Ukulele Lesson: Bossa Nova Like a Boss!


There’s cool, and there’s bossa nova cool. You know the vibe: chill intensity, folky sophistication. Born in bohemian 1950s Rio de Janeiro, bossa nova has become a global symbol of Brazil’s profound musical abundance. Using syncopated Afro-Brazilian samba rhythms as foundation, bossa nova innovators like Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and Luiz Bonfá drew on the harmonic devices of Euro-derived choro to create a force that would influence American jazz and contemporary music around the world.

As an exploration of the rhythmic and harmonic hallmarks of bossa nova, let us consider the following 32-bar ditty, a reimagining of a popular science-fiction TV theme song from the 1960s, arranged for baritone ukulele. (Note: this will work just as well on tenor, concert, or soprano; just plan on the piece sounding a fourth higher.)

One Two THREE Four

As bossa nova starts with samba, so shall we. Begin by counting in 4/4 time, but rather than emphasizing the downbeat, lean into beat three: one-two-THREE-four, as shown in Example 1. Next, talk or tap it out with eighth-note subdivisions: one-and-two-and-THREE-and-four-and…. (Example 2). Once you’ve settled into that swing and calibrated your rhythmic compass, let’s talk tone.

Ukulele Bossa Nova Lesson Examples 1-2


Gut Check

To approximate bossa nova’s trademark timbre of plucked nylon-string guitar, begin by positioning your plucking hand such that your thumb plucks the D string, index plucks G, middle plucks B, and ring plucks E. And with that, let us boldly go….

Characteristic Chords

Pluck and hold the first chord of Example 3, Asus4. Feel that? By employing the fourth degree of your root A, you create a “suspension,” or a “sus” chord. These floating sus chords are one of those things that give bossa nova its mojo. Another bossa signature shows up in the 6/9 chord found in bars 3 and 15. The 6/9 chord is perhaps the ultimate bossa chord, and when paired with a major seventh chord, it helps give bossa nova its characteristic harmonic feel. It’s also worth noting that some chords—C7, C#7, and Bm7—are missing a root note. In this case, it’s a good illustration that root notes don’t always define the quality of the chord, though if you have a bass player, ask her to play the root.

Pulse Check

Remember that business of one-two-THREE-four, the underlying rhythm? While that establishes the pulse, the plucking established in bars 1–2 shows the pattern a bossa guitarist might play. Notation aside, you can think of it as a syncopated two-bar phrase, counted in eighth notes: ONE-and, TWO-and, three-AND, four and, ONE-and, two-AND, three-and-FOUR-and, with the beats that are played indicated in all caps. The pulse is strong in bossa nova, but getting the feel correct requires a delicate plucking-hand technique. Instead of playing forcefully, try to play more gently than you think you should. The more you ease off, the better it will sound. Apply that rhythm to every two-bar phrase of the piece, and you’ve got it made in the shade.

Next Steps

The delight is in the details: take note of things like the turnaround in bars 15–16, using G6/9 and E7, or the descending second-string chromaticism in bars 25–32, and look for your own opportunities to tweak and re-harmonize. If you’re feeling somewhat less ambitious, it’s OK to put down your uke and put on a classic from the bossa nova greats like Jobim and Bonfá. You’ve worked hard—you deserve it!

Ukulele Bossa Nova Lesson Example 3

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