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You don't need to know music theory to play an instrument

Updated: May 4, 2020

There is no secret code to playing music. You don’t need to have some kind of pre-installed talent. You don’t even have to be able to read music. You can learn to play without knowing anything about music theory. As with picking up any new skill, it's all about finding your focus and learning how to learn.

How to play the ukulele without knowing any music theory

When I teach ukulele to beginners, I usually start with just four chords: C, A minor, F, and G7. These chords flow nicely into each other and form the foundation for a boatload of popular tunes from many genres. By the time the first class is over, those beginners playing a tune after starting at ground zero and are hungry for more.

I'm assuming you know how to hold and strum the uke. We're just focusing on how to flow smoothly from one chord to the next. Here goes: – Ring finger above the third fret of the bottom, or C string, forms the C chord (strum!) – Then lift that finger up and put your middle finger above the second fret on the top/G string, to make the A minor chord (strum!)

– Go back and forth between those two chords until you don't even have to think about it. – Now from A minor, leave the middle finger planted and make the F chord by putting your index finger above the first fret of the second/E string from the bottom (strum!) – Leave the pointer finger planted and surround it on the next fret down with your middle and ring fingers to make the G7 chord (strum!)

– Go back and forth between the F and G7 chords until it feels natural. – Then, from the G7, slide back down to the C, and begin again.

Let's get down to playing some music

Now that you have a handful of chords at your fingertips, here's how to string them together into a song. All you need is a song sheet, which looks something like these examples:

C G7

Happy birthday to you


[C] Happy birthday to [G7] you

Those examples show where to change chords. You start out in the C chord, and then when you get to the word "you," you switch to G7, on the beat. That's why it helps to be able to change chords without looking, so you can keep track of where you are in the tune, if you're using a song sheet or if you're trying to poach chords from another player.

Whether you’re playing a guitar, a ukulele, a banjo, a mandolin, a fiddle, the everybody is making the same chord. The only difference is how you arrange your fingers on the strings of each instrument to make those chords. When you make them is also the same for each instrument. You can use this same chord sheet for any instrument to play this:

C G7 Happy birthday to you C Happy birthday to you F Happy birthday, Ukulelian C G7 C Happy birthday to yooooooooo!

All you have to do is learn those three or four chords and you'll find about 95,000 other songs that have those same chords. Rock, country, folk, Motown, Americana, bluegrass — the background music of your life is jammed with songs that use those three chords, and they are now accessible to you, without having to learn a lick of music theory. Many well known musicians don't know how to notate or read music, so you're in excellent company. You can find resources for song sheets here (scroll down on that page.)   

Learn to play -- the theory will always be there when you're ready

If someone told you that you had to put an engine together before you could drive a car, most of us would be saying to the person next to us on the bus, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to drive but I never was very mechanical.” Same thing with music theory and reading music. There’s definitely a place for learning it, and you’ll be a much better musician the more deeply you absorb music theory, but let’s just turn the key in the car and get going fast enough to feel the wind in our hair before we get into more complicated things.


Click here for an ever-growing roster of resources for playing music

Happy strumming!


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