Welcome to the wondrous universe of the ukulele fretboard. In this blog post, we’re going to walk you through the landscape of frets, tones, scales, and the music theory behind them. So if you want to understand your tiny instrument as no other, get ready for a deep dive into the ukulele fretboard.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
In this blog post about the ukulele
- Main takeaway
- Tune your ukulele
- Notes on the fretboard
- Moving up and down the ukulele fretboard
- Whole tone – transition through one fret up or down
- Semitone – transition to an adjacent fret up or down
- Sharp, flat and natural
- Enharmonic equivalents
- Some advanced music theory
- Intervals on the fretboard: Octaves, Fourths, Fifths
- Playing scales on the ukulele fretboard
- The C major scale
- Finding the C Major Scale on the ukulele fretboard
- Playing other major scales on the ukulele fretboard
- Final thoughts
When we play, we move up and down the ukulele fretboard. It’s an adventure into the world of notes. This article is your navigator which will help you explore new chord shapes, intervals, and scales on different frets.
First, we’ll explain the notes on the fretboard. Then we’ll show you how to find important and very basic intervals like the octave, the fourth and the fifth. When you’ve absorbed all that knowledge, we’ll top it off with an explanation of how to find the C major scale on your instrument. All this basic knowledge will help you to ge a better understanding of the fretboard.
Tune your ukulele
Let’s start off with something basic. Every fret on your ukulele fretboard represents a certain note, and sometimes it can even combine two notes. Alright, that escalated quickly. We’ll take it one step at a time, starting with the open strings.
An open string refers to playing a string without pressing it on the fretboard. In the figure below, you can see which note stands for which open string. The letters are the same as the ones you see on your tuner, when you’re tuning your ukulele.
Notes on the fretboard
Here is the ukulele fretboard with the main notes pointed out. Of course these are not the only notes on your uke, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First just check out the picture below.
As you already can see, some notes are neighbors – they are located on adjacent frets (like the E and the F). Other notes are divided by one fret (like the A and the B). This is a very important observation, because in musical theory we have different distances between notes. By different we actually mean there are just two types: a whole tone and a semitone.
Let’s see all seven notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) in the figure below.
Imagine a piano keyboard. All the notes above are white keys, mixed with black keys.
Moving up and down the ukulele fretboard
Moving from C to D we’re crossing a black key – this means here we have a whole tone distance. Moving from E to F we don’t have a black key – this means here we have a semitone distance. This of course is quite a short explanation of the theory. If you are really interested in the ins and outs of semitones and whole tones, just check out our music dictionary articles on these subjects.
Whole tone – transition through one fret up or down
Now we’re going to show you how all these pieces of music theory come together on your ukulele fretboard. Let’s stick with the example of the C and D notes. Looking at the ukulele fretboard, we can see that the C is located on the third fret of the first (A) string. Keep in mind that we can find the same note on a few different strings located on different frets!
As we already showed in the example of the piano keyboard, we crossed a black key going from C to D. We do the same on the ukulele fretboard – crossing the fourth fret. Therefore, the D note is located on the fifth fret on the A string. See the picture below.
Semitone – transition to an adjacent fret up or down
For the semitone, we’ll stick with the example of the E and F notes. Look carefully at the ukulele fretboard and try to find E on the first (A) string. As you can see, it’s located on the seventh fret.
Remember that when going from E to F on the piano keyboard we didn’t have a black key? Therefore, F will be located on which fret? Yes that’s right, we’re moving to the adjacent eighth fret.
Sharp, flat and natural
We’ve covered a lot of stuff already, but there’s still some things you need to know before seeing the whole picture. That being said, let’s talk black piano keys. These keys stand for something in music theory that we call “accidentals”.
You’ve probably seen these symbols before: # and b. The hashtag stands for what we call sharp, and the little b represents flat. When there’s no symbol in front of a note, we call it a “natural”. “But what do these sharps and flats do?” Yeah, we hear you.
To summarize it real quick, a sharp increases a specific note one fret up (one semitone up), a flat drops a certain note one fret down (one semitone down), and a natural returns the original pitch of the note if the note had a sharp or flat sign before.
When all this happens, the name of the note stays the same, except for the addition of the # or b of course. So a D sharp looks like this: D#. And a D flat on the other hand looks like this: Db. Whatever happens, the D remains.
Okay – so far, so good. Now it’s time to take this theory about accidentals one step further by introducing the term enharmonic equivalents. Yeah that’s a mouthful, we know. The real question is of course: What does it mean? Let’s go back to the example of the C and D notes on the first (A) string of the ukulele. As we just saw, the C is on the third fret, and the D is on the fifth fret. So what lies between them on the fourth fret?
On this fret, we have two notes: C# (C sharp) and Db (D flat) – notes with the accidentals. On your ukulele, the C# and the Db have the same pitch, or sound, if you will. They are just named differently.
Some advanced music theory
Remember that a sharp pitches the note half a step up, and a flat pitches the note half a step down? So the name of the note depends on the way you move on the fretboard. Moving down is a flat (b), and moving up is a sharp (#).
This, of course, is too simplified. The real theory is a bit more complicated: the name depends on the current key. Some sharp keys have G#, some flat keys have Ab. So, you can name a note, depending on the current key. Don’t get scared if this sounds like abracadabra to you. It’s a little piece of advanced music theory. In the picture below you can see all enharmonic possibilities until the twelfth fret.
