Beginner Ukulele Lesson: Getting Off the Page Will Instantly Improve Your Playing


I was visiting a ukulele group and they asked me to listen to a song they were rehearsing for an upcoming ukulele festival where they would be performing. They opened their songbooks to “Twist and Shout” and began playing. When they finished, they asked me how they sounded. I hesitated, but I had to be honest. “If you play it like that, no one is going to twist or shout,” I said. There was just no rhythm or feeling to their performance.

I asked them to close their books and try again. “It only has three chords, you can do it!” They started again and this time it was amazing. Magically, the group’s playing immediately improved, with them strumming a very twistable rhythm. They couldn’t believe it. It was better.

The reason it was better is that they were forced to play the song from memory. Think of a familiar song you know right now. Notice how it automatically loads in your internal jukebox and begins playing. The first step in learning a song is to listen to a recording until you can hum the basic melody and feel the rhythm. I call this procedure loading the song to your iHead player.

But what about the chords? How can you learn how to hear the chords and identify what’s happening in a particular song? You can begin by familiarizing your ears with the foundation of popular music, the chords of the major scale. For every note in a major scale, there’s an associated chord (and keep in mind, the structure of all 12 keys is the same, only the pitch is different).

In the key of C major, the seven notes are C–D–E–F–G–A–B. The chords associated with every major scale (“diatonic chords” is the fancy name) follow this pattern: major–minor–minor–major–major–minor diminished.

So in the key of C, the chords are C major–Dm–Em–F major–G major–Am–Bdim. Use the chord diagrams below to slowly play these chords ascending and descending, listening closely to their sound.


Diatonic C Chords for ukulele lesson Get Off the Page Play by Ear

Musicians often number the chords, because numbering makes it easier to transpose a song to other keys. These numbers come from the position of the chord’s root note in the scale and use capital and lowercase Roman numerals to show if a chord is major (capitals) or minor (lowercase). Our major scale looks like this: I–ii–iii–IV–V–vi–vii dim. Using this pattern, in the key of G, for example, the chords are: G major–A minor–B minor–C major–D major–E minor–F# diminished.

After you have those chord shapes under your fingers and the sound of the chords in your ears, play each chord starting from the home chord of the key, the I chord. Play I–ii, I–iii, I–IV, I–V, I–vi, I–viidim (C–Dm, C–Em, C–F, C–G, C–Am, C–Bdim). You are now playing the intervals, or distances, from the I chord to the other notes of the scale. Listen closely as you play these chord intervals and record them in your iHead player—these intervals are the building blocks of the songs you want to learn.

Once your ears are familiar with these first two exercises, you’re ready for the next phase: hearing the diatonic chords in chord progressions to actual songs. But wait—you’ve already done that by learning to play the diatonic chords in order. There are many popular songs that simply move up (and down) the diatonic chord progression, like the Beatles’ “Here, There, and Everywhere” (I–ii–iii–IV progression) and the verses to Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” (I–ii–iii–IV–V progression). Just imagine how many songs you can learn by mixing these chords up.

When you get away from using the letter names of the chords and the number system, your old way of learning songs (or playing them off the paper) will change. Your ears will recognize familiar chord progressions, which appear again and again in songs you’re learning. You’ll internalize the emotional value found in diatonic chords and gain an understanding of how songwriters use these basic chords to create the music you want to hear and play.

Music educator and facilitator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear. Over the last six years he has taught workshops, authored a DVD series, and hosted the website

Ukiulele Magazine Fall 2016 Issue YouTube Ukes Daniel Ho Mo Bettah Ukes Hawaiian Strums Banjo-Ukes

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.
book cover for ukulele basics – chords and harmony

Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth lessons on the basics of chords and harmony. Instructors and Ukulele magazine contributors Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, as well as the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.