Switch between guitar and ukulele

In this post, I’m going to tell you an easy trick to play ukulele if you know guitar, or to play guitar (almost) if you know ukulele. It is based on the circle of fifths, pictured at left.

About a year ago, after many failed attempts at learning to play the guitar, I took up the ukulele. Progress was rapid, and now I can play many songs. But the goal of playing guitar (or something that sounds like a guitar, as in this other post) still remains.

It shouldn’t be too difficult because the chord shapes on the ukulele and the bottom four strings of the guitar are the same, but the chord names are not. A “C” shape on the ukulele (one finger on the third fret of the 1st string, all other strings open) plays a “G” on the bottom four strings of the guitar. An “F” shape (2nd string at 1st fret, 4th string at 2nd fret, 1st and 3rd strings open), rings a “C” on the guitar. Do you see the pattern, though?

For a given shape, the chord that sounds on the guitar is immediately clockwise on the circle from the chord sounded on the ukulele. This is because the guitar is tuned exactly one fourth (five semitones) down from the way a ukulele is tuned. Now, one fourth down is the same chord-wise as one fifth up (seven semitones), because pitch names repeat after twelve semitones. Since the pitches on the circle of fifths go up by a fifth for every step clockwise, the chords sounded on the ukelele and the guitar with any given shape end up next to each other on that circle.

Here it is on the circle. For any chord shape that you know on the ukulele, the way it sounds on a guitar (or a baritone ukulele) lies directly clockwise from it. If you are more familiar with guitar chords, you find what they sound like on the ukulele by moving on the circle one step counter-clockwise. So really you don’t have to memorize a whole new set of chords. Just memorize the part of the circle that contains the most common chords (Eb to B, moving clockwise), and you’re set.

Let’s say that I want to play the chord sequence C – F – G7 – C on a baritone ukulele, but I know the chord shapes for the regular ukulele. No problem. To get a C on a baritone, I use the F shape from a regular uke. To get an F, I use the Bb shape. To get a G7, I use the C7 shape, always one step counter-clockwise. So I use these soprano uke shapes on a baritone: F – Bb – C7 – F, and I get what I want. Similarly if the chords are minor or contain some other variations; they are the same except the main letter is shifted.

This is the method I used at the end of this article, so I could sound the same chords on a “cuatrolele” as on a baritone ukulele. In no time, you’ll end up “translating” between uke shapes and guitar shapes without having to go back to the circle, but any time you get confused you can draw it to remind yourself.

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