How I Work Out Chords

You’re a fan of an Icelandic psychedelic-folk ukulele trio who released one album in 1964 and promptly split up. They had a stunning uke song that you have to play. The band and their oeuvre are entirely unknown to Google and the massed ranks of Intertubeland. What do you do?

I’ve been asked about this by maduke and there have been discussions about how to work out chords for the ukulele on Ukulele Cosmos and 4th Peg so I thought I’d weigh in with my 5 steps to working out chords.

listen1Step 1. Don’t play your ukulele: At the risk of winning the Ric Olia Award for Pointing Out The Bleeding Obvious, it’s difficult to transcribe a song if you don’t listen to it. Firstly, listen to the structure of the song: where the chords change, where bits are repeated. Try picking out whether chords are major, minor, 7ths.

See if you can recognise a chord progression from a song you know. A huge proportion of songs will include the Louie, Louie chord progression. Not necessarily those chords, but the same relationship between the chords (the I-IV-V progression). If you recognise that progression, you’ll easily be able to work out about half of all songs.

Step 2. Don’t listen to the ukulele: If the song you’re trying to work out has instruments other than the uke in, listen to those. The ukulele can be a tricky instrument to work out. The harmonies are close; it’s not always obvious what the root note is – sometimes it’s not even played at all.

The first thing you want to work out is the root note of each chord – the note it is named after e.g. the root note of Am7 is A. If there’s a bass on the track, you’re in luck. The bass will usually be playing the root note. You might want to work this out using a different instrument (guitar, bass or piano might me useful) but, if not, it’s perfectly possible on a uke.

If it’s just a uke playing, the root note may not be so obvious. Usually, it’s possible to play an imaginary bass line in your head along with the song. Hum (aloud or in your head) each note, then find it on whichever instrument you are using.

listen2Step 3. Now you can play your ukulele: By this point you should have the root notes of each chord and an idea of the overall structure of the song. Here’s where a little theory can come in useful.

There a certain chords that will sound right when put next to others. What chords sound right depends on the ‘I chord’ (usually the one at the start and end and the one that feels like home). All the other chords will relate to this in some way. The list of harmonised chords can tell you whether the chord for a particular root note is likely to be major, minor or diminished.There’s a handy list of all the harmonised chords at the bottom of this page. Also, take a look at this post on Guitar Teacher’s Lesson Notebook comparing chords to The Brady Bunch.

Step 4. Listen to the melody: With a bit of luck, by this stage you’ll know the the basic chord structure of the song; you’ll have the root notes and you’ll know if each chord is major or minor. If you play this along with the song it will probably sound just about right but, particularly if it’s a uke song, there will be notes that you seem to be missing.

Firstly, try to recognise the sound of the chord. 7th chords are common enough that you might be able to spot them in a song. The more you listen, the more chords you’ll be able to pick out.

If you can’t recognise a chord, try working out the melody. It’s easier to work out single notes than chords. Also, if the melody is familiar to you, hum the notes more slowly – give yourself more time to find them on the uke. The melody notes may form part of the chord and give you a much better idea of what the chord is.

listen3Step 5. Finishing touches: There is a good chance you’ll have worked out the song by this stage, but there may be a few chords that remain elusive. At this point I start to get desperate. Listen carefully for notes that stay the same through the chords, notes that descend or ascend (maybe chromatically). Try to focus on a single note in the chord that you’re missing. In short, do anything you can until you get it sounding right.

I’ve tried to present it in as non-technical a way as possible. But knowing some chord theory will give you a better idea of what chords might be playing.

Test Yourself

Now you’re all experts. Try to figure out these chord progressions. 100 cool points for anyone who posts the correct answer for any of these. And a million cool points for anyone who posts the right progression for Example 6.

Example 1: Only major chords in this one. A recognisable progression.

Example 2: Major and 7th chords.

Example 3: Major, minor and 7th chords.

Example 4: A more involved chord progression.

Example 5: Hardly any changes at all.

Example 6: Very tricky. There’s a melody here to help/distract you.

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