Knowing When to Change Chords While Strumming a Song

For the most part, ukulele songs are displayed online and in print using chord charts. A chord chart includes the lyrics of a song with letters above to indicate the chords. Most of the ukulele songs I’ve posted on Ukulele Tricks are presented through chord charts.

The big downside to chord charts is that there is no indication of the rhythm (or strumming) of a song. By itself, a chord chart doesn’t inform you about how long to strum a chord or when to exactly change a chord. The chord letters are written to line up with the lyrics, as to try to indicate when the chord changes happen, but as you’ve probably found, it’s not that easy.

In this lesson, I show you some ways I go about approaching a chord chart and learning a new song. More specifically, I give you some practical examples and exercises from actual songs that allow you to get the knack for identifying chord changes in a song, while keeping a steady strumming pattern rhythm.

The following figure shows the strumming pattern I will use as an example in this lesson. If you are a complete beginner and need some direction, watch this video lesson before proceeding, which demonstrates the following strumming pattern:

3 Main Ways Chord Changes Happen In Songs

When you approach a chord chart, you need to know three of the most popular ways chords change throughout a song. Most songs have chord progressions that follow these three rules.

Changing Chords Every Measure

Most songs are counted in four (4/4 time signature). This means you count one, two, three, four to the rhythm or strumming of the song. In a song counted in four, each group of four beats is considered one measure. The strumming pattern in the figure above is played over the span of one measure.

If this talk about counting and measures is confusing, be sure to watch my video lesson Ukulele Strumming Patterns for Beginners.

As a rule of thumb, the majority of chords in a song change on the first beat of a measure. For example, in the popular folk song “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”, in the first line of the song, chord changes occur on the first beat of every measure, as shown in the following figure:

If you click over to the chord chart for “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”, you see how the above rhythm chart example is represented in the chord chart:

C                        C7
I've been working on the railroad
F                 C
All the live long day

Changing Chords Every Two Measures

While chords often change on the first beat of a measure, chords in a song don’t always change every measure. Sometimes you strum a chord for more than one measure. The following example shows a Jason Mraz “I’m Yours” chord progression, where each chord is strummed for two measures. This means you play the strumming pattern twice for each chord.

If you were just following a chord chart for “I’m Yours”, this is how the above would look:

C           G                Am              F
I won't hesitate no more, no more; it cannot wait I'm yours

Changing Chords In the Middle of a Measure

Chord changes sometimes happen in the middle of a measure–often times on the third beat. For example, in the first lines of “Ain’t She Sweet”, there is an occasional chord change on the third beat:

And this is how this progression would look in a chord chart:

C6    Edim  G7
Ain't she   sweet
-       C6      Edim     G7
See her walking down the street

Learning to Play a Song from a Chord Chart

Learning a song from a chord chart is actually pretty difficult–even for a seasoned ukulele player. This is because a chord chart gives you no indication of the rhythm of the song or how the song is counted. Because of this, it becomes a bit more difficult to find a strumming pattern that fits with the song.

Here’s how I approach learning a new song, which allows me to find the right strumming pattern for a song.

Tip #1: Listen, Listen, Listen

So you’ve found the chord chart of your favorite song, and you want to figure out how to play it on ukulele. Before even picking up your ukulele, at first, you must listen to the song. Find a recording of the song on YouTube or download it off of iTunes.

As you listen, do the following things:

  1. Tap your toe to the beat. Try to count along to a count of four. If that doesn’t quite fit, try a count of three to see if it fits better.
  2. Pay attention to where chord changes happen. When you hear a “shift” in the harmony or melody, this usually means a chord has changed.
  3. Sing or hum the melody of the song. The tricky part is to sing and strum at the same time, so you’ll want to have the melody of the song ingrained in your brain so it’s second nature.

Listening is so important because it gets the song stuck in your head. It also allows you to pick up on things like rhythm and melody, which will inform you for the next step.

Tip #2: Start with Down Strums

Once you’ve listened to the song, take a look at the chord chart for the song and start learning the chords. When you are comfortable, start strumming the first chord of the song with just down strums.

Always start with down strums. Strumming isn’t about being fancy. It’s better to be able to play a song with just down strums rather than playing a really fancy, complicated strumming pattern that is played out of rhythm.

Practice changing between the chords of the song. As shown in the examples above, try switching the chords on the first beat of every measure. If that doesn’t feel right, try switching chord every two measures, and if that’s not working, experiment with changing chords in the middle of a measure.

At this point, you are just trying to get a sense for how and when the chords change. You are going to have to experiment. Use your ear, and don’t be afraid to go back and listen to the song.

Tip #3: Strum First, Sing Later

The tricky part about any song is that more often than not, the rhythm of the melody of the song (the part you sing) is a little different than the strumming. This means your singing won’t always match up completely with your strumming. This complexity is normal in any piece of music and is often what makes a piece worth listening to.

When it comes to singing and playing at the same time, it’s important you’ve practiced your strumming to the point where it becomes second nature. This way when you try singing a vocal line you don’t get thrown off. It’s a lot like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time!

For more on singing and playing the ukulele at the same time, check out my lesson How to Sing and Play Ukulele At the Same Time.


