THE TOP THREE REASONS EVERY GUITARIST should own a ukulele: 1) It’s the greatest travel instrument in the world. 2) It’s a secret weapon in the recording studio. 3) Its tuning is such that all your top-four-strings chord shapes—like the triangular “D” shape—work perfectly so you will sound great right away.
If you don’t own a uke, here’s what you need to do: Grab a guitar, take off the D string, replace it with a plain .010 or .011 and tune it up an octave. Slap a capo at the 5th fret. Now you’re in the “My dog has fleas” tuning of G, C, E, A, with the all-important high G. Trust me, that octave string is the key for getting the coolest voicings, so resist the temptation to leave it down an octave. “The high G is what makes the instrument unique,” says ukulele ninja Jake Shimabukuro, “because you can get cluster chords and piano voicings with it.” I promise you won’t miss the low end as soon as you hear some of these chords and patterns. Now that we’ve got that straight, we’re going to jump in to some of the gorgeous sounds that Jake was cool enough to demo when he was in town. If this introduction doesn’t get you hooked, I don’t know what will.
The Gmaj7 voicing in Ex. 1 is what I consider the gateway drug into ukulele addiction for guitarists. The minor second of the G and the F# makes it sound great no matter how you pick it. “I like those close voicings a lot. I’ll do the same thing to an Em chord,” says Jake as he adds a third finger to create the Emadd9 before the harp-like C pattern in the second bar. You can’t go wrong with these, so feel free to mix and match.
Jake is known for making his instrument sound like a koto, and now you can too. Play the five-note Cm scale in Ex. 2a using the recommended fingerings to keep things ringing. Jake takes it up a notch in Ex. 2b by adding octave harmonics on the G and A strings. Finally, he works in some badass power chords against the open outside strings in Ex. 2c.
The chord grips in Fig. 1 are taken from Jake’s tune “Bring Your Adz” off his record Peace, Love, Ukulele and they add up to a beautiful chord scale in Cm or Ebmaj. He plays them with his trademark fast strumming, but you can pluck or strum them as you see fit. The fingerings might seem awkward at first, but stick with them. They’re the best way to slide between the chords with ease.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of what this great instrument is capable of. Jake has proven that there’s nothing you can’t do on ukulele, so get going already!