Ukulele vs Guitar Chord Differences (Are they the Same?)

Today I’m going to explain the differences between ukulele and guitar chords. 

As a professional jazz guitarist, I’ve gained a deep familiarity with the way chords work on the fretboard, and when applying these ideas to the ukulele, I’ve noticed several key differences between the two.

Let’s start with a very simple comparison:

Ukulele chords are not the same as guitar chords, but some chord shapes are usable for both instruments. This is because the tuning of a ukulele is similar to the four thinnest strings of a guitar. However, due to the differences in pitch and number of strings, there are many factors to consider here.

There are 7 key distinctions between ukulele and guitar chords that I’ll cover below. By the end of this list, you should start to grasp just how different these chords are, and a bit of the music theory behind it.

Let’s jump in!

1. Number of Strings (Missing Notes for Ukulele)

Ukulele and guitar strings, fretboards, and headstocks

The guitar has two more strings than the ukulele, so it has more capabilities harmonically.

If you try a guitar chord on ukulele, you should recognize that up to two notes may be missing from the shape. These notes may or may not be essential to the sound you are hoping for. 

You may end up playing an inversion, meaning that the lowest note of the chord is not the root. Inversions sound different than “root position” chords but generally can function interchangeably. 

However, in many basic guitar chords, there are doubled notes. For example two D’s in a common D shape. These notes may add texture and range to a chord, but do not add the complexity of an additional pitch class (note name). 

2. String Sets (Guitar has More)

A chord can be played on as few as three strings.

And if you consider how chords are played on guitar and ukulele, you’ll quickly discover that guitars have a much wider range of chords than ukuleles.

For example, the four strings of a ukulele can be viewed as two sets of three (strings 1-2-3 and 2-3-4). You can also consider sets of non-adjacent strings (strings 1-2-4 and 1-3-4). 

Guitar is much more complex in this respect. There are four groupings of three adjacent strings (1-2-3, 2-3-4, 3-4-5, 4-5-6) and many groupings of non-adjacent strings. Since the guitar has six strings, you can also consider groupings of four and five strings. 

Don’t let the numbers make your head spin. It’s really pretty simple. Given that the guitar has more strings, it also has more string sets, which means there are more possible combinations when it comes to forming chords on a guitar.

3. String Notes / Intervals

In order to really grasp the concept of how ukulele and guitar chords relate, we have to understand how each is tuned and then compare those tunings. 

The guitar is tuned E-A-D-G-B-E. The intervals, or distance between the strings is as follows: perfect fourth, perfect fourth, perfect fourth, major third, perfect fourth. The strings are numbered with the first string being the thinnest (and highest pitch).

The Ukulele is tuned G-C-E-A. The intervals here are: perfect fifth (down), major third, perfect fourth. The strings are numbered with the first string (A) being the thinnest (and highest pitch).

Comparing the ukulele tuning with the four thinnest strings of the guitar shows us that we can use many of the same chord shapes for both instruments.

Guitar (last four strings): perfect fourth, major third, perfect fourth

Ukulele: Perfect fifth (down), major third, perfect fourth

There is only one difference and it is ultimately irrelevant to the shapes we can use. This is because perfect fifth and perfect fourth are complementary intervals.

On ukulele, the fourth string (G) is pitched a perfect fifth above the third string (C). Interestingly, moving down by a perfect fifth gives us the same note name as moving up by a perfect fourth. 

For example, starting on a G and moving down a perfect fifth gives us a C. Starting on a G and going up a perfect fourth gives us G as well.

And this brings us to part 4…

4. Chord Shapes

Any ukulele chord shape can be applied to the thinner strings of a guitar and vice versa. 

You do have to keep in mind that doing this will result in a different chord. A basic G chord on ukulele results in a D chord when applied to guitar. And as a rule, the roots of the resulting guitar chords will be a perfect fifth higher.

To drive this point home, here’s a D chord on a Guitar:

And if you apply the same chord shape to the strings of a ukulele, you get a G chord:

As you try ukulele chords on guitar, you will see a lot of similar chord shapes.

However, sometimes you will want to include the lower strings of the guitar in a chord. 

In that case, keep in mind that the low strings should not be viewed as an addition to the higher shapes. With basic chords, the root is usually the lowest note. These root notes sound great on the lower strings, even if the root note is already present in the higher notes of the chord.

I recommend viewing guitar chords as being built from low pitches to high pitches.

5. Inversions

On the guitar, the pitch of each string is lower than the preceding string. It is unusual to play a higher pitched chord tone on a higher numbered string. 

That is not the case on ukulele, and this affects the way chord shapes and inversions fall on the fingerboard.

If you want to take a deeper dive into the world of chords, it is important to study inversions. An inverted chord is any chord that has a note other than the root in the bass (“in the bass” means as the lowest note of the chord). 

Root position means that the lowest note of the chord is the root.

  • First inversion means that the lowest note of a chord is the third (whether major or minor).
  • Second inversion means that the lowest note of a chord is the fifth. 
  • Third inversion means that the lowest note of a chord is the seventh. Naturally this applies only to seventh chords.

As you study inversions, you will find that there are many ways of voicing (order of notes) each chord. In some cases, an inversion may be better sounding and easier to play than a root position voicing. 

6. Chord Sound / Tone

Ukulele chords generally have a lighter, warmer sound than guitar chords. This is due to the pitch of the notes, size of the instrument, lighter string tension, and different string material. Metal guitar strings tend to sound brighter, harsher, heavier, and louder.

The guitar can produce a lower, richer sound than the ukulele, and learning the lower strings is essential to doing that. Yes, we can copy and paste some shapes from the ukulele, but I recommend learning each instrument from the “ground up.”

7. Chord Difficulty (Guitar is Harder!)

As a ukulele player, it will take time to get used to the size of the guitar. A wider neck, larger frets, and stiffer strings will present a challenge at first. If necessary, start with small chords, dyads, or even single notes at first.

If you start by trying a chord, such as E major, that uses all six guitar strings, you may be biting off more than you are ready to chew. One of the challenges of playing chords with more notes is in getting all of the notes to ring clearly.

As a guitar player, it is easy to accidentally mute a string that you are intending to play. While holding a chord shape with your fretting hand, pick each note individually to ensure that they are ringing clearly and adjust if necessary.

It may be necessary to arch your fingers more while playing guitar. This helps prevent any accidental string muting. 

How to Convert Guitar Chords to Ukulele Chords

In order to convert guitar chords to ukulele chords, we must address three things.

First, you must eliminate any notes that were played on the fifth and sixth strings of the guitar. 

Second, you must find the shape on the ukulele at the correct fret. Playing the same shape in the same position will result in a transposition (giving you the wrong chord). A guitar chord shape must be played seven frets higher or five frets lower on the ukulele. 

Lastly we must take into account any open strings. The relationship between any open strings and fretted notes must be maintained. 

As an experiment, try playing a chord that includes fretted notes and at least one open string. Now, move the fretted notes as a unit while keeping the open string(s) the same. You will notice how dramatically this changes the sound of the chord. 

This will happen when moving certain chord shapes from guitar to ukulele. To address this issue, you can either play a fretted note in place of the open string(s), or simply not play the string(s) that were played open in the original shape.

While there is significant common ground between ukulele and guitar. I think it is best to learn the chords for each instrument independently of one another. 

Each instrument has its own conventions and it is best to start with those as opposed to trying a “quick trick” approach to transpose your chords. As you study both instruments, the common ground will become apparent to you and facilitate your learning.

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