Chords vs Tabs: What’s the Difference? (Ukulele vs Guitar)

by Madonna

The ukulele and guitar are both popular stringed instruments that share similarities yet possess distinct characteristics that significantly impact how chords and tabs are played. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into these differences, focusing on fundamental aspects such as the number of strings, string sets, string notes/intervals, and practical examples for converting guitar chords to ukulele chords.

Number of Strings: Impact on Chords

One of the most apparent differences between the ukulele and guitar is the number of strings. A standard ukulele typically has four strings, while a guitar has six strings. This disparity directly affects how chords are constructed and played on each instrument.


Ukulele: Missing Notes and Inversions

The ukulele’s four strings are tuned to G-C-E-A (from top to bottom or from string 4 to string 1). This tuning contrasts sharply with the guitar’s standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. When attempting to play guitar chords directly on the ukulele, several challenges arise due to the missing strings and altered tuning:


Missing Notes: Guitar chords often include notes that extend beyond the range of a ukulele’s four strings. For instance, a guitar chord shape might encompass six strings, whereas a ukulele can only sound up to four notes simultaneously. This discrepancy results in up to two missing notes from the guitar chord shape when transferred directly to the ukulele.


Inversions: Due to the ukulele’s limited range compared to the guitar, chords may need to be played in inversions where the root note is not the lowest pitch in the chord. This inversion alters the harmonic structure and may require adaptation to achieve a similar sound to the original guitar chord.

Practical Example: Converting Guitar Chords to Ukulele Chords

Let’s take a practical example to illustrate the differences in chord shapes between a guitar and a ukulele. Consider the chord of C major:

  • Guitar (standard tuning): X 3 2 0 1 0
  • Ukulele (G-C-E-A tuning): 0 0 0 3

In this example, the guitar chord shape for C major includes notes on six strings, whereas the ukulele version simplifies the chord to utilize the available strings and tuning effectively. The missing notes on the ukulele result in a different sound and feel compared to the fuller guitar chord.

String Sets: Complexity and Versatility

Another critical difference lies in how strings are grouped and tuned on each instrument, affecting the range and versatility of chords that can be played.

Ukulele: Two Sets of Three Strings

The ukulele’s four strings are often thought of as two sets of three strings:

Strings 1-2-3: A higher-pitched set that covers the soprano and concert ukuleles.

Strings 2-3-4: A lower-pitched set that includes the tenor and baritone ukuleles.

This grouping influences how chords are constructed and fingered, particularly in terms of voicing and range.

Guitar: Wide Range of Chord Options

In contrast, the guitar’s six strings are arranged in a more complex pattern, including groupings of three adjacent strings and non-adjacent strings. This arrangement allows for a wider range of chord shapes and voicings due to the instrument’s broader pitch spectrum.

SEE ALSO: What are the Open Notes on a Ukulele

String Notes / Intervals: Tuning Considerations

Understanding the tuning of both the ukulele and guitar is crucial for comprehending how chords and tabs are transposed and interpreted between these instruments.

Ukulele Tuning: G-C-E-A

The ukulele’s tuning—G-C-E-A—is distinct and affects how chords are shaped and played. This tuning resembles the top four strings of a guitar (D-G-B-E), albeit with differences in pitch and intervals. For example:

  • Guitar (standard tuning): E-A-D-G-B-E
  • Ukulele (G-C-E-A tuning): G-C-E-A

Despite the similar structure, the pitch differences between the instruments necessitate adjustments when converting chords between them.

Practical Conversion Tips

To convert guitar chords to ukulele chords effectively, consider the following tips:

Identify Common Tones: Find the common tones between the guitar and ukulele versions of a chord to preserve the harmonic essence.

Simplify Chord Shapes: Simplify complex guitar chord shapes to fit within the ukulele’s four-string framework while maintaining the integrity of the chord.

Experiment with Voicings: Explore different voicings and inversions on the ukulele to achieve a desired sound that closely matches the original guitar chord.


In conclusion, while chords and tabs are fundamental aspects of playing both the ukulele and guitar, understanding their differences is crucial for musicians looking to transition between these instruments. The ukulele’s fewer strings and distinct tuning require adaptations when compared to the guitar’s broader range and more complex chord voicings. By grasping these distinctions and employing practical conversion techniques, musicians can effectively navigate between the ukulele and guitar, enhancing their musical versatility and creativity.


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