One of the best aspects of playing the ukulele, is getting to write your own songs. Of course we all begin by learning some of the more popular Uke tunes, but as time progresses most players want to pen their own unique tunes. To do that we need to learn a little about chord progressions.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret, writing songs is really not that difficult. There are specific formulas that nearly every songwriter uses and progressions that have stood the test of time, yes of course a great songwriter knows when to bend the rules, but the basics are nearly always followed. In fact, by the end of this article you will realize just how many songs share the same chord progressions!
A quick legal note: it is perfectly acceptable to use common chord progressions, they cannot be copyrighted. It is the melody over the progression that is copyrighted. Bass riffs and drum riffs also can often be re-used, depending upon how popular they are. It is quite amazing how many parts of a song can be shared. It’s impossible to be a songwriter without “ripping off” some other song. Even the Beatles used their share of famous rock n roll, classical, and common jazz riffs. However, what made the Beatles unique were the times when they transcended the basics!
We are starting with the La Folia progression, not because it is easy, but because it is one of the oldest chord progressions in western music. Seriously, La Folia dates back to the middles ages, and when you play it, you will immediately hear that medieval sound. Using a Uke chord dictionary, practice the chords below in order. Play them two beats at a time.
|Dm (i)||A7 (V7)||Dm (i)||C (VII)||F (III)||C (VII)||Dm (i)||A7 (V7)|
|Dm (i)||A7 (V7)||Dm (i)||C (VII)||F (III)||C (VII)||Dm (i) A7 (V7)||Dm (i)|
Now as you get better at playing it… do you hear that medieval sound? It sounds like a grand ballad being played in the Kings Court. This progression would often be heard if you went to a Renaissance Festival in the summer time. It actually sounds great on a ukulele. After you practice it a few times, try writing your own piece using these chords. Remember mix it up a little bit, maybe try adding some different chords to spice it up, but keep that basic outline as you progress. With this progression you can write a great love song, ballad, or even an epic Ukulele tune!
Doo Wop Progression
This progression says it all, C-Am-F-G or in Nashville Notation I-vi-IV-V. If you change the key to G it is G-Em-C-D… however it is easiest to play it in C on the ukulele. Nearly every Doo-Wop song is written in this progression, Stay, Earth Angel, Beauty School Dropout from Grease, and even the awesome Monster Mash. Using that progression, you can play everyone of those songs and many other popular tunes from the early 60’s. It is truly a fun progression to play and great to write your own song with. Try adding a 7th to the F chord to blues it up a little bit. Remember take these basic chord progressions and make them unique to the song you are writing.
Axis of Awesome
An article about chord progressions would not be complete without mentioning the famous Axis of Awesome, there is even a famous video on YouTube detailing the myriad of songs that use this progression. Journey, The Beatles, Jason Mraz, Train, Taylor Swift… seriously if you want to write a hit song… use the Axis of Awesome. It consists of C-G-Am-F, or I-V-vi-IV just a little different order than the Doo Wop progression above. As you can see in the video link, it is mind boggling how many musicians use this progression.
Most blues songs follow a pretty standard I-IV-I-V-I progression and often using 7ths.
|I||I or IV||I||I|
|V||IV||I||I or V|
For example, pick up your uke and play C-F7-C-F7-C-G7-C. You will notice the blues feel and sound as you play it, it is the 7th chord that really seals the deal. Paul McCartney once told a story of him and George taking a bus all the way across town to learn the B7 chord, because it’s that 7th that gives you the basics for blues and rock n roll.
Feel like writing a more emotional and sensitive type song? Use Am-F-C-G, this is used in songs like Avril Lavigne’s Complicated, Scott McKenzies San Francisco, Jewels Foolish Games, and many more. This is a great progression for songs with feeling and deeper meanings.
Now this one is a challenge, we all know flamenco is a style played on guitar, but it also works quite well on the uke. The progression chords are Am-G-F-E, that’s right the dreaded E!. However, learning this progression is great for a song with lots of finger picking and a hybrid Hawaiian/Spanish feel. Besides nearly all Flamenco music, this progression was also used in the famous song Walk, Don’t Run by The Ventures. When I play this progression I alternate between thumb and fingerpicking to give it a unique sound.
Classic Rock Progression
This is another progression with a few variations and is a little challenging on the Uke. Just as the E chord is difficult so is the Eb chord. Two varying classic rock progressions are C-Bb-Eb-C and C-Bb-G-C. In fact, these sound great if you play both progressions in order as written. They would fit well in a driving and upbeat and original ukulele song.
Pop Rock Lydian Progression
This was used in songs like Eight Days a Week, Mr. Tambourine Man, Love Me Tender, and of course many more. The chords are C-D-F-C and when played on the Uke they really have an upbeat and pop like feel. Play that chord series a few times and before you know it an awesome new song will pop into your head.
There are many more progressions out there. Some are easier (like the folk progression of only two chords C-G) and some are a little more complicated like jazz turnarounds. The key to remember is a little variety, the songs mentioned above as examples often do not have the same progression played throughout. They vary within verses, chorus, bridge, and solo sections. It is helpful to know these progressions as a place to start, a place to get ideas. Once you get a song idea you build on the progressions you have, change it up at the bridge, and add some new chords in (make sure they fit the key or at least sound like they fit). Remember you can also add 7ths, 9ths, major 7ths, 6’s, minors, flats, and other variations to the basic chords. Songwriters use these commonly used chord progressions to get their basic ideas down, from there it is up to them to add their own unique flourishes and variations to come up with a great new song!