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Introduction To Playing Jazz Ukulele

jazz ukulele


The ukulele became popular through Hawaiian music, but what many people don’t know is that the realm of jazz was another rich, if slightly less common, home for this little endearing instrument. Between 1915-1920, ukuleles began to be mass produced, making them more accessible for musicians, coinciding with the rise of jazz music in America. Both jazz music and the use of ukulele continued to grow throughout the following decades.

how about uke

Throughout the 1920’s, ukuleles and banjoleles were often used in jazz Vaudeville acts. In the late 1950’s, Lyle Ritz discovered the ukulele and became known as one of the pioneers of jazz ukulele with his albums “How About Uke?” (1958) and “50th Street Jazz” (1959). "How About Uke?" was the very first stereo record to be cut at Capitol Records in Hollywood, and though the albums were not extremely successful financially, they were incredibly influential to Hawaiian ukulele players thereafter.


Jazz Ukulele Enters Pop Culture


In the following years Ritz became one of the most sought after musicians in Los Angeles, and part of the legendary Wrecking Crew (in which he played bass) throughout the 1960’s. Alongside his outstanding success as a bass session player, Lyle Ritz continued to play ukulele, and was even featured on the legendary album "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys, as well as one of the most popular ukulele songs in history “Tonight You Belong To Me” from the classic comendy The Jerk.


Now that you’re up to speed on some interesting jazz ukulele history, let’s discuss how you can apply some jazz techniques to your own playing.

jazz ukulele


Essential Jazz Ukulele Techniques


Each genre of music has classic signatures which define their sound. For example, the classic blues progression is 12 bars of I, IV, and V chords. Jazz, on the other hand, exhibits many different harmonic forms, depending on the musical and historical context. In fact, a complete abandonment of form is typical of jazz music!


That being said, let’s start with something basic: the I-VI-II-V progression. I-VI-II-V is one of the most common progressions in jazz, from which many other progressions are born. The roman numerals refer to the chords that are built on the corresponding scale degrees. For example, in the key of C, a I-VI-II-V would be played with the 7th chords built on the 1st, 6th, 2nd, and 5th scale degrees: Cmaj7, Am7, Dm7, G7.


jazz ukulele lesson


To demonstrate, we’ll try this progression in the key of C with some suggested finger placements:


  • Cmaj7: 1st finger on the second fret A string, all others open
  • Am7: All open strings
  • Dm7: 2-2-1-3 (or Dm with added pinky on the third fret A string)
  • G9: 2-2-1-2 just like Dm7, but slide the 4th finger down one fret

Fun fact: Nat King Cole used the above progression in two of his popular songs “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons”, and “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”


Once you know what to look for, you’re sure to discover this progression in many other tunes. Give it a try, and you’ll be off to a good start playing jazz on the ukulele!


Ready to step up your ukulele playing? Click here for more free sample lessons! 




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