Simplify Chords: Tricky Ukulele Chords and how to untrickify them

May Singhi Breen Ukulele

Simplify chords on your ukulele to make complex songs easier to play.

Ever wish you could simplify chords — especially when you find a song that seems like it should be so simple to play, yet the chords shown are crazy “F#m7b5” kind of chords?

At the Ukulele Union get-together last night, we did “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” a great old song that most people know. It's familiar, it's easy to sing–so why the crazy chords?

Well, first of all, the chords aren't really all that hard–they're just unfamiliar. Once you get to know 'em, any chords can be your BFFs forever.

(Think how much you hated D7 at first…)

Secondly, there are some tricky tricks you can use to simplify chords on the uke till you're more comfortable with the full versions.

Here are the ukulele chords used in “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm:”

I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm Ukulele Chords
Yikes — those are some terrifying chord names!

1: Simply Chords, Step One: Analyze

Diminished chords seem to throw a lot of people off. (The second chord above is Eb diminished–that's what the dim stands for).

There's no real trick here–just learn the shape. But there is some consolation: every single diminished chord you'll ever play is exactly this same shape! Yep, the same four fingers on the same four strings, just moved to a different fret for a different chords.

So learn the shape once and you've mastered the chord for eternity.

2: What About Those Kookoo Crazypants Chords?

Here's the trick: If a chord has numbers or letters after the minor sign (usually a lower case m), you can usually drop those letters or numbers–just play the minor.

Example: Dm7. Drop the 7 (which falls to the right 0f the minor), and just play a Dm.

Example: F#m7b5. Wow, what a name! Same rule. Drop everything after minor–that's the “7b5” and just play an F#m. (But — important — see step 3 below; the shape is more important than the name).

It's not going to give the full, rich, bone-broth of sound, but it will be close enough for now.

OK, I Gave You the Trick I Promised, BUT…

Take another look at those chords. They just aren't that hard. They are unfamiliar.

They also add depth and color to the song. The arranger put them in for a reason. Yes, you can leave them out, but you'll sacrifice a certain something.

3: Simple Solution: Build Your Unfamiliar Chord Off a Familiar Chord

  • Dm7. It's just a Dm with a note added on the first string–use your little finger, and you're done.
  • F#m7b5. Despite the crazy name, it's just a D7 shape, with on note added on the third string. Reach over and enjoy the musical bounty!

Make Your Songs Suit YOU

Simplify as much as you need to in order to learn a song. But once you get the basics, see if you can add those more complicated chords back in. Yes, it's a question of practice–but at least you're working on songs you love, so the practice might actually be fun!

Video: There are a thousand versions of “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” but I'm partial to this one in the video above, by the Mills Brothers.

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  1. Regards that F#m7(b5) chord, as previously noted an F#m triad won’t work. Instead, play 2 0 2 0 (you may call it D7); no wrong notes – it will sound great with anything others might be playing.

  2. Adding a small piece to the dim story. There are only three (different ones[*]). A diminished shape can be called by any of the notes it contains.

    For example, 0-1-0-1 contains the notes G-C#-E-A#
    and serves as Gdim, C#dim, Edim, A#dim

    0-1-0-1 = G-C#-E-A#
    1-2-1-2 = G#-D-F-B
    2-3-2-3 = A-D#-F#-C

    [*] They can be played further up the neck, but
    3-4-3-4 = A#-E-G-C#
    all of which are available lower down the neck. To put it another way, find any particular diminished chord, slide your hand up or down the neck 3 frets, and you’ve got another voicing.

  3. My Dear Danno,,, I really love your site, since I found it a few weeks ago. I have just been reading your Uke, tips, and found them very interesting, although I have played for ages now, I never really thought about these things, like Fsharpm7b5, just being, d7 with the added E, it makes you think, keep up the good work, great site, thank you so much for your time. Peter.

    1. Hey, Peter, glad this got you thinking in a new way! I think sometimes folks get worried about playing a song with “complicated” chords when they’re really just slight variations with complicated names. Even if you’re comfortable with the (supposedly) trickier chords, it helps to see the more common chord that’s lurking underneath.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Tisk, tisk, Danno…. You really should not replace the F#m7b5 with F#m. The b5 completely changes the character of the chord. A better replacement would be F#dim. Ignore b5 and #5 at your peril… AT YOUR PERIL, I say.

    1. I’ve been publicly tisked!

      Rich (is this who I think it is?), I agree with you, musically speaking; but the little trick I’m trying to demonstrate is just a shortcut to make it through a song with unfamiliar chords.

      And give me some credit–I point out at the end that the chord is not that hard to actually make–just intimidating because of the nutty name!

  5. Thank you so much for taking me into the glorious past to uncover those musical gems.
    I’m totally loving it!
    A warm hello from Holland!