Chapter 3: Open chord inversions

Hint: Make sure your ukulele has a good setup with good intonation and is tuned well. Open chord inversions can sound quite bad if your intonation is lacking.

Lesson 11: A first approach to open inversions

  • An “inversion” of a chord is a variant of this chord, where one or more of its notes have been transposed by an octave.
  • We call a chord an “open chord”, if it is possible that one or more strings are not fretted when playing that chord (using all four strings).
  • Thus an “open inversion” is an inversion of a chord that can be played as an open chord.
  • For all open chords, there are open inversions of these chords.
  • All chords that use at least one of the notes G,C,E or A, can be played as open chords. (This is true for many chords!)

Using open chord inversions is another unique and elegant concept that works amazingly well with the ukulele. Perhaps you already heared of moveable chord patterns. These are usually used in conjunction with barré. Very useful indeed, but not very easy to execute for a beginner.

Open chords, on the other hand, are the first chords you learn as a beginner. Many of them (like the C chord) are really easy to fret. Perhaps you also learned that these are not moveable. However, this is wrong. They are moveable. You just cannot move them to arbitrary positions. However, in exchange, there are a lot of open chord patterns available, so you can do much more with them than you might expect.

So, it is possible to use open inversions to make ukulele arrangements with self-accompaniment which don’t require barré, even if the melody can’t be played within the first position. Arrangements of this kind can be very nice to play, and using open strings can help to play with more sustain and a fuller sound.

Piece 19: Stille Nacht (Silent Night)

This is a very nice example for an arpeggiated chord solo arrangement that uses open inversions. It is not very difficult to play, too — but very rewarding. Please try to follow the instructions in my video tutorial for this tune:

Please activate the English subtitles (using one of these little buttons in the lower right of the video, that get visible when starting the video).

One of the most interesting details in this arrangement is the position change within bar 3. Here you can use three fingers at once to slide down to the G chord at the end of bar 3. We could call this a triple guide finger!

Try to use the techniques you learned in the previous chapters in order to make this piece sound really nice on your ukulele!

The arrangement shown in the tutorial video is very slightly different to the arrangement 19 in the e-book. Try to spot the differences and play the piece as it is notated in the e-book!

Lesson 12: Guide and pivot finger practice

In the next piece, there are a few non-obvious places where the guide finger technique can be used. Try to find them all!

There’s another technique very similar to guide finger technique: When you can use a “guide finger” that doesn’t have to move, we call it a “pivot finger”. For example when changing from G7 to an F chord, the index finger can stay on the 2nd string during the chord change, and thereby help the other fingers to find their positions. Try to find all opportunities for pivot finger technique too!

There also a few spots where neither pivot nor guide finger technique is applicable, so you have to “jump” with your fingers. (That means, no fingers are touching any strings for a moment.) Where are the “jump spots” in this piece?

Piece 20: Bunessan

You probably know this piece with a different name already. Only a single open chord inversion is used (where?). Again this is a slow piece. There are some extra long notes at some places — don’t cut them short! (What is the note value of those extra long notes? How many beats do they last?)

Lesson 13: Working out a performance

Perhaps you remember lesson 5. (Perhaps it’s a good idea anyway to re-read it, since it is really important.) When playing a piece, you want to do more than just playing all the notes correctly. You want to make music (this was explained in lesson 5), but you also may want to add a personal note to your performance. In the renaissance period, it was very usual that a really good player embellished the pieces he played, and thus introduced his personal style into the music. I want to point out a few methods to spice up simple arrangements a bit.

You probably noticed already that some of my simple arrangements are a bit “plain”. This is on purpose — I want to provide a basic frame that captures the essence of a piece and makes it available as a solo arrangement. You can certainly play it as it is, but ultimately it’s you who decides how to play the music, so you can build upon it, modify and extend it in order to play in your own style!

Piece 21: St. James Infirmary

When you compare this performance to the version in the e-book, you’ll notice that there’s a lot more going on than you can see in the tabs. I want to explain a few techniques I used:

Notes inégales


An widely used performance practice in baroque music was to modify the rhythm of a piece by adding a kind of “swing” to it. Usually, in every beat, when there are two eigth notes, the length of the first eight would be extended a bit at the cost of the second eight. Instead of a 1:1 ratio between the length of two eights, you’d play them with a 2:1 or even a 3:1 ratio.

  • The 2:1 ratio results in a triplet-like timing (since you somewhat divide the beat in three parts)
  • The 3:1 ratio results in a “dotted” timing, since it is equivalent to replacing the first eight by a dotted eight, and the second eight by a sixteenth.

This is a technique that works well with many pieces. Try it with some of the pieces you learned earlier in this crash course! It depends a bit on the piece (and the mood you want to create), if a dotted or a triplet timing works better.

