- Just what exactly is a guitalele?
- Find out how it differs from a regular guitar
- Learn your first 11 guitalele chords
The guitalele is essentially a ¼-sized guitar. Its standard tuning is A-D-G-C-E-A, meaning that it maintains the relative tuning of the guitar, but it is tuned up a perfect fourth.
This means that any chord you could play on the guitar can also be played on the guitalele, but when it is played on the guitalele it will sound as if you were playing it with a capo on the fifth fret of the guitar.
In other words, you can play every chord shape on the guitalele that you can play on the guitar, but the pitches, and therefore the names of the chords, will be different on each instrument.
This can make for a tricky situation for an experienced guitarist because it means you will have to convince your brain that what feels like an e-min chord is actually an a-min chord.
Similarly, your G chord will feel like a D chord.
That said, the guitalele is a great instrument for a beginner hoping eventually to move on to guitar due to its smaller size which may make taking those first steps a little easier for younger players. Or for any plucked strings player looking to add a little variety to their musical toolkit.
You can also check out this article to check out some of the best guitalele’s on the market.
Before we dive into the guitalele’s chords, here are some thoughts on learning new instruments in general.
Learning an instrument
Learning to play instruments is a lot like learning to play a sport. Early on, you tend not to be very good at it, but it’s still fun.
With some practice, it becomes something you can do with other people, which makes it a much more rewarding experience.
The most crucial common denominator in a successful run in either sport or music, though, is learning and practicing the fundamentals.
No one has ever shown up to a legitimate audition only to be asked, “How many chords can you play?” anymore than a marathoner would be asked to show off some of their favorite drills before being offered a sponsorship.
If you don’t know some chords, it will show.
If you are fortunate enough to be working with a good teacher, they will already know this next part already. If you are your own teacher, however, then this will undoubtedly come in handy.
Learning happens somewhere between what is too easy and what is too hard, between what is boring and what is anxiety-inducing. Within this range is what Lev Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development.
This zone is where your optimal balance between easy and hard occurs. It is where you have the best chance of settling into a flow state, the optimal learning experience.
In order to help you find this state for yourself, I will share the eleven most essential guitalele chords in order of easiest to hardest.
Move through these at your own pace, if you are not feeling sufficiently challenged, then press on. If you are feeling overwhelmed, then slow down and narrow your focus to one or two chords at a time.
There is plenty of great music out there that you can unlock with only two or three chords.
Why learn the guitalele?
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Like I mentioned above, the guitalele is like a guitar but has a smaller scale length. The quarter-sized scale length can make it easier to learn for musicians with smaller hands.
Guitalele strings are also nylon, which are the same type of strings you would find on the classical guitar.
New guitarists can often find the classical guitar a little more comfortable and easier on the fingertips than a steel-string acoustic or electric guitar.
The guitalele thus combines the convenience of a smaller instrument with the relative softness of the type of nylon strings found on a classical guitar.
This can make it a fantastic starter instrument for a younger musician, but it is also a great instrument to learn just in general for when you’re bored of a regular full-sized guitar.
Why learn chords on the guitalele?
To return to the sports connection from earlier, there is a difference between recreational players and professionals. I live down the hall from a guy who likes to go to the park to play basketball a few times a week.
He might have done some drills in his youth, but now the only practice he does is in playing the game itself.
Lebron James, on the other hand, is in the gym every day and practicing with his team on a regular basis outside of games. Either of these approaches is totally fine.
If you want to learn an instrument just so you can jam with your friends, you may not have the time to get your 30 minutes of practice in every day.
In that case, you will want to learn the fundamentals you need to know in order to communicate musically right off the bat.
On the guitalele, that is chords! Eventually, you may want to learn some pentatonic scales for soloing as well, but chords will take you pretty far on their own.
Basic guitalele chords
Put most simply, there are two main chord families on stringed instruments, open chords and barre chords.
Open chords simply mean they make use of lots of open strings and are generally played right down the neck on the first fret frets.
