Diagramming Ukuleles

Recently I laid out and illustrated a book on how to play the ukulele. The most common graphic I had to design was a fingering chart or chord diagram, which shows which strings are held down to make a chord.


The ukulele has four strings, which are pressed down just behind the frets that run across the neck. The strings run across the nut, at the top, and the frets are numbered down from the nut. The C string, second from the left, is the thickest and lowest-sounding string, and E to the right of it is the next-lowest.


Most fingering diagrams use a basic grid, like this one, to show the name of the chord and which strings are held down where. This works fine where only a couple of fingers are involved near the top of the neck, but as soon as a few fingers come into play, or you have to count five or six frets down, it gets confusing.


Some authors help fingering by numbering which fingers are being used. Jerrold Conners does this directly on the fingers concerned, while Alistair Wood indicates the fingers in use at the bottom. I decided I wanted to number the fingers directly, which limited how small I could make the diagrams. (By the way, note how open, or untouched, strings are sometimes indicated with an open circle.)


I also wanted to indicate to people to the position of the nut, and which string was being fretted. Curt Sheller’s chord diagrams use different thicknesses of line to show the C and E strings, and Jerrold Connors uses a thicker line for the nut.

Here’s the solution I came up with; I numbered fingers, thickened the nut, thickened the C and E strings, and kept simple frets, with the strings placed on top of the frets. Everything was assembled in Illustrator by hand. I must have made about 150 of these things, which took some time as you can imagine. After a while you get pretty fast at tweaking, renaming, and saving.



For chords that are fingered further down the neck, some authors use numbering to show which fret is which, but I find this pretty confusing when you’re counting down past the fifth fret. Ukulele makers agree: a ukulele neck actually has little inlaid fret markers on it, indicating (usually) the 5th, 7th, and 10th frets. So I decided to show the neck in full and use those fret markers instead of numbering.


I also decided to, wherever possible, base diagrams on the actual appearance of a ukulele: for example, the frets become closer together as you move along the neck, but most fretboard diagrams ignore this. I took a lot of photographs, used them as the basis for the pen drawings in the books, and in addition traced over them in Illustrator, making hybrid diagrams like the one below.

Why take so much trouble? There are computer programs that can generate fingering charts automatically, but they output sterile, diagrammatic graphics. To beginners, who often have to glance back and forth from the words of a song to the chord diagrams, sometimes under less-than-optimal lighting conditions, I wanted to give as many visual clues as possible, to help them orient themselves.


What does this have to do with data presentation? The biggest question with complex graphics is how much to simplify. Some ukulele books use photographs of a hand fingering chords, but photos, while they look pretty, are almost always worse than diagrams. They contain too much extraneous and thus distracting information. A minimalist diagram, though, requires the reader to work hard supplying a translation. (“Now which finger goes on the, um, five, six, seventh fret?”) Perhaps the best compromise, whether you’re depicting ukuleles, global warming, or the invasion of Russia, is a semi-realistic diagram: an edited version of reality.