Okay… So I’m definitely no music theorist (theoryist?) but being able to change the key of a song (or use different chords) is big for the ukulele. Just to avoid the dreaded E chord if for no other reason.
When I was new (newer) to the uke, I did some clicking around looking for information on transposing the key of songs. I found some web sites and some tables and a spinny thing but it took me a while to really wrap my head around it. So I wanted to provide tools and a little explanation in hopes that beginners could understand and get it figured out. Feel free to skip all the explaining. If you’re just looking to get your hands on a key transposition table skip to the bottom.
Disclaimer: This article doesn’t dive deep into how the key of a song is determined, scales, chord theory, chord construction or chord variations.
So, if I understand correctly, songs, chord progressions, riffs aren’t totally about the specific chords, they’re more about how the chords played relate to each other AKA the intervals (I think). There are 12 notes or pitches on a ukulele.
You could start at the open C string and play each fret up the neck and these are the notes you’d be playing (until you got to the 12th fret which would be C again). Each step on the diagram above and each fret on the uke is called semitone (or half step or half tone). Notice that it takes 2 semitones to get from C to D. The note C#/Db is between them (“#” = sharp and “b” = flat so “C#” and “Bb” are just different labels for the same note). This is the case for all the notes other than E to F and B to C which are only 1 semitone appart. For this discussion I’m just going to talk about semitones so 5 semitones will always equal 5 steps on the graphic above whether the step is a #/b note or not.
Notes to chords. I’ve been talking about notes. Chords are built from these notes, and scales. There are different types of chords built in different ways but they’re all built off the root note. for the purpose of this discussion when I talk about an “E” chord it’s really about the root note. Think of the chord as E major (built from the root, third and fifth notes in the E major scale) if that helps.
So if you have a song with an E chord and an A chord the interval or space between them is 5 semitones. Which means if you move both chords 2 steps to the left, on the diagram above, you could play D instead of E and G instead of A and because the number of steps between is still the same it should sound the same. In fact if you look at the table below you can see that there are 12 different options of chords to play while maintaining the same interval between.
Like everything else eventually you have to take your classroom work to the lab. I start by picking what I think would be the easiest chords to play then I pick up the uke and see how it sounds. In this case I’m thinking C and F. And guess what, for my example, it sounds good.
This example is actually a song I suggest brand new uke players work on because it is these 2 easy chords through the whole song and the changes are slow and steady. The song is Achy Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus.
Here you can see the original version (cover by George Possley) played with A and E chords:
And here you can see The Bridgnorth Ukulele Band playing F and C chords on the uke (busking it up for charity):
(their actually playing C7 which is a variation of the C chord but the root of the chord is still a C)
Here’s the table for transposing key. To use it just find the original chords from your song or riff in the top row then look down those columns for a row with with better chord options. Then play and see how it sounds.
So, to wrap up, being able to explore changing keys is a must for ukulele players. It can help with finding easier chords to play or make a song easier to sing for your range.
Also, I am by no means an expert on this so feel free to contact me with corrections if I’ve made any mistakes or if I could have communicated concepts better.