How to Read Ukulele Chord Diagrams for Beginners

There comes a point where each beginner ukulele player realizes they need to learn to read chord diagrams. Afterall, these can help you play some of the most beautiful songs you can imagine. So how can you read ukulele chord diagrams?

When you are first starting, imagine the chord chart as the front of your ukulele. When facing it, you will notice that the diagram outlines a shape similar to the fretboard. From there, you can start to infer what certain notations may be and where your fingers should be placed.

It is no secret that musical notation can be complicated, especially if you are a beginner. Even with an initial, base understanding of what you are looking at, you may still find yourself a little lost. What does a ukulele diagram really notate? Where do your fingers go? We will break down each part of the diagram and how to read it so you can learn with ease.

Explaining the Diagrams from Top to Bottom

Having diagrams to assist in learning a new instrument can be a blessing and a curse. If you are brand new to any instrument, making heads or tails of what you are looking at without guidance can be a headache. The good news is that, even if you are familiar with music playing already, different instruments have different notation systems.

Why is that good news? Well, it means that your confusion as a beginner isn’t unwarranted. There is always some period of trial and error when it comes to any instrument. Ukulele chord diagrams can honestly look like a code left behind by some ancient aliens at first glance. But once broken down into its base parts, you can begin to read them like a road map!

Thick Line at the Top

For most of your beginner chords, you will notice the top of the diagram has a thick line compared to the rest within the diagram. This thicker line notates the nut of the ukulele. The nut is the very top of your fretboard and lies between the headstock where all of the tuning pegs are and the actual fretboard.

On your ukulele, this bit has grooves to allow you to place the strings and hold them in place when restringing. Many beginning players use this as a baseline to start counting their frets for finger placement. Think of it as the number one when counting.

What If There Is No Thick Line at the Top?

No thick line? No need to panic. The ukulele can have anywhere from twelve to twenty frets on its fretboard, depending on the style. On your standard ukulele chord diagram, you can see that it shows a four by three grid. This is your first four frets. What if you have fingering further down the neck of the ukulele?

In these instances, there will not be a dark, thick line at the top, noting that you are further down the board for finger placement. In these cases, there may also be a number in the left-hand side of the diagram, such as a five or a ten. This is telling you the first line is fret five or ten! Count your way down to the notated fret and then start from there.

Four Strings on a Ukulele

Four Strings on a Ukulele

As we stated, the ukulele chord diagram is broken into a four-by-three grid. If you look closely, you can see that this is created by four vertical lines going up and down. These are your strings. These lines read from left to right as fourth string, third string, second string, and on the very right, we have the first string.

This can be a little confusing as to when you are looking down while playing the ukulele. You may feel that the first string notes the top string closer to your face. If you have made this mistake, as many of us have, do not fret (pun intended).

This is a common misconception due to the nature of playing. Your first string is actually closest to the ground, and the “top” closest string is your fourth string!

Frets

Horizontally across the diagram, we have three more lines to worry about. These four lines are the frets! On your uke, these are the silver lines creating separations in your fretboard. Now, it’s important to note that when we press on the string to play a note, we do not press directly on the fret itself.

This will usually create a flat note, which, unless indicated by the diagram, is not ideal. The space we usually focus on is between the frets. This will also not create a mute string. On the contrary, doing so will actually change the chord you are trying to play and may cause dissonance.

Tuning

Some handy ukulele chord diagrams may even include the tuning your strings should be in. This varies from diagram to diagram on placement—some place notation at the bottom of the diagram, some at the top. Generally, unless otherwise noted, your ukulele will be tuned to G, C, E, A, which is the most common tuning.

Where Do My Fingers Go?

Not sure where to put your fingers? No problem! The entire point of a ukulele chord diagram is to show you the placement of your fingers to achieve the chord you want! Some diagrams are especially handy by noting which finger goes where using a number system. For these, remember, your index finger is one, the middle is two, the ring is three, and the pinky is four!

The notation dots reside on each line, showing you exactly where to press. To make doubly sure you have it right, remember, each set of three horizontal blocks in a horizontal line corresponds with a part of the fretboard. You may wish to notate them as one, two, three, and four on your personal diagram for ease of use!

Chords Vs. Tabs: What’s the Difference?

Learning chords are already hard enough, so it can be baffling when you type in a search for chords and get a series of numbers looking like this:

A|——3–2—————————————————————–|

E|————3–5–7–8—–5–3—–1–0——–0–1————–0——–|

C|—0——————–0——–0——–0–2——–2–0–0–2—–0—–|

G|—————————————————————————|

Courtesy of Ultimate-Guitar.com

What is this horrifying mess? These are tabs or tablature. While chords can teach you a collection of notes that, when played together, sound great, tabs teach you the fingering to make a song work. They have very little in terms of musical notation aside from finger placement, save for the notation of what to tune your strings to.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to learning how to play. However, learning chords teaches you the music theory behind sounds, how to play and allows for more creative freedom. Tabs, on the other hand, will teach you exactly what to play when you want to play it. Many use tabs to get the gist of a song when they are in a pinch to perform.

How to Read Ukulele Chord Diagrams, Final Thoughts

Playing the ukulele can be a fun and freeing experience. Once you can crack the code of chords, with simple practice, you can begin mastering this wonderful, warm instrument.

Remember there is no “wrong way” to learn, so find the best flow that fits your needs as a player. With ukulele chord diagrams, you are just one step closer to showing others the awesome power of the uke.