Rethink the Basics to Get Out of a Creative Rut on Ukulele


The legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk famously said, “Simple ain’t easy.” But simple can be amazing. Sometimes taking what you already know and thinking about things in a fresh way can lead to a very different musical outcome. I’ve spent way too much time in my life looking for new and complicated chords when the musical possibilities with the very first shapes I learned are endless. 

This lesson is all about using variations to leverage these simple shapes into new ideas—going back to the basics and building outward. When I hit a plateau in my playing, exercises like these get me out of my comfort zone and point me in unexpected directions. It’s like creating new neural pathways for the fingers as well as the brain.

All examples are based on the common chord progression of C–F–G7–C, but you can substitute your own favorite voicings or progressions. And while the patterns might not lead to any particular destination, they will take you on a creative journey. Approach things with an open mind, and trust that these exercises will help you get out of your head if you let your fingers and ears lead the way. 

Play a Harp

Once you have fingered a chord and strummed it, the second most obvious thing to do is play the individual strings. This is called an arpeggio, which comes from the Italian word arpeggiare, meaning “to play a harp.” But the simplicity of picking a single note from a chord is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of arpeggios.

Playing the individual notes can work both as an alternative to strumming and as a means of highlighting a song’s melody. And while scales are one way of understanding what notes fit with what chords and progressions, arpeggios are a secret weapon for soloing that guarantee you’re hitting notes that fit and complement the song.


Start by playing each chord of the C–F–G7–C progression as an arpeggio, holding down each chord shape for as long as possible, as shown in Example 1a. Using your thumb, pick the individual notes of each chord slowly, letting everything blend together. Next, pick with your thumb plus one, then two, then three fingers. Once you’re comfortable with Ex. 1a, try some different arpeggio patterns (Examples 1b–c), again using different picking-hand finger combinations.

getting unstuck ukulele lesson music notation example 1

Notice how quickly simplicity turns into an infinity of possible musical lines. These exercises can give you insight into the complicated shifts happening when you move through even a very simple chord progression. The notes on some strings descend, while those on others ascend; notes sometimes stay the same between chords with common tones.  

Less Is More

While ukulele chords are generally made up of three or four notes, you can take a less-is-more approach and use stripped-down voicings—just like the great jazz guitarist Freddie Green did in his long stint with the Count Basie Orchestra. This approach can help you steer clear of, say, the cacophony that can happen in a ukulele jam session when multiple instruments are playing the same thing. It’s also a great way to create space so you can come back into a song in a swell of bigger, fuller chords for your own solo or a dramatic crescendo.

The next set of examples will focus on implying chords through single notes. This will require muting strings so you can target only a single note. To begin, play through the C–F–G7–C progression using the same open chord shapes, but muting all the strings except the first, as shown in Example 2a. Strum such that your target notes rings clearly, but the other chord members sound deadened. Then, try this for each of the other three strings (Examples 2b–d). Things get progressively more difficult, so be sure to focus on your finger placement and muting technique. 

getting unstuck ukulele lesson music notation example 2a-d

Once you’ve mastered the patterns above, mix and match strings as you move through the progression, as depicted in Example 2e. Then, create movement in the progression by adding notes between the chords (Example 2f). Experiment with similar figures on your own before moving on. 

getting unstuck ukulele lesson music notation example 2e-f

Doubling Up

Playing just two notes of a given chord is another great alternative to the full four-note version. For the following exercises, remember to fret the full shapes, even though two of the notes in each chord will not be played. As shown in Example 3a, play the progression using just the top two strings, either fingerpicking or strumming them. Then, repeat the idea on the five other two-string combinations (Examples 3b–f). 

getting unstuck ukulele lesson music notation example 3a-f

Once you’ve gotten the hang of playing through the progression using two notes on the same string set, it’s time to mix and match the strings for each chord. Example 3g shows one way of doing this; experiment with other combinations as well. As a final step, generate movement by adding single notes within the chord shapes, using Example 3h as a springboard to create your own variations—and ideally some fresh accompaniment patterns—for any song you know and love.

getting unstuck ukulele lesson music notation example 3g-h