A great song is no respecter of instruments. A song composed on the piano might have a whole slew of wacky (but beautiful nonetheless) chords that venture far from the basic majors and minors, in part because the notes are much easier to see and experiment with than on a stringed instrument. You'll probably see a lot of D, E, and A chords from songwriters who play guitar like Todd Snyder or Bob Dylan. If you've played a lot of songs originally composed for the ukulele, I'll bet you've seen more instances of C, G, Am, and F from the first bar to the last than you can count on your fingers and toes altogether.
But just because a song was written on one particular instrument (or instruments) doesn't mean you can't play it on others. Ukulele players are known for putting a completely different spin on songs in ways only the unique sound of a uke can. Unfortunately, you can run into problems when a chord that's simple on one instrument proves a challenge when you only have four strings to work with. Just remember that making music is a very creative process. After all, it is an art medium. There are many ways to make a song work better for you. Finding different ways to shape the chords on the fretboard is one of the quickest solutions. Keep in mind that most of these alternate chord shapes do involve moving the notes in a chord farther down the fretboard, which will raise the pitch. The new sound might not sound right when played with the other chords in the song. Since that varies from song to song, you'll just have to play through it yourself to see if you like the sound.
E major - Original
If you've practiced with the ukulele for a few weeks, chances are you've heard whispers of the formidable E chord if you haven't come across it yourself while trying to play some of your favorite songs. It's a very popular chord in guitar music, which is why it shows up so frequently. It's also the bane of every beginning (and even intermediate) ukulele player's existence. The way the chord is normally played is so differently for larger hands that many websites where you can find ukulele chords will just show the alternative fingering by default. Smaller hands might actually find the original way easier, though. The alternative (G1C4E0A2) requires a great deal of stretching for my stubby fingers, so much so that I end up muting most of the strings when I try playing this way.
E major - Alternative
On ukes the E chord is hard no matter which way you play, but those who struggle with it because their fingers can't squish into such a small space on the fourth fret and then hold down the A string on the second tend to find this method much easier. If you have very small fingers like me, you might find the original fingering easier than trying to stretch your pinky all the way down to the fourth fret. And yes, there are grown adults whose fingers are so small that the fourth fret on a ukulele is a major stretch that takes lots of practice.
Dozens of us, even.
Fmajor7 - Original
The Fmaj7 chord uses all three of the fingers you normally use for fretting, but requires the pinky too. It's a difficult chord for small hands to manage because of the amount of finger stretching required, but it's not much easier for everyone else either. The notes are spaced out across the fretboard, making it a difficult chord to change to in the middle of a song.
Fmajor7 - Alternative
I like this way of playing Fmaj7 the best because well, it's easy. If there's an Fmaj7 in a song I'm trying to learn and the chord played this way sounds good with the rest of the chords, I'll probably just do it like this. Yeah, you should probably practice with the other way to do it for no other reason but to improve your flexibility, but it's just so tempting to fall back on the other way. Especially when doing so makes chord changes smoother so the song sounds better overall.
B7 - Original
This chord is a little different than the others in this article because the alternative shape isn't always easier to play than the original. It all depends on the other chords in the song. I normally play B7 just like it is to the right, with a few exceptions.
B7 - Alternative
You'll often see B7 and Em together in a chord progression, like in Elvis Presley's (and Twenty One Pilots') Can't Help Falling in Love. If you know how Em looks and then compare it to the barre chord above, you can see how this progression can make chord changes difficult. This chord shape just moves the notes of Em one string over, making it very useful for songs that go back and forth between those two. Another example of a song that moves between B7 and Em often is Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love.
F#/Gb - Original
G#, along with F#, is a chord you see popping up a lot in music nowadays. It's also a pretty difficult song to play on the ukulele without muting some strings because you have to twist your pinky around your other fingers to press down on the G string. Unless you've got very bendy fingers, chances are you'll end up with some muted strings. Frustratingly enough, F# tends to show up in a lot of songs where the other chords are otherwise very simple.
F#/Gb - Alternative
A very simple solution with some difficult chords it to simply not play all of the strings. In the case of F#, I don't play the G string at all and strum with the nail of my index finger from the C string on down. This works because it takes at least three notes to make a chord. When you play an F# in the traditional way on a GCEA tuned ukulele, you're playing the note of A# on the G string, C# on the C string, F# on the E string, and A# again on the C string. The G string played with your finger on the third fret makes the same note (A#4) as the A string plucked with your finger on the first fret. Trying playing both of those notes one after the other right now an listen to how they're the same. To make the chord easier you can just omit the extra A# by not playing the G string at all. This might be harder to do if you strum differently than I do, so you might have to switch to using the nail of your index finger just while you're playing this chord.