Intervals on the fretboard: Octaves, Fourths, Fifths
Do you know how to find octaves, fourths and fifths on your ukulele fretboard? If not, we’re here to help. If yes, then here’s a little something to refresh your memory. Octaves, fourths, and fifths are the basis of blues and rock ‘n roll genres, so it’s always good to understand them well.
Furthermore, fifths and octaves are part of the famous power chord. Yeah, a power chord is exactly what it sounds like, raw and powerful. So we guess you don’t need any more convincing that it’s worth spending some time learning these intervals on your uke, right? That’s what we thought. Let’s go!
How to find octaves and unisons on your ukulele
When we’re playing octaves, we use a pair of strings. These are not adjacent strings. Bear with us while we show you two ways to play octaves on your ukulele fretboard. The first option is a pair of strings that are separated by one string. In this case, we have two combinations on the ukulele fretboard: the 4th and 2nd string, or the 3rd and 1st string.
Let’s take a closer look at the pair of the 4th and 2nd string. The 4th string is a G, and the 2nd string is an E, creating a music interval of a minor third. For this pair of strings, instead of an octave we’re getting a unison – a note of the same pitch, played on two different strings at the same time.
The pair of the 3rd and 1st string gives us an octave interval. In the picture below you can see the two examples of octaves and unisons. The arrows are pointing in the direction of the lower pitch to higher.
The second option – and this one is not very well known, so it can be your secret tool – is to use a pair of strings that are separated by two strings. There’s only one combination on the ukulele fretboard for this trick: the 4th and the 1st string.
Let’s take a closer look at the 4th and 1st string: they are G and A respectively, creating a small music interval of a major second. So, we’re getting an unison interval again! Here are two examples of unisons on the pair of 4th and 1st strings. Practice the octaves for a while, and when you’re done we’ll proceed with the intervals for the fourths and fifths.
How to find fourths on the ukulele fretboard
We have a way to find these intervals from each string to the next. In other words, we find these intervals on adjacent strings. In the picture below, you can see how to find fourths (and one fifth, see further explanation) on your ukulele. The arrows are pointing in the direction of the lower pitch to higher.
Let’s take a closer look at the 4th and 3rd string: the 4th string is tuned higher than the 3rd string – G and C notes respectively. In this way, we’ll get a higher pitch on the 4th string than on the 3rd string. Therefore, instead of the fourth interval, we’re getting the fifth interval.
How to find fifths on the ukulele
Here is the way to find fifths from each string up to the next adjacent string on the ukulele fretboard. As in the previous picture, the arrows are pointing in the direction of the lower pitch to higher. Again, the 4th and 3rd string form an exemption here. Instead of fourths, we’re getting fifths.
At this point you are probably overwhelmed with all these lines and dots. Don’t worry, take your time! Here is a good exercise to practice what you’ve learned: Pick any note on the fretboard and try to find all three intervals for that note: Octave (in two different ways, if possible), fourth and fifth.
Playing scales on the ukulele fretboard
Why is it so important to be able to find and play certain scales on your ukulele? Well, knowing scales will definitely help you to understand how a song was created. Therefore, you can jam over songs or just add some notes from the scale to your chords.
There are many different types of scales. In this article we’ll show you how to find the C major scale, and by doing so we’re actually handing you the key to unlock the door to a lot of other major scales. Just read ahead and you’ll see what we’re talking about.
The C major scale
The C major scale is a very basic scale. It doesn’t have any accidentals – so no hashtags or lower case b’s in this one. Therefore, it can be easily played on piano by using only white keys. We have some very good news regarding the ukulele: when you know how to play the C major scale in a certain position, you can use the same fingering on different frets to get other major scales. Sounds cool, right? That’s what we thought.
The notes that the C major scale contains are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C again. Remember we talked about distances between notes in the beginning of this article? Here is what the C major scale looks like.
Finding the C Major Scale on the ukulele fretboard
Let’s take a closer look at this scale on the ukulele fretboard. First of all, the scale will contain two C notes: the G string 5th fret position, and the E string 8th fret position. Yup, that’s an octave right there. When it comes to all the other notes of the C major scale on the ukulele fretboard that lie between the octave we just pointed out, just see the picture below. Play it and listen to how it sounds!
Playing other major scales on the ukulele fretboard
Now let’s try to transpose this scale. How about we try to play the D major scale? Which fret do we need to move our fingers on? In the case of the ukulele, we have a D note on the 7th fret of the G string. Move your starting position there, and play the same pattern as the one you just did for C major.
As you can see on the picture above, the pattern remains the same for the D major scale. We only moved our starting position two frets up. And to answer the question that’s rising up in your mind: Yes, this is how easy it is to play major scales on your uke.
Is your head almost bursting with all this new information, and are your fingers burning from practicing? It’s okay, don’t worry too much about it. This kind of stuff isn’t very easy when you’re learning it, but it becomes very easy once you understand it.
Yeah, that’s the way the cookie crumbles with most skills. Just keep practicing, and don’t look at the details. Try to see the bigger picture so your understanding of the ukulele fretboard broadens, just like your skills. Happy jamming!