Guitar music is written in quite a narrow range of keys. This is due to the nature of the instrument and how it is tuned: some keys are just naturally more suited to the guitar.
In this lesson, I identify these keys, and also list the chords in each of these keys. This is useful for composers and songwriters intending to write music for the guitar, whether or not they are guitarists themselves.
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The most commonly used keys in guitar music, in my experience, are shown below (in no particular order). In the next section, we’ll look at the chords in each of these keys.
There are a number of reasons that these keys are used in guitar music more than others. The main reason is simply that the chords in these keys are easy to play on guitar, usually because they include open strings.
Bear in mind that the above are just the keys that are most suited to the instrument: of course, the guitar can play music written in any key!
Chords In Each Guitar Key
Listed below are the chords diatonic to each of the main guitar keys. To learn more about diatonic chords, read this article: Diatonic Chords.
For major keys, I have extended the V chords to include the 7ths, making them dominant 7th chords.
For minor keys, I have used chords taken from the natural minor scale. I feel that this is more relevant for rock/pop guitarists and songwriters. However, I have also included the dominant 7th chords as these are probably used more than the minor chords based on the 5th degree of the scale.
In classical music harmony, chords in minor keys can come from either the harmonic or melodic minor scales. Composers usually use a mixture of both.
Transposing Music On Guitar
It is usually very easy to transpose simple music (i.e. basic chords and melodies) on the guitar. It is often just a case of moving one’s hands up or down the fretboard, and playing the entire song in the new position.
Occasionally you’ll have to move chords or lines over onto adjacent strings, but even this does not pose too much of a problem.
However, for more complex music such as classical or fingerstyle pieces, the music may have to be completely rearranged.
Guitarists can also use a capo to transpose the music. These devices hold down all of the strings at a particular fret, and allow the guitarist to play in a different key without having to think about where on the fretboard he is playing. Capos simply change the pitch of the open strings, are comparable to the transpose buttons on electronic keyboards.
Of course, music very often includes key changes, and guitarists will often have to play chords that do not naturally ‘fall under the fingers’. However, most music written specifically for the guitar starts out in a guitar-friendly key.
Open Strings Keys
Most of the common guitar keys are based on the open strings of the guitar. ‘Open strings’ means strings that are not held down, i.e. the notes that the guitar strings are tuned to. The open string notes on a guitar are: E, A, D, G, B and E.
Because of this, many songs and other pieces of guitar music are written in the keys of E, A, D and G.
In my experience, the most common of these are E (major & minor), D (major & minor) and G (major).
E major and minor keys are very natural keys to start writing with if you actually have a guitar in your hands. The reason for this is simply because the lowest string is tuned to E and it is natural to use it as a bass note. It can also be awkward to dampen it if playing other chords.
The low E string is often tuned down to a D in classical guitar music.
Although none of the guitar strings are tuned to C, C major is also a very common key for guitar music. This is because the C major scale contains all of the open string notes, thereby making chords and melodies in C major easy to play.
Many songs or pieces of music are written in the key of C simply because it avoids sharps and flats.
Writing in guitar friendly keys sounds better on the guitar not just because it is likely to be easier to play. In the case of acoustic and classical guitars, and to a certain extent with electric instruments, the open strings will resonate with the other notes being played. Because of this, and due also in part to the way guitars are built, music written in a suitable key will ‘come alive’, whereas it might sound rather ‘dull’ if performed in another key.
It is easy to accidentally play open strings on the guitar, and sometimes quite awkward to dampen them when playing other notes. This means that chords containing notes that clash with open strings can occasionally cause difficulties. For this reason, keys with many sharps and flats are not naturally suited to the instrument.
However, guitarists will often play music in ‘flat’ keys such as B flat major, E flat major and C minor, etc., because they are providing accompaniment for wind instruments.
Music written for a certain singer is often transposed to fit their range, and guitarists often have to play in ‘awkward’ keys because of this.
Sight Reading On Guitar
It is a common joke among musicians that guitarists aren’t the best sight readers. Sadly, there is actually a little bit of truth in this.
Music played on guitar is usually restricted to guitar-friendly keys for a number of reasons:
• Music transcribed for guitar is often transposed to a guitar friendly key. Due to the limitations of the instrument, this may be the only way a certain piece can satisfactorily be played on guitar.
• Music written specifically for the guitar is usually written to the strengths of the instrument. This may include open strings and chords that are easy to play with a ‘bright’ and loud sound.
• A great many songwriters are guitarists; songs are often written with the guitar in hand.
All of the above points mean that guitarists are mainly exposed to music in a narrow range of keys; perhaps more so than players of most other instruments.
For this reason, if you are writing music for guitar that is intended for beginners or early players, it is best to stick to keys that are suitable for the instrument. Even if you are writing for experienced players it may be prudent to write in the guitar-friendly keys listed above.
The guitar can play music written in any key. However, some keys are more ‘guitar friendly’ than others. Composers and songwriters should bear this in mind when writing for the instrument.
Guitarists should perhaps try to play more music written in non-guitar keys. This will help when they are called to sightread or perform music written for other instruments or singers.
Songwriters and composers can use the lists of chords in each key shown above to help them when composing music for guitar.
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