A lot of the ideas presented in this lesson are unpacked more in my comprehensive video lesson course Ukulele Strumming Tricks. If you are a complete beginner, or if you want to have a more in-depth understanding of rhythm and strumming on the ukulele, I recommend joining me in my course.

How’s the strumming going for you? What questions do you have? Do you have any tips that I might have missed? Post your comment below.

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  1. Ernest Parco

    So that how it goes! I’ve been struggling on my ukulele for the past 2 months. Yeah, maybe you are right, strun first, sing later. This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve come across with. Thank you, Brett , for the tips. The next next time I go for my ukulele, i’ll do it slowly.

  2. Louit Dafeo

    Hi Brett, this is my first time that I really got an interest to play Ukelele & I notice that if I use a standard uke it will be different in chords towards the six string guitar, but if I play baretone Uke it will be the same as the first four string of a regular six string guitar. The reasons was, I have to study the chords of a standard Uke which is maybe a tenor, alto or soprano (G,C,E,A) unlike baretone Uke, I can play by myself & adapt very easily from the chords of a six string guitar. I made a comparison between the standard Uke & the baretone Uke, I may say, standard is good. I need to buy a good branded Ukulele & can you please give me advise what is the best recommendation from you between the standard Uke & baretone Uke. Thank you, appreciated.

    • Hi Louit, you are right that a ukulele in standard tuning has different chords relative to a guitar. A helpful way for me to think about standard tuning on the ukulele is that it’s like playing the bottom four strings of the guitar capo’d at the 5th fret. If you are looking to get a ukulele to tune to standard, it all depends on your budget. How much are you looking to spend?

  3. Joey

    Hey Brett c: thanks so much for all the great lessons!!! I just started playing the uke and Ive learnt somewhere over the rainbow:D the thing is, when I watch your videos, you seem to be able to sing effortlessly, but when I sing, I find that I have to sing REALLY REALLY loudly to be able to hear myself over the strumming. Does this happen to you too? Or is it because I have a concert uke and you have a tenor one that is causing the difference? Thanks so much!!!:)

    • Hi Joey, ahh, singing! I don’t think this has to do with the kind of ukulele. You might need to think about strumming a little lighter, or singing louder. I recommend taking a voice lesson or two. It will really help you familiarize yourself with your voice and get some more confidence. Like playing ukulele, singing takes a lot of practice :)

      • Joey

        Ohkay, will take note!:D Thanks so much for the advice! Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Joey

    Hey Brett, I’ve been writing songs since I was 10 and one of the reasons I picked up the ukulele is so as to learn how to compose music to my songs, because how I usually write songs is that I just fit a melody to some lyrics and then commit it to memory. I see you’re a songwriter as well, so I wanted to ask how to write chords for songs. I can play a note to every syllable of my song on the piano or the uke, but when it comes to chords, I am completely clueless. Please help, thanks so much for this brilliant website!:D

    • Hi Joey, these are great questions. When I write, I like to find a simple chord progression and strum that over and over as I sing lyrics or a melody over the chords. Finding the right chord progression requires a little bit of theory to know what chords work and sound natural with one another. Here are some popular chord progressions in different keys. You can randomize the chords in the progression:

      C G Am F

      Em C G D

      F Bb Dm C7

      Since I don’t have any lessons specifically addressing these ideas, I recommend Googling “music theory chord families” to figure out some chords you can use to write songs.

  5. Deborah Therien

    Geez Brett,

    These are the things I’ve wanted to know for almost as long as I’ve been trying to play. (that’s only been a few months…) Thank you so much for enlightening me. I strive to learn so I can play better and do try to immerse myself. I’ve been told by others not to learn stuff ‘ahead’ of what I should be doing,(according to them), but I cannot NOT learn things….who cares what order they come in? Your body and mind will know when it’s time…! Love your stuff, glad I found ya, thanks for all the effort you put forth. D

    • Hey D, I’m the same way as you! I’m always wanting to learn new things. There’s nothing wrong with trying to tackle something beyond your skill level if you ask me. What’s the worst that can happen? You might have to back up a couple steps, but that’s not so hard. It is true you want to avoid developing bad habits, but I’ve come to accept that I’m going to have bad habits even though I don’t mean to. I’ll always be working through those, and once I get rid of the bad habits, I’ll probably form some new ones. Glad to hear you are so eager to learn!

  6. Caitlyn B

    I just wanna say that I have just started playing the Ukulele and I found your website and it just basically answered all the questions swirling around in my head. I mean I read one article you wrote and at the bottom there was a link to the next question on my mind! This is a great site and must for beginners! Thanks so much!!!

  7. Brooke R

    Ive had my uke for a while and got the strumming down pretty well but i can get the songs to sound like they are suppost to… I dont know how to get the chord to go with the strums and make it sound good. Any tips?

  8. Christine Hepworth-James

    Hi Brett
    Ok…I’m 49, never played an instrument nor able to read music. After starting, and I must admit, dipping in and out if different parts of your course, I find I can now play music!! It feels great. Thanks for keeping the beginner bits simple. I now just need to practice, as I’m finding it hard to change chords at the right time/tempo. I’ll get there! More simple 12 bar blues strumming please!

    • I’m thrilled to hear you’re having success, Christine! Keep up the great work!

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