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The Chameleon Chord
By James Hill

Break through that beginner's plateau with this all-too-often-overlooked chord shape. Learn how one chord form can function as three different chords!

Some Chord Shapes Are More Useful Than Others

This article is in C6 Tuning (g, c, e, a)
Click here to read in D6 (a, d, f#, b) tuning

There are thousands of chord voicings on the ukulele; learning them all is more than a life's work. But there's good news: not all chord voicings or "shapes" as I'll refer to them are created equal. In fact, some are much more useful than others. Let me draw your attention to one incredibly useful and often overlooked chord shape.

The chord shape I'm talking about is this one:

"Simple," you say. "It's a two-finger chord that even a beginner could play!" True. But there's more to this than meets the eye.

What's In A Name?

First of all, what should we call this chord? Well, it depends. It can have one of three names G6, Em7, or Cmaj9 depending on the context. Understand why and you'll be on your way to breaking through that frustrating beginner's plateau.

I understand how this can be a little confusing. I mean, how can one chord shape have multiple names? Well, I have good news and more good news: 1) you'll get used to it because it happens all the time and 2) by learning a single chord shape you're actually learning more than one chord. My advice: embrace this phenomenon and use it to your advantage!

So what determines the name of this "chameleon" chord at a given moment in time?

Ace of Bass

It's the context that determines the function (and therefore the name) of a particular chord shape. Specifically, it's the bass note (or if there's no bass, the lowest-sounding note) that determines the way our ears "interpret" a particular cluster of notes.

If you play our chameleon chord over the bass note g, our ears will interpret the chord as a G6 chord. Play the same chord over the bass note e and our ears will interpret the chord as an Em7 chord. Finally, play this chameleon chord over the bass note c and our ears will interpret the chord as a Cmaj9 chord. Strange but true.

Going Up?

The next step is to create a "moveable" fingering (i.e. a fingering that doesn't include any open strings) so that we can shift this chord shape to any part of the ukulele fretboard. Let's start by moving every note in the chord UP by one fret (i.e. one fret closer to the sound hole). There are two popular fingering options (shown below); I highly recommend the one on the right:

Remember, I didn't say this was the easiest chord to play. I said it was one of the most useful and versatile. It's worth the effort, trust me.

And just in case you don't trust me, see for yourself. Here's a little chord progression similar to something you might see in a standard jazz tune. Notice the prevalence of our "chameleon" chord shape. Also note that it plays many roles: a minor 7 chord, a major 9 chord and two major 6 chords:

Click to enlarge:

What Now?

Once you make peace with the fact that one chord shape can serve many different functions depending on a) what note the bass player is playing and b) where on the fretboard you move the shape to, you've graduated to a new level of playing. Now start to get curious about other chord shapes that have similar properties (how about starting with the inversions of our "chameleon" chord?).

When you're ready, there are other chord shapes with "multiple personalities" to discover. I'll leave you with one more as a challenge: the dominant 9 (V9) shape can also serve as a m6 ("minor 6") or a m7(b5) ("minor-seven-flat-five" or "half-diminished") voicing:

Are you the kind of learner who can simply accept this phenomenon "no questions asked" or are you the kind of learner who has to analyze and understand why? Either way, this is an exciting way to discover more music in a way that engages the whole brain (both the analytical side and the intuitive side).

Have fun with this musical mystery!

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James Hill is editor of Ukulele Yes! and co-author of Ukulele in the Classroom. His online video-lesson program, The Ukulele Way, is used by thousands of students around the world. Visit www.jameshillmusic.com for more.

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