Today we’ll aim to practice major 2-5-1s on the ukulele in all 12 keys. While that might sound intimidating, it will be easier than you think. That’s because we will use the exact same pattern of chord shapes as we cycle through the keys. These kinds of patterns will serve you really well when it comes to reading jazz charts. For today, we’ll focus on one particular pattern only. This is a great way to drill, and to get to know the fretboard!
There are four main 2-5-1 patterns for ukulele that we will learn on this site. All of them involve at least one barre chord. But the one I’ve chosen to start with today as ‘pattern 1’ (I just arbitrarily called it that, that’s not its official name!) can be played without using barres. I show you both ways of doing it in the video below. Towards the end of this post I’ve added a few more thoughts on barre chords. But in the meantime, let’s look at this pattern:
We’re going to play a cascading series of 2-5-1s, starting on Dm7-G7-CMaj. Note you can play either the CMaj7 or C6 (which is just called “C6” and has a major 6th in it instead of the major 7 interval). Here’s what the backing track sounds like for the first few bars at a medium-slow tempo of 90 bpm:
And here are the first few bars of music to play over that backing track:
Keeping track of the roots:
Let’s examine these patterns a bit more closely. The yellow diagrams below are a bit different from the ones we’ve used so far. They allow us to easily note what interval each note represents above the root, which is denoted as “1” in a red circle. The black circles show the interval above the root of the three other notes within the chord. Thus, the minor third is denoted as “b3” (flat 3), the perfect fifth is “5” and the flat seventh is denoted as “b7”. In these diagrams, the uke frets are presented as you would see them if you bent your head to look down at it, with the headstock on the left. The patterns below are generic – it’s the relative position of each chord within the sequence that matters.
The first chord, the iim7 chord (“two minor seven” chord) in this pattern is a straight barre chord. It has the root on the A string, so the root is always the top note in this inversion. You should take advantage of this to learn the names of the notes on the A string as you practice your 2-5-1s. (If the black line to the left of the diagram was the start of the fretboard, then the sequence below would be C#m7 -F#7 – BMaj7):
Next we have the V chord (“five chord”). The pattern we are using is based on the following shape for a V7 chord:
But here is a trick that will make your 2-5-1 practice easier for this pattern: don’t play the V7 chord, play the V9 chord instead. It is much easier to shift from the ii to the V9 chord with this pattern. And, for most jazz standards, the V9 chord will sound nicer too. Here is the pattern for the V9 chord. The root is shown as a hollow diamond shape, so you remember where it is for reference, but you won’t be playing it since you’ll be playing the 9th:
And finally, the I chord (“one chord”). Since we have two bars of it in this practice sequence, I suggest you play the IMaj7 chord for one bar, and then reconfigure your fingers to play the I6 chord. It’s an easy switch once you get the hang of it, and you get to practice two different voicings for the price of one!
When you’re first learning this pattern, it’s a good idea to make a mental note of where the root is for each chord, or at the very least, know how to locate the root of the first chord in the pattern (the ii chord). In this pattern, it’s on the top string. So, when you see a Dm7 chord, you will know it can be played with a barre chord on the fifth fret.
This is only one pattern for playing major ii-V-I’s on a ukulele. In future lessons, we’ll go through several other patterns that will involve other inversions and give you many more options. But for now, try to practice this pattern with the backing track, in all 12 keys.
A note on barre chords:
Don’t be discouraged if you find it hard to get sound out of this chord shape at first. If needs be, you can put a finger on each string just to hear the way it should sound. But please don’t give up on barres! You will get there eventually, it’s normal for some notes to sound muffled until you achieve a cleaner sound. Don’t squeeze with your thumb to compensate. Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee, wonderful ukulelists and teachers, taught me that you have to use your whole arm as a lever, with your right arm anchoring the ukulele as a counter-lever. You should be able to make each note sound in the chord even when your thumb is lifted from the fretboard. As a reference point, when I first started to learn to do barre chords, I practiced every day and it still took me many weeks to get a clean sound. Keep trying and don’t be discouraged, you will get there!
Downloads for this lesson
I’ve made three free downloads to help you practice your 2-5-1s:
- The first is a chart that has major 2-5-1s in all 12 keys, with uke chord diagrams to help you locate the patterns on the fretboard.
BUT, since our ultimate goal is to be able to read a jazz chart (from a Real Book, say, or any band chart), I strongly recommend you wean yourself of the ukulele chord diagrams as swiftly as possible.
- So I’ve made a second chart with just the chord symbols, without uke diagrams. Since this is more like a real jazz chart, I encourage you to transition to using this chart to practice with. You want to be looking at it while you practice the 2-5-1s in each key, to help anchor the connection between the name of the chord and the position you play it on the fretboard. Only use the ukulele chord diagrams if you get stuck.
And finally, it’s a good idea to use the practice track or a metronome when you play, so that you get used to keeping good time.
- The third file in the download is a backing track in all 12 keys with piano, bass and drums at a slower tempo (90 bpm). The track follows the chord sequence (each 2-5-1 is played twice in each key) found on the chart.
You can get these three files using the button on the right. You’ll receive a .zip file that has two pdf files and one audio file.