Today I’m going to talk about how ukulele and guitar can be played together.
A few of the key things you’ll need to know about combining ukulele and guitar, is how to balance musical roles, select a key, and balance volume.
Let’s get into it!
Can Ukulele and Guitar be Played Together?
Ukulele and guitar can be played together, but it’s important to select a song and a key that works well for both instruments. Guitar and ukulele differ in tone, range, and capability, so each player should highlight the strengths of their instrument in order to produce the best sound.
This just scratches the surface of this topic, so let’s dig into a few more details to make things more clear.
The Ukulele and the Guitar are Not in the Same Key
The soprano ukulele can be thought of as being in the key of C. Its open strings form a C major sixth chord. Guitars typically utilize E standard, (or “Spanish”) tuning. While all of its open notes are in the C major scale, it is not described as being in the key of C.
As a result, different fingerings (or chord shapes) are used for each instrument, even when interpreting the same song. So, while guitar and ukulele are compatible, they must be approached somewhat differently, even when playing the same song.
How Ukulele and Guitar Sound When Played Together
The guitar and ukulele differ in tone and range (pitch). The low range of a guitar can add a rich supportive sound which the ukulele cannot create. The guitar has a wider range and can play significantly lower than a soprano ukulele.
Where the ukulele shines is in its tone. When compared to a typical steel string guitar, the nylon strings of ukulele sound warmer and lighter. Steel strings sound brighter, and more percussive.
In my opinion, melodies played on the ukulele are more “listenable.” And if we were going to assign one instrument the role of melody and one the role of accompaniment, I prefer that the ukulele play the melody. In practice, these roles do not have to be rigid!
How to Play a Ukulele and Guitar Together (And Sound Great!)
Now let’s talk about a few practical things you can do in order to make you sound great when playing the ukulele and guitar together.
1. Allow the Instruments to Compliment Each Other
For now, look at each instrument as playing a role. Start by having the ukulele play the role of melody while the guitar plays the role of accompaniment. This allows the playing to be supportive, not competitive.
Thinking this way helps both musicians feel confident and focused. You will not have to worry about stepping on each other’s toes, musically speaking. Each player provides a different texture, one reinforcing the other.
If you are beyond the beginner level, these roles can blur together or even switch.
The ukulele can add dyads (or “double-stops”), chords, percussive muting, and other techniques which lean toward the accompaniment role.
The guitar can add counter-melodies and bass lines which add interest to the accompaniment. The guitar can also play the melody or a solo, taking on the melodic role.
If you want to add vocals to the mix, I suggest having the guitar play a rhythmic accompaniment while the ukulele plays melodic fills and higher chord voicings. As you become more comfortable, you can experiment with other approaches.
2. Pick an Appropriate Song
Your song and key choice must work for both instruments. Each song has a unique melody and most melodies have an accompanying chord progression.
The range of a melody is the musical distance (measured in semitones, or “half steps”) from the lowest note to the highest note. Most popular melodies should be playable on the ukulele, but the key is an important consideration.
If your duo wants to play a given song in the key of C, the melody must be playable on the ukulele in that key and the chords must be playable on the guitar in that key.
Start by attempting a song in the key of the recording, or as written if you are reading sheet music or a chord chart. If this key is problematic for your duo, transpose the song. Some common keys are C, F, G, A, E, and D, as well as their relative minors.
While key is less of an issue for more advanced players, it is always important to pick a piece and a key that suits the instruments as well as your skill level.
3. Balance the Volume of the Instruments
The guitar can easily overpower the ukulele as its size and string tension can produce more volume. The guitarist should generally use a lighter touch, while the ukulele player should play with clarity and projection.
These are only guidelines. The best performers tend to use a range of dynamics throughout a given performance. Both musicians can play louder or softer at times, just make sure the melody is not drowned out.
Easy Duet Songs for Ukulele and Guitar
Now, to help you kick-start your ukulele/guitar duet, here are a few easy songs that work well when played on both instruments together.
1. Happy Birthday
Every musician should have this one ready to go at a moment’s notice. Have the guitarist strum open chords, while the ukulele player picks the melody. It may also be nice for the guitarist to include some variation in the bass line and the strumming rhythm.
2. Sunday Morning – Maroon 5
This is a great example of a catchy and recognizable pop song with a simple chord progression. To make this song work, it will be important for the accompaniment player to be comfortable with the swing of the strumming pattern.
3. I’m Yours – Jason Mraz
This song is a great choice if you want to try playing chords on ukulele while the guitarist plays the melody. The strumming on the original recording is pretty light sounding, so the ukulele is a good choice for filling that role.
4. One Love – Bob Marley
This classic song requires a reggae strumming pattern. The chords are suitable for both guitar and ukulele, so it is up to you to decide who will play them. You can even switch roles mid-song if both players are ready!