BY SARAH MAISEL WITH CRAIG CHEE | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In the previous two installments of this series, we discussed goals and notation (Winter 2022), as well as scales and warm-up exercises (Spring 2023). We now conclude with a lesson on the importance of working through chord transitions and positions. Put all of these ideas to use in your practice, and you’ll be able to make the leap from beginner to intermediate ukulele much easier.
Many times when we practice a song, we do not take the time to really home in on chord transitions. Sometimes it might seem as though the idea is to just get through the song, so we tend to blast through chords, trying to get it all put together, even if it is messy. By taking a step back and focusing on each chord as it transitions from one to the next, you can better understand the mechanics of each movement. Doing this will give you a head start on many other songs, especially those in the same key.
As you learn new songs, you may notice that the same chords will pop up within certain keys. The key of C major, for example, tends to focus on the chords C, Am, F, and G7, often in that order. The optimal fingering for this progression (Example 1) is playing the C chord with your third finger on string 1, fret 3, followed by the Am with your second on string 4, fret 2, then adding your first to string 2, fret 1, to create the F chord. To get to G7 from there, you usually leave your first finger on string 2, fret 1, while moving your second to string 3, fret 2, and third to that same fret on string 1. Doing this allows you to continually have a finger on the fretboard, giving you an anchor for forming your chords.
This method is always going to be better than reshuffling your fingers for every chord, which is how most beginners start with chord changes. Of course, this idea is also important for even harder transitions, like our original example song “Twinkle Twinkle” from the first part of this series. With this in mind, I’m going to introduce the idea of chord-melody scales. This is a perfect way to practice chord transitions and learn chord positions all at once.
Playing Chord Scales
We have already discussed the importance of practicing scales. Scales encompass the notes to all of the melodies that we know and love, give us tools for ear training, and more. When I first began arranging chord-melody, I found myself playing a lot of scales, but using full chords instead of single notes. I would start with a scale like Bb major (Bb C D Eb F G A, as shown in Example 2.
If I took a handful of Bb chord voicings and placed them on the fretboard, I would end up with something like Example 3. Notice how some of our scale notes are in use, and others are not.
If I were to add in those missing scale notes, I’d have some chord shapes that look like those in Example 4.
This can be played as written, or you can do the passing scale notes as single notes on their own, as covered in the accompanying video lesson. Each chord is labeled, even though I think it is best to think of this in more broad terms—a Bb major scale played with varying Bb major chords. You’ll find that all of the chords listed are variations of Bb whether Bbmaj6 (Bb D F G), Bbmaj7 (Bb D F A), etc.
I frankly find this particular version of the scale to be a bit cumbersome, so I alter it to make it a bit more user-friendly, as shown in Example 5. This variation might look daunting with its fancy chord names, but it is much easier to walk through, especially if you work on the chord transitions and maintaining anchor fingers (those that never leave the fretboard).
Bb6 to start is even easier to play than the standard Bb, as it has an open G string. This allows you to have a bit more opportunity to get to that third-fret note for the following chord, Bb6/9. I recommend using your fourth finger on the A string when adding that note, as it will provide an anchor for moving to the next chord. If you’ve never worked with your fourth finger in this manner, take some time to do some reps, putting the finger in place and removing it several times, until it starts to feel more natural for you.
The next transition is quite easy, but does require a bit of a stretch. If you are not used to doing this kind of thing, now is the time for an exercise. Hold your third-fret Bb6 chord and gently move your fourth finger back and forth between frets 5 and 6 on string 1. Once that starts to feel a bit more comfortable, it’s time to work on the next chord transition.
Moving from the Bb6sus4 chord,you’ll notice that the fourth and third fingers are the same distance apart as in the subsequent Bb6. Using your fourth finger as a guide, slide both fingers up their respective strings (A and C). If you have kept your fingers in formation, your fourth finger will now be on string 1, fret 8, and your third on string 3, fret 7. Practice sliding between the Bb6sus4 and Bb6 chords until it starts to fall into place more easily for you.
Moving between the two Bb6 chords in bar 2 can be done two different ways. The first version is using your second finger, which is already on the G string, and flattening it to barre the tenth fret. Or you can barre with your first finger, many people’s first impulse. I find the former fingering to be most efficient, but try both, so that you can figure out which works best for you.
The last two chords are the easiest—just add a finger on the first string for Bbmaj7, and move that note up one fret to create Bb, keeping that that tenth-fret barre for both chords.
Once you’ve gone through moving up the neck with this, really taking your time with each transition, you’ll find that you are starting to develop the muscle memory for the shapes and their order.
Then you can try the same ideas in other keys. As shown in Example 6, for instance, to play it in C major, just move everything up two frets, except for the first chord, which works best as a closed shape.
I found that working on this idea with major, minor, and dominant seventh chords gave me a great foundation and allowed me the ability to play chord-melody more fluidly. Even using just a piece of the scale, moving between the first three chords listed is a great way to add movement if you are ever stuck on a single chord for a long period of time.
I hope that through these three lessons, you will have a clearer picture of techniques to practice and prepare to get your playing up to the next level. Of course, the idea of making the jump encompasses much more than what was discussed, but this should definitely give you a leg up!
With all of these lessons, setting goals and keeping them is going to be the most important, as it will reinforce your focus. When you find yourself up against a roadblock, take a moment and really think about where you’d like to be in one month, six months, or a year, and see if you are truly working on the things that are getting you there. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut playing what you already know, so always take the time to regroup and focus on the next part of your musical journey.