G#/Ab - Original
Another example of a chord you can do this with is G#. The note of G#4 appears twice in this chord--once on the G string and again on the E string. Try plucking the G string on the first fret and then the E string on the fourth fret. See? Same note.
G#/Ab - Alternative
Coincidentally the G string is also where the duplicate note falls on this chord, so you can get by with simply not playing it. Any time you struggle with a chord, particularly a sharp or flat, find out what notes you're playing to form the chord on your ukulele and see if you have any notes that appear twice. This is done so you can strum all the strings on your uke when you play the chord since you only need three notes, but can lead to some serious finger gymnastics as the shape tries find notes that are from that chord that include all the strings. It might help you to just play the notes you need to form the chord, at least for now.
C#/Db - Original
C# is another darling of pop music. Go to a website that types of ukulele chords and you'll see C# all over the place if the chords for playing in the original key and without a capo. If you're using a tenor or baritone ukulele then your best bet might be to just stick the capo on and transpose the chords a few steps down, but I've never liked the way using a capo makes a soprano or concert uke sound. Way too tinny, and without much volume. Plus a lot of modern popular music requires you to put a capo on the third, fourth, or sometimes even fifth fret before you eliminate the need to play C# as is. If my baby hands find that awkward to play I know for a fact people with larger hands would have a hard time.
C#/Db - Alternative
This version of C# is just the shape for regular Bb (and by extension, C# I suppose) moved four frets down the fretboard. I'd much prefer playing C# this way, so if I can get away with it I definitely will, especially since so many of my favorite songs use this chord.
C#m/Dbm - Original
C#m is another chord I see popping up in songs I love to play. Stuff by Lana del Rey, Adele, Brittany Spears, and a whole slew of other artists you normally wouldn't think of covering on a ukulele. Unlike in C# you don't have the E string pressed down, giving your more room to stretch out your pinky to hit the fourth fret of the A string, but that doesn't mean it isn't an awkward chord to change to.
C#m/Dbm - Alternate
If the pushing down the A string on the fourth fret is too difficult, you can always not play it and still get a C#m. It's a bit hard to strum down without hitting the a string, but if you use your nail you should get the hang of it with a little practice. It could really help you out in chord changes, because I've noticed that C#m rarely shows up among other chords that are easy to move to. At least when you play it on the ukulele.
Where to Go From Here
I would say that this list is full of temporary fixes and that you shouldn't use them as an excuse not to learn the original chord shapes, but that just isn't true. In some cases, such as with the alternate fingering of B7 when switching back and forth between it and Em, the alternate chord shapes are preferable and will make you give a better performance overall in the end.
With that in mind, I'd like to mention that there's no shame in transposing a song a few steps down and adding a capo to the corresponding fret resulting in chords you're more comfortable with playing. The end product can be a bit jangly sounding if you're playing on a smaller ukulele, but it's a lot better than just not playing a song you really want to play because the chord changes are uncomfortable. You can always dedicate time to practicing the song in the original key if you want to improve your ability to play the more difficult chords, but by all means, don't let that stop you from sticking on a capo and playing the songs you want to play now. Sure, you probably want to be a really good ukulele player. But I'll bet the main reason you picked up the uke was to make music. Don't spend so much time working that you forget to play.
That's not to say that you even need a capo at all, of course. Making music is a creative endeavor. Sure, you can play a song and make it sound exactly like it would if you listened to it on a CD, but I definitely recommend transposing the song to a different key with chords you like better and making it your own. Stretching your own unique artistic muscles is the difference between covering a song and just playing it, after all. Most online chord and tab sites have their own transposers, but I put a website in the sources made just for that if you want to bookmark it. I've also included some links on musical theory that helped me understand chords better, some of which are tailored specifically for the ukulele.
- Key Card from UkuGuides
A great ukulele specific introduction to chord progressions and the Nashville Numbers system
- Chord Transposing Tool
- Guide to Chords and Keys from Reddit's ukulele community
UkeBuddy is a fantastic skill for learning scales as well as finding different ways to play chords. Just select the chord that's giving you trouble and use the arrows to cycle through all of the ways you can play it.
Robin Albert on February 17, 2020:
Your writing makes me feel so good as I read it. Your alternative fingering has helped me. If you are able I would appreciate some other fingering of courts. Thank you and I especially like your❤️❤️. You seem like a lovely person. From Junction City OREGON. A beginning ukulele player
Joan Baxter on November 02, 2019:
I can help transposing some of the songs with difficult chords now,thank you!
Janet on July 14, 2019:
I cannot plat F#9 on ukulele as arthritis painful. Help/ thanks
Mj on May 25, 2019:
What can be an alternative for the chord E
Lee Farnum-Badley on March 01, 2018:
I think I've fallen in love with you !!
Ashley on December 13, 2016:
Thank you for this! Especially the Dbm chord–I could never play the original one.