Learn to play the first five notes of all 12 keys using just two finger patterns

BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SPRING 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE

Playing in the key of C major can be a very comfortable trap for ukulele players. But let’s face it—there are 11 other nice-sounding keys at our disposal. Learning to play in all 12 keys is easy using the Perpetual 5ths Exercise. With this one easy workout you’ll be able to take a full 360-degree tour around the Circle of 5ths—a graphic representation of the 12 notes and their relationships. So, you are not only learning to play in all 12 keys, you are memorizing the circle. And think of the looks of astonishment you’ll get from your ukulele-playing friends when you proudly proclaim you want to play “Five Foot Two” in Eb!


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Basic music theory tells us that the first five notes of any key’s major scale are the most important because the first, third, and fifth notes are needed to form the home chord—the I—of the key. In the key of C major, for example, the first, third, and fifth notes are, respectively, C, E, and G, which form a C major chord. The magic of the Perpetual 5ths Exercise is that it teaches you to play the first five notes in all 12 keys using just two finger patterns.

Start your trip around the Circle of 5ths with your old standby, the key of C major. This first pattern, as shown in bar 1, is the only one that contains an open string; the rest contain only fretted notes. The fifth up from C is G. Since your second finger is already on the note G, start there and play the first five notes of the G major scale on strings 2 and 1 (bar 2). For the key of D major (bar 3), drop down an octave from the D note you just played on string 1 to the D on string 3, fret 2. 

Now play the first five notes of the A major scale using the same finger pattern you used for G major, but with everything two frets higher, as depicted in bar 4. When you get to the seventh-fret E, drop an octave to the E on string 3, fret 4, for the key of E major (bar 5). Alternate between these two patterns through the keys of B and Gb, as shown in bars 5 and 6, and you will have already played through seven of the 12 keys! 

Continue the pattern and you’ll start to run out of fretboard, especially if you’re playing a soprano ukulele. Here’s an easy fix: After playing Gb major (bar 7), move the pattern down five frets to play the first five notes of the Db major scale (bar 8), starting with the Db on string 3, fret 1. After that, you can alternate between your two patterns on string pairs 3–2 and 2–1 to play through the keys of Ab, Eb, Bb, and F, before arriving back where you started, in C. Add an ear-training component by singing solfege syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol) while playing the perpetual 5ths exercise. For each key, the syllables/relationships between the five notes are the same—only the pitches are different.

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