From Guitar to Ukulele



Guitar and ukulele may be more similar than you realize

If you're a guitarist who has never held a ukulele, what could you possibly understand about ukulele? Lot's actually! There are striking similarities between guitar and ukulele—sometimes it's a one-to-one relationship; sometimes there's a transpositional relationship that's not immediately apparent, but nevertheless, as an experienced guitarist, you possess a lot of applicable knowledge.

Baritone uke = guitar

The one-to-one relationship? The four strings of the baritone uke are the same as the four high pitched strings of the guitar (strings one through four). If you have some chord and scale vocabulary on guitar, then you already know these chords and scales for baritone uke.

Various sizes and tunings: tenor and soprano uke

Ukuleles come in various sizes. There are a few common tunings. Each of the most common tunings are essentially the same of the highest four strings of the guitar, but often there's a confusing snag that throws people off track when first exploring uke chords: most ukulele chord diagrams for tenor or soprano ukulele look nothing like guitar chords.

Well, some look uke chords look like guitar chords, but the letter name might not match. For instance on a soprano or tenor uke a G chord looks like a guitar D fingering. These matters make ukulele seem like an entirely different. But it's not. There's just that transposition-shift afoot when playing a soprano or tenor ukulele.

Peculiar as they may seem—those ukulele chords are exactly the same as guitar chord fingerings. It's just that the roots (and individual letter names) are not what you'd expect.

NOTE: For the rest of this article, when we speak of ukulele, we'll be referring to the popular tenor and soprano uke, which share the same tuning:

Gain a useful perspective

We'll put this in perspective by applying a handy transpositional twist. Soon you'll grasp the similarities between guitar and ukulele, discern the differences, and you'll be able to leverage your guitar knowledge, which will quickly enable you to explore, play chords and play chord progressions on ukulele.

The perfect tools for the task are free, online at Chord Transposer and Sound Thinking chord finder. Much more on this soon, and a simple solution to get you going.

An interactive comparison: Guitar vs. Tenor/Soprano uke

Here's a link that will take you to an instrument comparison page on Sound Thinking:

     Interactive ukulele/guitar comparison

It shows how tenor/soprano uke are the same as a guitar with a capo on the 5th fret. For some people, this sort of visual guide is all they need. Here you can see the guitar's D fingering at the fifth fret (which, due to the effect of the capo is actually a G chord), and t othe right is the uke's D chords.

Leveraging your guitar knowledge

Shortly, I'll introduce you to a tranpositional trick that lets you 'think guitar' while playing ukulele. Though this 'chord chart transposing' technique is a handy shortcut, if you're serious about ukulele, eventually you should memorize the ukulele chord names for the various guitar shapes. This may come naturally in short order; it may take some conscious effort over time. Once you know ukulele chords by name, you'll be able to read ukulele chord charts directly, without transposing them, and you'll be able follow a spoken list of chords.

Deferring to style

Shortcuts and raw understanding are great, but there is the all-important element of musical style. Learning chords and applying a pocketful of familiar guitar strums to ukulele makes not a lu'au-ready player.

There are many stylistic forms in traditional ukulele playing. Traditional players possess a treasure chest of interesting rhythmic strumming patterns, specific chord voicings, cohesive chord progressions, and other nuances worthy of attention. There are delicate regional stylistic nuances.

You might feel all pumped up after mastering your first song or two on ukulele. But before you bust in on a smokin' Hawaiian session, quietly join the circle, sit an listen, notice the type of repertoire, observe the elders ... have your ukulele on your lap or in its case, wait until you're invited to play, and enjoy your front row seat. And once invited, tread softly as you go, and don't try to play on every song.

Aside from traditional Hawaiian styles, people frequently play ukulele to accompany American swing, jazz music from the 20' through 40's ... and that's really a fun romp. While there's a lot to learn from the pros in this arena, you should feel relatively free to innovate.

