Memorizing chord shapes (Ukulele)


Any suggestions for memorizing chord shapes?

C7 = 0001
CM7 = 0002
C = 0003
Cm = 0333

Explanation of the numbers:
While holding the ukulele, the numbers represent the fret number that you hold down, from fret closest to the ceiling, to the fret closest to the floor.

Start with the chord name, i.e. C7, then come up with the numbers, 0001.

(Josh Cohen) #2

I don’t play the ukulele, but if it were guitar, I’d learn about the shapes of intervals and chords.

Play these in order and watch which string change:

Play them in that order in the same position, and then you’ll see which notes in the chord are the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Learn them in open position (with at least one open string) and then the same chords in higher positions on the neck.

Once you know the shapes of the intervals for each chord type you can move the shapes to other positions. E.g., DM7 is going to be the same shape two frets up from CM7, shown on this chart:

If you do it by shape and understand the intervals, you’ll be able to be more flexible with playing and to derive new chords just from the shapes, even if you don’t already know them.

(Josh Cohen) #3

Actually, looking at that chart, it may be better to do the B chords first, since they are in closed position (no open strings) and are entirely movable up and down the neck. If you know those B chords, you’ll know the same chords in every other key.

(Ben Pridmore) #4

I’d really love to see some creative ideas here - I’ve wanted to learn to play the ukulele for ages, but never managed to get to grips with it…

(Josh Cohen) #5

If you understand the following, you can make any chord without having to memorize much:

(Disclaimer: I haven’t played in years, so there may be mistakes – check with a chord construction chart.)

Chord Construction

A chord is just three notes: 1, 3, and 5.
If you make a 7th chord, you add the 7th: 1, 3, 5, 7.

If you are in the key of C, the notes are:
c, d, e, f, g, a, b

The basic chord (major) is the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note: c, e, g – with four string instrument, one note will be doubled.

For a basic 7th chord (major 7th), it’s the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th: c, e, g, b – with a four string instrument, the fifth might be missing in some forms.

If you remember “fat cats give dogs and endless battle”, it gives you: f, c, g, d, a, e, b. That gives you the circle of fifths which tells you how many sharps and flats a key has.

The key of F has one flat: b
The key of C has no sharps or flats.
The key of G has one sharp: f
The key of D has two sharps: f, c
The key of A has three sharps: f, c, g
The key of E has four sharps: f, c, g, d

The sharps are added in the same order: “fat cats give dogs an endless battle.” A mnemonic for going backwards is “by eight all dates get cold feet.”

So if you’re in the key of E, the notes are:
e, f#, g#, a, b, c#, d#

The basic chord is 1, 3, 5, so you just play: e, g#, b.
The basic (major) 7th chord is 1, 3, 5, 7, so you play e, g#, b, d#.

Once you have that concept down, you can learn what modifications each chord has:
A major chord is 1, 3, 5 (c, e, g).
A minor chord has a flat 3rd, so just move the 3rd down one fret: 1, ♭3, 5 (c, e♭, g)
A major 7th chord is 1, 3, 5, 7 (c, e, g, b)
A minor 7th chord is 1, ♭3, 5, ♭7 (c, e♭, g, b♭)
A dominant 7th chord has a flat 7th: 1, 3, 5, ♭7 (c, e, g, a♭)
A diminished chord is 1, ♭3, ♭5 (c, e♭, g♭)
An augmented chord is 1, 3, #5 (c, e, g#)

Once you know how each chord is constructed, you can play any chord.

Chord Scales

Each key has a chord scale. In the key of c, it will be: c, d, e, f, g, a, b.
If you’re on a piano, start on the C note and build a chord (1, 3, 5). That will be c, e, g.
The next node of the scale after c is d. Build a chord (1, 3, 5) starting on d, only using notes in the C scale and you’ll get d, f, a.

d, f, a is a d chord, but the key of d has two sharps: f and c (see above). A d major chord would be d, f#, a. Since the chord you’re playing doesn’t have an f sharp as the third, it means that that the third was flatted which tells you that d, f, a is a minor chord according to the chord formulas above.

If you build a chord on each note of the c scale (c, d, e, f, g, a, b) using only notes in the c scale, you’ll get:
C Maj, d min, e min, f Maj, G7, a min, b diminished

A popular song in C will generally use those chords more than any other chords.

