Most commonly used chords for ʻukulele

The common chord progression assignment I gave to my beginning music theory class caused an uproar. It was the secret formula that explained the Pareto Rule of Pop Music: 80% of pop music used only 20% of the chords.

“You mean, I only need to know a handful of chords and I can play what I want?” one student cried.

This revelation also gives confidence to the beginning ʻukulele player. No longer do you have to memorize chord charts. Just master the most common chords and you’re good to go.

What are the most common chords? These are the chords based on the most important degrees of the major scales that use the least number of sharps and flats. [By the way, there is a reason why sharps and flats are also known as accidentals; you can accidentally play the wrong note.] Pianists begin with the white key of C. Guitarists may prefer G, with one sharp. ʻUkulele players love the major keys of F, C, and G.

In the tonal world, the most important note is the first and last one of that major scale. The most important chord is the tonic, the major triad whose root is the tonic. Thus for C major scale, the C major triad is the most important chord. That is, the root, third, and fifth intervals in the chord are all taken from notes in the major scale.

You can write a song based on one chord. However, to make it more interesting, the second most important chord would be the dominant, the triad that’s based on the fifth degree of the major scale. Plenty of songs are based on these two chords. Should you venture to a third chord, that would be the subdominant, i.e. the triad based on the fourth degree of the major scale.

I list below chords using notes in the five most commonly used major scales, a direct copy from the Circle of Fifths: F, C, G, D, and A. Besides the primary chords of I, IV, and V, based on the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees in each scale, it’s good to include II7 and V7 because these two seventh chords are used in Hawaiian vamps [ typically II7 – V7 – I] as introductions in Hawaiian songs. [Note that the II7 does not occur in the major scale because it’s actually a secondary dominant, i.e. the dominant of V.] V7 is also used instead of V to give tension before resolving to I. Diminished 7th chords are shown for the seventh degree. Armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to join the next ʻuke jam session.

Click on the image above to get the one-page PDF of all chord diagrams for these five major scales. Acknowledgements: Joel Katz for majority of the individual ʻukulele chord diagram images.

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