For many years I taught guitar and music theory at college, and developed some time-saving strategies for learning music.
Basics of Musical Keys
Firstly, this article isn't for total beginners. Having said that, it can be very helpful to understand more theory than you can actually play yet.
Maybe you have noticed that songs use a similar palette of chords. The reason for this is that there is a related set of chords in each key. If you learn a song in a certain key, any other song in the same key will use much the same chords. When you understand this, it should make learning songs much easier.
Example: in the key of C, the chords will be C, F, G7, Dm, Em, Am. The first three chords are found constantly in folk songs, Dylan songs, Hank Williams and other country songs. A simple blues will use C7, F7, G7, the same chords but with an added flat 7 note. This covers most early rock n'roll and Chuck Berry songs.
Let's assume that we are learning a new song, or for that matter, writing one. Instead of a random number of chords, the core of the song will use seven predictable chords, it's only the order in which they appear that is the new aspect.
So, for every key there are seven chords and seven notes. The chords can have different flavours, and added notes, but they are basically the same and use the notes in the scale, called diatonic.
A, D, E will nearly always appear in the same song.
In this article, we'll look at how these chords work together, and they can be classified as root 5 chords, that is, the root note of each chord is found on string 5. We'll begin with the key of A.
Then we'll continue to look at another set of root 5 chords, this time in the key of C, and show how the same pattern will repeat for every different key, sort of buy one, get 11 free!
- Chord 1 = A
- Chord 2 = Bm
- Chord 3 = C sharp m
- Chord 4 = D
- Chord 5 = E7
- Chord 6 = F sharp m7
- Chord 7 = G sharp m7b5
The pattern of chords in a harmonised scale is the same for all the different major keys. The tonic chord ( Chord 1) is followed by two minor chords, then two major chords. When you see a description of the 1, 4, 5 chords (I, IV, V) these are the three major chords in any key.
The major scale for A has three sharps (C, F and G sharp) and these become the bass notes for each chord in the sequence. Play the scale up the 5th string and you get the following fret numbers: 0,2,4,5,7,9,11,12. The chords in A are each built on these root notes.
Chords in A
Chord Chart Info
In these chord diagrams just play the middle 4 strings, barre chords are shown with the loop symbol. Remember, the root note is on string 5, and this will follow the fret numbers for the A major scale at the bottom.
Also shown: the scale patterns for A major and A pentatonic scales, both of which will work with all these chords.
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Barre chords: if you struggle with barre chords, there are alternatives. See my other article about Barre Chords and how to avoid them. The three-note chord form shown for Bm7 is a good substitute for a full barre chord, just mute the 4th string. Most of the time this chord form is easier and also sounds better than the full barre chord shape.
Chords in C (Key of C)
Chords in C
Now we have the same root 5 chords, but in the key of C. As C is three frets up the neck from A, all the chords form the same pattern, but three frets higher. There are some slight variations, as you could use either major and minor chords, or chords with added sevenths. It's good to know these variations as they will often sound better.
Playing in Other Keys
It's much easier to transpose, that is, move to another key on guitar than most other instruments. On piano, all the patterns look completely different, but on guitar and bass, the patterns remain the same, just up or down the neck.
Here are all the notes on string 5:
- Open string = A
- Fret 1 = Bb
- Fret 2 = B
- Fret 3 = C
- Fret 4 = C sharp/ D flat
- Fret 5 = D
- Fret 6 = D sharp or E flat
- Fret 7 = E
- Fret 8 = F
- Fret 9 = F sharp or G flat
- Fret 10 = G
- Fret 11 = G sharp or A flat
- Fret 12 = A, but one octave higher than the open string.
So if we wanted to play a song in Bb you could shift all the chord pattern up one fret from A, or down two frets from C.
For D, just move all the chord pattern up two frets from the C pattern. If you start running out of frets high up on the neck you can switch to root 4 chords instead, which I will cover in the final section of this article.
When you play the chords of the harmonised scale in several different keys it will really help to embed the information, even if it seems like hard work at the time. There are some keys you almost never use, so they can have a very low priority. I would recommend learning the following keys, along with the relevant scale pattern:
E, F, G, A, C, D
For Jazz: Eb, Bb.
Any other keys can be covered by using a capo. It's really worth getting used to using a capo to change keys, especially if you are playing with different singers.
Root 4 Chords: D Major
Root 4 Chords
These are essential chords to know, as they sound great in chord/melody arrangements. They are more difficult to play, as the minor 7th shape is a bit tricky.
Root 6 chords are covered in my other article entitled "Guitar Chords and scales in E."
Harmony and Chords Overview
Chord qualities are the same for all major keys:
- Major (the 5 chord often has a 7th)
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Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on April 23, 2015:
It really helps to integrate scales and chords together, as you will always know how to improvise on any chord sequence. Also, you have all the building blocks for songwriting and composition.
Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on April 23, 2015:
I wish someone had thought to put diagrams like this together when I was learning. Being able to visualize how the scale fits with the chord progression is a big help.