Oh, and as a newbie in a new land, be sure you pronounce ukulele correctly: oo-koo-LAY-lay. That's why we say 'an ukulele' instead of 'a ukulele.'

OK ... my admonition is complete. So let's jump in! But please note that I've really dashed off the following discussion, and it surely needs editing and improving. So proceed with caution.

Coming to Grips

Here's a side-by-side comparison of a guitar D chord and a Ukulele G chord. Physically they look the same. The colored fingering positions are identical. However the letter names are different:



Guitar D chord

Ukulele G chord


  Guitar D chord  

On the left, we have the guitar D grip. When we apply a guitar 'D grip' to ukulele, the result is an ukulele G chord. (We'll use the term 'grip' throughout this article to refer to a fingering shape, without respect to note names, letter names or key.)

The notes in the guitar D diagram are D, F# and A, which is a D chord. When we examine at that same finger shape (or grip) in the ukulele G diagram we see that the notes are G, B, and D, and indeed those are the notes in a G chord. Conversely, from a ukulelist's point of view, when we apply an ukulele 'G grip' to guitar, we get a guitar D chord.

Why is this so? Each ukulele string is tuned a perfect 4th higher than guitar (four letter names higher):

            Strings number:    6th  5th  4th  3rd  2nd  1st

                               ---  ---  ---  ---  ---  –--

            Guitar strings:     E    A    D    G    B    E

     Tenor Ukulele strings:    n/a  n/a   G    C    E    A  


Accordingly, since each string is four letter names higher, each individual chord tone is a 4th higher than on guitar ... and just as the individual chord tones are a 4th higher on uke, when we apply a 'guitar chord grip' to the ukulele, we get a chord that's four letter names higher. Ergo, a guitar D grip produces a G chord on ukulele— just count up four letter names (D E F G) and you've transposed. Add four letter names to any guitar grip and you know the real ukulele name for that grip.

But this is hard, and you probably just want to play. So that's enough thinking for now!

In order to easily explore the ukulele, we're going employ some tranpositional magic and set aside the music theory. We'll get back to those nitty gritty theoretical details in due course ... and at that time I'll explain some important details, for instance, you'll see why a guitar F grip produced a ukulele Bb (rather than a simple B chord.) You may already understand this ... if not, just let it go for now.

OK. Get ready to take the easiest possible route to get you playing uke. Let's transpose some ukulele chord charts. After we do, ukulele chords will make perfect sense.

Transposing chords automatically

Here's the trick. If you transpose the chords of any ukulele chord chart you can play ukulele as if it was a guitar, except of course you have two less strings, and many previously untenable chords are now manageable.

Transposer will perform the transpositional calculations for us in a split second. First you need to find or create some text-based ukulele chord charts, run them through Transposer. Then you're on your way, and view the ukulele from a guitarist's perspective.



NOTE: This article is unfinished. Sorry, but I've been sidetracked. Feel free to read on, but I don't guarantee coherency or logical flow. This is basically a first draft.

Here are some online resources for text-based ukulele chord charts:

There are lot's of ukulele resources online. Here are a few:


The amount to transpose depends on what kind of ukulele you play:

For baritone ukulele no transposition is required—the letter names of uke's four strings (DGBE) are the same as the guitar's 4th through 1st strings.

When reading a ukulele chord chart written for a standard tuned ukulele (a tenor uke tuned GCEA, aka C6) transpose the chords down a fourth (or up a fifth.) Then you can read and play the chords just like on guitar ... *** and the concert pitch of your chords will match the sound of a ukulele. Handy trick!

Ukulele D tuning (A D F# B or D6) is a whole step higher than standard ukulele, a fifth higher than the 4th through 1st strings of the guitar. So transpose those chord charts down a fifth (or up a fourth.)

Or transpose the chords to Roman numbering. Then, after you decide on your key, it doesn't matter whether you look at it from a guitar or ukulele perspective. Use the rules above for choosing the key: Down a fourth when thinking guitar while playing tenor uke C-tuning; down a fifth when playing in D-tuning.

