When you were debating between buying a ukulele or accordion, remember the clerk at the store saying, “The ukulele is easier. Just put one finger here and you’re playing a C chord!” That siren song of the key of C has lured many beginning players into the one-key quagmire. There are a couple of ways to escape this Bastille of solitary (key) confinement. You could move to Canada. Above the 49th parallel, the generally accepted tuning of the ukulele is the key of D. So sell your house, get a visa, tune up a whole-step on each string, and voilà—you can now play in the key of D!
THE “C SHAPE”
“The Movable Nut System” is a simple method for playing in all 12 keys. The little piece of bone or plastic that separates the fretboard from the peghead is called the nut (Figure 1). Hold an open-position C major chord using your ring finger to hold down the first string at the 3rd fret (Figure 2a). To play a C# major chord, all you have to do is place your pinky finger on the first string, 4th fret (C#) and fret the other three strings at the 1st fret with an index finger barre. (Figure 2b).
The index finger of your fretting hand is now acting as a capo, or movable nut. By moving this shape up one fret at a time, you will be able to play the I chord in every key until you run out of fingerboard. On a soprano ukulele, that could be as soon as your barre reaches the 8th fret. This is where our second barre shape, the “F Shape,” can help us continue our journey through all 12 keys.
TIP When playing barre chords, do not place your thumb on the back of the neck directly behind the barre. Instead, try sliding your thumb toward the peghead to create a fulcrum effect.
THE “F SHAPE”
Hold an open-position F major chord by fretting the fourth string at the 2nd fret with the ring finger and the 2nd string at the 1st fret with the middle finger (Figure 3a). Now, move that shape up one fret toward the soundhole and use your movable nut (index finger) to barre all the strings at the 1st fret. That’s an F# major chord (Figure 3b). Move the shape up one fret at a time through the keys of G–G#–A–A#, etc. Usually by the time we reach C major, at the 7th fret, with this shape the tone will start to sound thin. To fix that, let’s learn one other movable nut shape lower down on the fretboard.
Excerpted from a lesson by Jim D'Ville in the No. 18, Fall 2017 Issue