Updated: Jul 23, 2018
The ukulele is more popular than ever, but it’s still a rarity at regular music jams. When there are no other ukuleles around to poach chords from, it's helpful to be able to translate guitar chords, since there's usually at least one guitar at a jam. Spend just a little time training your eye to recognize guitar chords and you’ll increase the number of songs you can play along with when you don’t have a music sheet — or a fellow ukulelian — in front of you. It’s easier than you may think.
You can use the same chord sheet for just about any instrument because everyone is playing the same chord at the same time. The main difference is the shape your fingers make to form the chords is different on each instrument. Just to make things extra fun, a few finger shapes are the same on different instruments, but yield different chords. For example, that same triangle you make to form a G chord on a uke is used to make a D chord on a guitar.
Another challenge comes when you know a tune in one key, but the person leading the tune knows it in another key. You need to be able to see what chords they’re forming so you can translate them onto your uke if you can't do it in your head on the fly. A capo can help with this -- I'll get into how that works in another blog post soon.
For basic chords, I find guitars are easier to poach chords from than ukuleles because the bigger fretboard makes it easier to identify what the clump of fingers is doing. You just need to be able to identify the basic shape that clump of fingers is taking.
Download this handy guitar chord cheat sheet and get together with a friend who plays the guitar to help you learn how to identify basic chords on sight — or just spend some time studying the sheet so you’ll be able to recognize them when you see them at the next jam session.
A lot of country, bluegrass, and Americana tunes use the chords on this sheet. It’s not a comprehensive chord sheet by any stretch. There are hundreds of chords, but you need only a few to get you going. If a tune you want to learn uses a chord not covered, hunt it down, find an image, and sketch it in.
Most musicians are encouraging to beginners, especially if they show they’re serious about learning and improving. So don’t be shy about asking what chord they were playing after the song is over. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a player “I got the G, C, and D, but what was that weird chord in the chorus?” Typically, they readily share. Or, even more encouragingly, they’ll say “I don’t know, I was trying to figure that out myself!” Why is that encouraging? Because it confirms that you aren’t the only one in the dark or on the learning journey. If, on the other hand, they’re cranky about it, that’s ok, too. You know that they’re not the right person to turn to for help, which is valuable information. Find someone else to help you along on your journey. Heck, you can even ask someone who plays a different instrument because everyone’s playing the same chords.
It does take some doing to train your brain to see an A chord on a guitar and make a differently shaped A chord on your uke. It’s like the famous Stroop effect, where you see the word “blue” but it’s printed in red and your brain seizes up when you’re asked to read the word aloud. With practice, the visual/manual coordination of seeing a guitar chord and translating it to your uke will come.