The above is for three-note chords. For 7th chords, it’s:
C maj 7, D min 7, E min 7, F maj 7, G7, A min 7, Bm7♭5, C Maj 7

When looking at bigger chord names like Bm7♭5, you can figure it out according to the basic rules: a minor 7th chord is 1, ♭3, 5, ♭7. The chord name says ♭5, so just flat the 5th and you’ll have the right chord. If the key is C, just take the 1, 3, 5, 7 and then flat the 3, the 5 and the 7 and you’ll have a Bm7♭5.

Chord Changes

Most songs follow just a few chord patterns.

Example: 1, 4, 5 is very common. In the key of C, the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords are C Maj, F Maj, G7.

2, 5, 1 is another common one. In C that would be: d min, G7, C Maj


The chords for Somewhere Over the Rainbow are:
C, Em, F, G, Am

The chord scale for C is:
C, Dm, Em, F, G(7), Am, B dim

…so all the the chords for that song are right in the C scale: 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Using the above information the entire song can now be memorized and played in any key with just this sequence of numbers:
1, 3, 4, 1
4, 1, 5, 6, 4

(Josh Cohen) #6

This site might be useful to see it visually:

The C scale is:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B

A C chord is 1, 3, 5, so C, E, G:


To make it a minor chord, just flat the 3rd, making C, E♭, G:

(E♭ is the correct way to write it, but D# is the same note.)


Once you learn a couple dozen chord shapes, you can move the same shape around the neck.

Here’s an A chord:


Move the shape up two frets and you have a B chord:


If you keep track of which notes are the 1, 3, and 5, you can then derive other chords from the shape. A minor chord is the same thing but with a flatted third. In the key of B, the third is the D#. So just move that down one fret and the B chord will turn into a B minor chord. Or move it to another position on the neck to play the same chord in another key.

I also found a post that shows how to play a chord scale on the ukulele:


Thanks for your suggestions, Josh. I do know the theory, but it takes quite a while to figure out a chord, and actually get the fingers on the frets. It’s a slow process

  • Chord is F
  • OK, let me think, the notes are F A C
  • Now what are those strings? Oh yeah, G C E A
  • Where can I find an F? Hmmm F is the first fret up from E
  • Now where can I find an A? Oops, it’s right here on the 1st string
  • How about a C? Yup, right here on the 3rd string
  • Yikes! the fourth string is a G, what do I do with that. I know! Press the second fret (= A)

The suggestion about learning barre chords is probably the best. If I know C, C7, and Cmin with the root on the 1st string, I can move that up the neck and get 12 chords! Can do the same thing with the root on strings 2, 3 & 4, and that would give me 48 chords.

Right now I am working on my chord vocabulary, which shows various chord diagrams. The diagrams can be “translated” into tabs. E.g. Asus4 = 2200. Rather than going through my painful process as outlined above, I would like to go directly from the name (Asus2) to the tab (2200), so that when I see the name of the chord I can come up with the tab.

Any idea how to do a name > 4 digit number memory trick?

Or, I guess I could work on my song repertoire, and memorize songs, and chord progressions.

(Josh Cohen) #8

I guess you could map chord names to 4-digit numbers, but I think it would be faster to learn five or 10 moveable chord shapes along with the intervals for each chord shape.

I’d memorize that A is a certain shape (2100) and then figure out the notes.


You can then say the names of the notes (A C# E A) and intervals (1 3 5 1).

Just from that you can figure out Asus4 without memorization by moving the 3rd up a fret – C# to D:


That results in the major chords and sus4 chords in every key to the limit of that shape on the neck.

For a minor, just move that third down one fret.
For augmented, move the fifth up one fret (2110).
For a dominant 7th chord, use the low string to play the 7th (0100).
You can also build major and minor 7th chords with similar modifications.

That one basic shape plus the knowledge of which string contains which interval in that particular shape would probably give you at least 70+ different chords to play just by memorizing 2100 (open A chord).*

  • I don’t play ukulele, but I’m guessing you might have 12 frets before you hit the body. There are at least six basic chords for that shape, so 12 * 6 = 72.

Just some ideas… :slight_smile:

You could try to find a way to attach a chord name like Asus4 to 2200, but it would take more time and might be weird. For me, 2200 is an onion on top of a sewing needle – not really an image I necessarily want to see when I’m listening to or playing certain music. :slight_smile:


I know this is an old thread but I want to add my tuppence worth. I’m a pretty accomplished guitarist and not so good saxophone player.

