Flexible Chords for Inflexible Hands

Arthritis is a problem for many older players of the ukulele and other stringed instruments as it limits flexibility.  This should not be seen as an obstacle to playing the ukulele.  It does not really matter how you position your hand or form chords as long as you can play them.  You do not have to play the ukulele with a perfect technique, although it is good to strive for this even with physical limitations.

I have osteoarthritis in the first and second fingers of my left hand and I am unable to bend these fingers tightly to make a fist.  This lack of flexibility makes it difficult to form certain chords on my concert ukulele.  The arthritis has caused the joints of these fingers to become enlarged and bent, so reducing the stretch between my second and third fingers.  This makes it difficult for two or more fingers to be positioned on the same fret as in the G, D, D7 (Hawaiian) chords.

Instead of positioning my fingers across the fret-board I often hold my hand with the fingers pointing down the fret-board.  Unfortunately this does not look very elegant.  With my hand in this position I am unable to make a chord transition in the usual way but it is easier to make the transition between D, D7 and G.  The disadvantage of this position is when I move my fingers up to the first fret and my hand gets caught up with the headstock.  Some chords are also difficult to play using the correct fingering as I have limited stretch between my finger-tips when my fingers are bent.  When I play the Gm chord my third finger is unable to make the stretch to the third fret and I must substitute it with my little finger.  These are just some of the modifications I make to my technique.

In order to learn a song I must plan all my chord changes to allow for the restricted movement in my left hand.  I practice individual chord formations then the transitions between chords so they become smooth and fast.  It may take longer to learn a song but I know I shall not be placing undue strain on my finger joints.

With arthritis it is important to be flexible with my approach to chord formation and transitions because there are always exceptions to the rule.  What may work for one song, may not work for another.  If the transition between chords is really just too hard I find another chord as a substitute or just leave the difficult chord out.

If you also have arthritis do not get disheartened.  The important thing to remember is that you need to find out what works for you, persevere with practice and don’t give up.  Playing the ukulele will not only strengthen your fingers, improve flexibility and help your arthritis, but more importantly you will have fun while you are doing it.

Ukulele Mike has some exercises that may help improve your flexibility.  Dexterity Exercises


Bayside Ukes Member