Transposing ukulele chords manually

So let's try out some transpositional logic. First, remember than an ukulele is tuned a perfect 4th above guitar. So ...if you play a Dm grip on ukulele, what chord do you get? You get a G minor— G minor is a perfect 4th above D minor. It's easy to count your way to the correct answer. You start at D and simply count four steps up the D major scale: 1,2,3,4: D, E, F#, G. Works every time. When you play a guitar fingering on ukulele, you can figure out the ukulele name by counting up a fourth (five frets) from the guitar chord name.

Transposing guitar chords manually

What if you want to play a D chord on ukulele? What guitar grip should you use? Start at D and count backwards four steps down the D scale: 1, 7, 6, 5; D, C#, B, A. The answer is an A grip. When you want to play a ukulele chord, you can determine the required guitar grip by counting down a fourth. If you don't like counting downwards, you can count up a fifth. (We just saw that if we count downwards four steps from a ukulele D we get a guitar A grip. If we count five steps upwards from D, we get the same answer: D, E, F, G, A.

I know all that counting seems like a lot of mental effort. You could proceed like this, mentally transposing every chord. But if you don't want to get caught counting on you fingers in public, you could try to establish a lasting mental image. You could make a set of flash cards and test yourself daily. Or like most people, you could patiently rely on extended exposure, and wait a ' ukulele lobe' develops in your brain, where ukulele chords are remapped to the corresponding guitar grips.

The third diagram shows the guitar with capo of the fifth fret, and though we think of that shape as D, it actually sounds a G chord.


Guitar D chord

Ukulele G chord

D grip capo 5 (G chord)

  Guitar D chord Ukulele G chord


Guitar and ukulele chordal similarities exist because both instruments have similar, essential identical intervals between strings. The four strings of the ukulele are tuned with the same intervals as strings 4 through 1 of the guitar ( ... although there's a slight reentrant difference, which I'll explain shortly.)

The open strings of standard tuned guitar are DGBE
The open strings of the standard C6 tuned ukulele are GCEA.
In either case the interval between these letter names are:
      a perfect 4th, a major 3rd, and a perfect 4th.

The capoed guitar connection

With a capo at the 5th fret there are the sounding notes of strings 4 through 1 of a standard tuned guitar, shown in treble clef notation. The notes are GCEA:

         Notes of guitar, capo 5

Here are the open strings of the ukulele:

         ukulele tuning treble clef

The obvious difference is the ukulele's high reentrant G—that G is an octave higher than the 4th string of the guitar capoed at the 5th fret. Reentrant tunings are rather uncommon. The term simply means that the notes are not in straight ascending order. Other instruments with reentrant tunings are: five-string banjo, Cuatro, and Charango. In a sense, even 12-string guitar is reentrant.

Because of the uke's reentrant G the actual intervals of tenor C6 uke are: a descending perfect 5th, then the ascending intervals of a major 3rd and a perfect 4th. The G's octave shift is relatively inconsequential as we study chord fingerings. Therefore, we can think of the tenor uke intervals as shown in the guitar tuning: a perfect 4th, a major 3rd, and a perfect 4th.

A moment of doubt

As we seen, with a capo at the 5th fret, the guitar and and uke are practically tuned identically! So, if a capoed guitar and uke can are so similar, why even bother ukulele? Why not just play guitar capo 5?

A great deal of the ukulele's charm stems from two factors that guitar cannot reproduce: it's sweet, hollow tone, and its reentrant high G. These two elements make it an entirely unique instrument. Plus everyone looks friendly when they hold a uke. And let's not forget, it easy to  hike or travel with. And it's small size makes it a good fit for kids and people with small hands So now, with our uke enthusiasm reestablished, let's continue on.

Seeing the ukulele's inner guitar

We've seen how guitar is like ukulele. But to apply your guitar knowledge to uke we need to envision the reverse, and see the guitar in the uke fingerboard.

To be continued ...