One of the enduring truths about the ukulele is that it’s an accessible instrument. Its four little strings match up nicely with a player’s four fretting hand fingers and it is relatively easy to play. Even on someone’s first day playing the ukulele, they can be playing a song. That kind of inclusion is not something you often find with instruments like the cello or saxophone.
Being able to strum a few chords on the ukulele might not seem like much, and for many people it isn’t. But for some it’s an obstacle. An injury, impairment, or age that makes fretting chords difficult shouldn’t be a barrier to the basic human need to to make music.
I was reminded of this during our recent office move when I came across a small stash of vintage and recent “chord changers.”
Button-activated devices for fretting chords first appeared on guitar-family instruments in the 1920s and were built onto guitars designed to attract beginners. They worked marginally well, but since they were not easily removable, they rendered the instrument unusable to anyone who knew how to play. In the 1950s, a removable version for the ukulele debuted during the second wave of ukulele popularity and was sold under the Arthur Godfrey brand and a few others.
While these button-pushed chord changers are a joke among some players, the devices make it possible for anyone who can press a button to join in the ukulele fun. These devices also continue to serve their original purpose, too, of immediately making it possible for anyone to make six or sometimes eight chords—and I’ll be honest, they’re kind of fun to use even if you can play. Vintage models are still easily found online, but an updated and improved version is currently made by Troubadour Music, a company based in Guilford, Connecticut. It sells the Ukulele Chord Changer, and a songbook ($25 direct). ukechordchanger.com
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