Most of what you do as a musician is muscle memory, you don’t really think very much about it. I never think as I’m playing, here is the first position of a Major 7 chord shape, I’m in G so its notes are G B D F#, the shape is … whatever… It is just “under the fingers”. If you’re reading a chord chart you just go to the place with no processed thought. The way to get to that point is to practice the shapes. Just changing between them as much as possible.

I would learn a few chord progressions.
The 1, 5 m 6, 4 progression:
I - - - V - - - vi - - - IV - - -

In C that would be:
C G A minor and F.
It’s the Beatles’ Let It Be sequence (and hundreds of others).

Hundreds, indeed thousands of popular songs are based on this sequence.

If you play
I - - - vi - - - IV - - - V - - -
you’re suddenly a fifties cover band (Earth Angel)

Also you can start the first sequence on the 6 minor so… in C… Am, F, C, G.
That’s the Toto’s Africa (and hundreds of others).

Now learn the basic 12 bar blues progression, this is on the one four and five chords, so in C, C, F and G.
I - - - IV - I - V - I -
(Johnny Be Goode, Hound Dog).

Now as the punks used to say, “here are three chords, go and write a song!”

Anyway lean a few of these chord sequences / patterns in other keys aside from C. I’d learn C then “one sharp two sharps, one flat two flats” as my old sax teacher used to say… so C (no sharps and flats in the key), then G (one sharp key), D (two sharps in the key), then F (one flat in the key) and lastly B flat which has two flats.

Just write them out and bash through them, get muscle memory. When you play a bar of a C major chord you fingers should want to automatically go to the G for instance.

Musicians don’t think apart from when tackling something difficult like a solo over a strange chord sequence, and even then you’ll find the experienced guys are using stock phrases they’ve learned over years.

I’d start with some popular song and learn it. Play it to everyone you can, start with your goldfish and move up to the dog and perhaps small children before making “real” people listen.

As a guitarist I’d suggest as Josh has you learn the moveable shapes over the open chords, I don’t think that’s as applicable to ukulele as I suspect it’s more to do with the open ringing strings to give it its tone, but I don’t really know.

(Josh Cohen) #10

Someone told me another mnemonic for the circle of fifths that works forwards and backwards:

  • Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle
  • Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles’ Father


I think memorizing chord shapes has to be done by rote. Memorizing songs encoded to numbers even seems dubious unless you get the added benefit of easily transposing.


Curt Shellor has a very logical system for learning uke and guitar chords. I adapted it to the mandolin.

For a dominant 7th, you are going to have a Root, 3rd, 5th and b7.
These notes can be placed on any of the four strings, so you have these permutations:

Some of these permutations are not physically possible to play, so you eliminate them. You can figure this all out yourself, or buy Shellor’s materials that show you the playable permutations.

Learn all the permutations of the dominant 7th chord.

Then memorize the rules:
Minor: lower 3rd half step.
M7: raise b7 half step.
For 7, M7, m7, +7, half dim, and dim.

Learn to effortlessly play all permutations of 7, M7, m7, +7, half dim, and dim.

After you get really good at all permutations of these six chords, learn the rules for the 6ths, sus, alt and extended voicings. You can systematically work on mastering all permutations, or just learn the rules and figure them out as needed when they appear in tunes. Since you only have 4 strings, extended voicings will require you to modify the an R 3 5 or 7 into a 9, 11, or 13. Sometimes there is more than one way to do this.

You can do the same on guitar by choosing 4-string sets and working out the permutations. This leaves out 5 and 6 string chords. In Jazz, this is a standard practice. Players usually don’t want fat, muddy chords and will often “imply” larger chords with only two or three notes.

I made Anki cards that look like this:

For guitar, it could look like this:

The Key (A) is random to reinforce all note locations on the fretboard.

The shape is indicated by “3R75”. This tells me where I put the 3R7 and 5, or the variation that the rule requires. I don’t put “3 R M7 5, because I want to require myself to remember which notes get modified from the basic dominant 7 shape.

I don’t put a picture on the back. If I can’t remember the shape, I figure it out.

The baseline knowledge for this method would be knowing the notes of the fretboard and enough music theory to formulate the rules.

Shellor’s material are good and available for instant download. Throw him a few bucks.


I wish I could know how to play some string instrument…

(Josh Cohen) #14

Guitar is a good one. It’s portable and relatively easy to learn. :slight_smile: