and D7 shapes, respectively. Recognizing these repeating patterns will aid your progression.

Continue with Examples 2c–e until these shapes become familiar. You’ll observe their interconnectedness as you play them in various keys. Be patient with yourself, as mastering these chords may take some time. However, once you’ve become proficient with these shapes, you’ll have acquired chords that can be effortlessly transposed to different keys simply by shifting to another fret. This is a significant accomplishment! While these shapes consist of major and dominant seventh chords, these exercises will enhance your ability to move chords of all types up and down the neck in any key.

Learn to Play Ukulele Chords Up the Neck and in Any Key ukulele lesson music notation example 2b–2e

Up the Neck

Example 3 represents the final step, guiding us up the neck through a C major chord using five different shapes. The purpose of this exercise is to visually connect these voicings. (For those using a soprano ukulele with limited frets, you may need to omit the last chord.) The overarching goal is to ascend the neck gradually while observing the origins of these shapes—sequentially from the lowest to the highest: C, A, G, F, and D, and back to C. Similarly, if you initiate this sequence starting from an open F chord, you will progress through the D, C, and A shapes, and so on.

Learn to Play Ukulele Chords Up the Neck and in Any Key ukulele lesson music notation example 3

Once you can mentally visualize these shapes ascending the neck for any given chord, you will possess a considerable command of your ukulele. Keep in mind that there are essentially only five shapes to master for a particular chord quality. So, take your time with this process and relish the opportunity to intimately acquaint yourself with your fretboard.

Barre Exam

When it comes to barre-chord technique, I recommend maintaining your thumb position behind the neck, ideally in alignment with the second finger. Barre chords can prove exceedingly challenging to form if your thumb extends beyond the neck’s edge. Playing with your fingertips positioned close to the frets will significantly enhance your control. Additionally, as you apply a barre, consider allowing your first finger to gently roll to the left; this adjustment provides greater strength while demanding less pressure. It’s entirely acceptable if the barre exhibits a subtle curve across the neck, extending from the fingertip to the base of the knuckle. See a demo of these techniques in the accompanying video. —DW