To a novice player, the most difficult aspect of learning the ukulele may appear to be the iconic strumming technique.
However, true mastery of the instrument comes from the fretboard. Like a pianist must know each note on their keyboard, a ukulele player must learn their entire fretboard to truly master their craft.
While seemingly daunting, learning a ukulele’s fretboard may be more straightforward than you believe. This guide will cover why the fretboard is so important to learn and how exactly you should go about learning it.
Table Of Contents
A ukulele can be divided into two main components: the body and the neck.
The body is hollow and curved, with a hole over the middle where the player strums. The neck, often a different kind of wood than the body, extends outward with the strings secured at the end, or headstock, pulled tight over the fretboard.
The fretboard is a dark piece of wood that rests atop the neck and beneath the strings. This is where the notes of the ukulele are played.
It is divided into vertical rectangles by pieces of metal called frets. The player presses the string down against the fretboard and between the frets to play a note. If you hold several down, or leave certain strings open while you do, you will create a chord.
Most ukulele players will hold the neck with their left hand.
You will press your thumb against the back and your other fingers will rest on the strings on the fretboard side. This article provides an in-depth overview on how a beginner should properly hold a ukulele.
Once you learn how to hold the ukulele, you will be ready to learn your instrument’s fingerboard, fret by fret and note by note.
The number of frets on a ukulele will depend on both the size and make of your instrument. There are five different ukulele sizes (from smallest to largest): soprano, concert, tenor, baritone, and bass, with soprano and tenor being the most common sizes.
There are ranges in the amount of frets for each size of ukulele, with the specific amount varying with each different make and model. Below are the typical fret ranges for each ukulele size.
|Number Of Frets
|15-20 (often 18)
|15-20 (often 18)
For example, a tenor ukulele with twenty frets and four strings will contain sixty notes for you to learn. It is less daunting than that, however, since the 12th fret on any ukulele marks an octave.
This means that the 12th is a whole octave above the first and the notes reset, meaning you only have to memorize up to the 11th fret before it repeats. Eleven frets multiplied by four strings means you will have forty-four notes to learn.
As a beginner, you may think of the strings as something you use to play notes on the fretboard, but the strings themselves are notes as well! Like a guitar, ukuleles have a standard tuning that the majority of music is written for. It is crucial that your strings are both tuned to the correct notes.
The standard tuning for ukulele is G-C-E-A. If you are holding the instrument properly in your arms, then the top string (closest to your face) is G and the bottom string (closest to your belly) is A.
It is vital to know your instrument’s standard tuning and the best technique for tuning that works for you, whether it’s a clip-on tuner, plug-in pedal, or an app on your phone. If your ukulele is not in standard tuning, then the notes on the fretboard will be completely different from the ones you’ve learned and will learn.
Above is a diagram of the ukulele’s fretboard, with the headstock and 1st fret on the left side, and the first row of notes being the open four strings in standard tuning. This is undoubtedly an overwhelming image to look at, but patterns can quickly be found that will make memorization easier than you think.
The simplest trick involves two pairs of notes: B/C and E/F. If you take a look at the diagram, you will see that B/C and E/F are neighboring each other on the same string. We know that the third string E in standard tuning, so you will always know where that F is on the first fret.
The beauty of this trick is that anytime you memorize a specific B, C, E, or F, you know exactly which note is next to it as well. It helps you spot the note patterns throughout your fretboard and is a great way to begin learning the fretboard in sections.
The other main technique for learning your fretboard are acronyms, a common tool for learning basic music theory.
Here are two ukulele acronyms that will help you immensely:
- Chickens Fight All Day (CFAD)
- Don’t Go Breaking Everything (DGBE)
These acronyms are extremely easy and convenient to learn for several reasons.
Mainly, they are located on the fifth and seventh frets respectively. These frets, along with the twelfth that marks the octave, will typically have a dot inlaid in the center of these frets, making them extremely easy to spot and snap your fingers to.
Additionally, the notes on the fifth fret (CFAD) and the seventh (DGBE) contain no sharp or flat notes, making them that much easier to memorize as the half-step notes can be a bit confusing at first. Like everything with musical learning, it is integral to break the process into sections.
While standard tuning is the most widely used one, there are several other common options.
However, before you take to practicing different tuning methods, it is crucial that you master the fretboard in standard tuning first, as to not confuse yourself in the early stages.
Again, learning an entirely new fretboard can be daunting, but the wonderful thing about these three alternate tunings is that the neighboring notes trick still applies to them in the same exact way: B and C will always touch, as well as E and F. The locations of the pairs will change on the fretboard depending on the tuning, but they will always be neighbors.
Below are three main alternate tunings with diagrams.
Baritone Tuning (D-G-B-E)
This tuning is mainly intended for baritone ukuleles with their lower range, but it can still be used on any ukulele. The notes are the same as the four higher strings on a guitar, making it an easy option for those with guitar experience.
Credit: Live Ukulele
English Tuning (A-D-F#-B)
Also called D tuning, English tuning is the same as standard only tuned a whole step up. The notes are spaced the same, but the pitches are higher. This is common for a soprano ukulele, the smallest and highest pitched size.
Credit: Live Ukulele
Whole-Step Down (F-Bb-D-G)
With a rather self-explanatory name, whole-step down tuning drops down all the strings a step. Just like English tuning, the note intervals are the same as standard tuning, just lower in pitch now.
This wouldn’t be used for the smaller sized ukuleles (soprano and concert), but tenor, baritone and bass ukuleles can all use this method for a lower note range.
Credit: Live Ukulele