But when we take those open chord shapes and move them up the neck, we need to take those ‘open’ notes with us, so we will essentially relegate our index finger to act as the new guitar nut and ‘barre’ across all the strings.
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When first starting out on a plucked string instrument, the highest utility chords to learn are adaptations of barre chords.
The hardest part of forming barre chords is laying your index finger across all of the strings of the instrument. To simplify the process a bit, just take out the first finger part.
What you are left with is two halves of the barre chord.
The lower half is called a power chord and is composed of the root and the fifth of the chord, played as the first finger on any fret of the string closest to your nose, and the third finger on the next string down (towards your toes) two frets higher (towards the body of the instrument) on the neck.
With just two fingers involved, this chord is much simpler than nearly all of the other chords one might pick up on the guitalele, but it can get even simpler.
By tuning the string closest to your nose down from A to G (a whole step lower) into what you might call “drop-G tuning” (like drop-D tuning on the guitar), you free yourself up to lay just your index finger across the A (now tuned to G) and D strings at the same fret and play the same thing.
A whole chord with just one finger is the height of chordal efficiency. What makes it even better is that this chord can be moved up and down the neck to get twelve different combinations of pitches.
What this means, is that this one chord shape will put twelve chords in your toolkit, and we are just getting started.
The other half of the barre chord is typically referred to as a half-barre chord.
The half-barre chord is an umbrella that applies to more than one chord shape, it is essentially taking the four highest strings open chords, laying the index finger down across those four strings, and building the open chords in question above the position of the index finger, which is acting as the new nut.
We will look at some open chords a bit later, at which point it will make more sense to apply this framework to those chords.
For now, though, let’s focus on a single chord shape and one modification that can be used up and down the neck, much like the power chord, to yield 24 total chords.
The chord shape features the first finger barred across the three strings closest to your toes and the third finger two frets higher on the fourth string up from your toes (or third-string down from your nose).
That’s it. This is a minor triad with a doubled root, the third finger is on the root, and the first finger bars the minor third, fifth, and root.
If you place your third finger on the third fret and bar the first fret, this chord shape forms a B-flat minor chord on the guitalele.
If you move it up one fret it becomes a B minor chord, and on and on up the neck of the guitalele.
If you take that same chord shape and place your second finger on the fret in between the first-finger barre and the third finger, the minor third of the barre is replaced by a major third, turning the minor triad into a major triad.
In learning both of these half-barre chords, the minor and the major, you can play every simple minor and major triad all over the neck, which unlocks a substantial amount of music.
We have looked at two types of basic guitalele chords that are great for getting started playing a lot of music very quickly.
The last step in learning guitalele chords for beginners is to learn some open chords. Some of these are quite easy.
When teaching guitar to beginners, I typically start them off with A minor and E Major. The shapes in this two-chord chord progression would yield D minor to A Major in the guitalele chord progression, due to the transposition of the instrument.
To round out the chord progression, the C Major chord (F Major on the guitalele) can be added on, with the order and duration of the chords left up to the student.
There are a lot of creative possibilities with just these three chords. Once you have A Major under your fingers, all you have to do to create A7 is lift your third finger off the G string.
To make an A minor chord, just put your third finger back and pick your first finger up off of the C string.
Another couple of chords that go nicely together in a chord progression are G Major and C Major.
For a little more spice, that G Major can be transformed into a G7 by rearranging your fingers so that the doubled root becomes the chordal 7th.
Having that D minor ready to add in gives you everything you need to build an ii-V7-I progression, a staple of jazz music.
These eleven chords we have looked at specifically should be more than enough to get you started.
You could play for years with just a few of these chords under your fingers. In case you want even more to chew on, though, we are including a more comprehensive chord chart at the end of the article.
Feel free to refer to it any time you need something to help round out a chord progression, a reminder of how a particular chord is formed, or something new to learn how to play.
I hope this exploration of guitalele chords has been helpful for learning a thing or two about the guitalele and will help you on your path to the ever-elusive zone of proximal development and flow state.