Adding rhythmic strumming

Many pieces work well when playing them with more than one ukulele. A second ukulele could enhance the rhythm by playing a strumming pattern. The cool thing is: If you don’t have a second ukulele player at hand, you can simply do that yourself: Additionally to playing the melody, you can additionally play a strumming pattern to get more rhythm into your performance. It’s not necessary to play that strumming pattern all the time — by contrast, it sounds quite good just to play it at places where not much is going on melody-wise. This is a thing where you really can bring a lot of your personal style into a piece! However it can’t be used equally well with all pieces — if there’s always a lot going on with the melody, it doesn’t work that well.

Try to make the strumming pattern sound a bit different than the melody playing, so that the melody stands out clearly. Usually it works fine just to play the strumming a bit softer.

Pieces you can try it with are:

  • 4: It takes a worried man
  • 5: Amzing Grace
  • 20: Bunessan

Inverting strumming patterns

Note that the use of upstrums and downstrums in arpeggiated chord arrangements sometimes makes it a bit difficult to combine the arrangement with a strumming pattern. These patterns usually determine the direction of every strum, and the idea is to move the right hand strictly in a pendular movement while strumming. In order to make this work in conjunction with arpeggiated chord solos, it is sometimes necessary to invert the strumming pattern — that is: play upstrums instead of downstrums and vice versa. This can be used to prevent that two strums have to be performed in the same direction in rapid succession. Just think of it in the same way as with alternate picking: You don’t want to use the same finger two times in a row in a rapid succesion of notes, but you also don’t want to perform two strums in the same direction in a row in a rapid succession. So the strategy is: At some “strategic points” (which you have to figure out!) you invert the strumming pattern, so you can satisfy this rule. I used this technique in this performance. I want to mention that it feels a bit awkward at the beginning (and not many players are using it), but I got somewhat used to it in the course of time. It works quite nicely with some pieces. If you feel uneasy with this technique, there’s no need to practice it now. I just wanted to explain it.

Triplet strums

If you choose to play with a triplet timing, it can work nicely to add some kind of triplet strums in your strumming pattern. Note that there are different methods of triplet strums on the ukulele. I was using here the following right hand pattern: index finger (down), thumb (down), index finger (up). (all performed within one beat).

Embellishments, Vibrato

You can use embellishments like slurs, trills or vibrato to make your playing more expressive. I’m not going to cover these techniques here now — this still is a “crash course” which means that there is some freedom in what you’re doing and what not. These are techniques which are not necessary to be learned at this point, but you can try to pick up some of them if you feel like it. There are plenty ressources for these techniques, and you can easily do them the same way as on a guitar, so it’s not necessary that I explain them right here now.

Performance notes

A few hints for playing this arrangement:

  • The 1st bar is arranged in a way that makes it easier to play the melody legato (without gaps).
  • Slide the 2nd finger on the 3rd string up to the 4th fret at the beginning of bar 2.
  • In the 3rd bar, you can “triple-slide” with three fingers up into the open inversion of A7. For the next bar, you can slide right back into the Em chord.
  • Don’t let the ties in the bars 2 and 6 intimidate you. It’s pretty easy to count out the rhythm. Remember that only notes with stems pointing upwards are melody notes (and thus relevant for the rhythm).

Lesson 14: Advanced fingering practice

Efficient left hand fingering is essential for smooth and beautiful playing, especially when using arrangements with open chord inversions which can be far up the fretboard. So it is regularly necessary to perform far position changes in a smooth and efficient way.

Piece 22: Zogen einst fünf wilde Schwäne

The first part of this piece (bars 1 to 4) is pretty straightforward. Beginning with bar 5, things start to become more interesting. So we’re playing the G7 here with a different fingering than in bar 4: We’re using the pinky(4th finger) on the 1st string, the middle finger(2nd finger) on the 2nd string, and the ring finger(3rd finger) on the 3rd string. Check out the fingering markup just above the score, which indicates this.

For the position change to the open G7 in the 8th position, the 2nd and 3rd fingers are used as guide fingers. We slide them up 9 frets, and then place the index finger(1st finger) on the 1st string.

In bar 6, there is a position change to an open C major chord. We slide down the 1st finger one fret, and the 2nd finger two frets. So the two fingers have to slide down a different amount of frets — not too difficult to perform, and allows for a really smooth transition.

In bar 7 things get a bit more tricky. We want to change to an open inversion of G7 in the 5th position. All fingers have to change to different strings here, so there is no straightforward guide finger. Here we have to use a silent fingering technique again: Just before doing the position change, we place the the ring finger (3rd finger) on the 9th fret of the 2nd string. Now we can use the 3rd finger as guide finger by sliding it down to the 7th fret.

Please bear in mind that this piece has a repeat with alternative endings (like piece 17).

In bar 8, we want to end up playing the note G5 with the pinky in the 10th fret of the 1st string, so we can use it as guide finger when performing the repeat, by sliding down to the 2nd fret.