Breaking Down the Barriers: Chords in Every Key

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

Yngwie knows his chords…do you?

Songwriters and improvisers usually pick chords and scales based in the 12 keys we use in music. This time we will focus on triads, or 3 note chords. These are the basis of Western harmony.The guitar is capable of playing in all of the 12 keys, but for some reason, many guitarists are stuck playing and writing in the basic ‘guitar keys’ of E, A, C, G, & D. But understanding keys isn’t difficult- no more than understanding how to select a pickup on Seymour Duncan’s Tone Chart. Knowing about keys will help you get your ideas across to non-guitarist musicians as well as understand what they are talking about when they say ‘This is in the key of Eb”. And you won’t have to bring a separate guitar tuned down a half-step. Your standard-tuned guitar can play in that key just fine. So lets get busy sharpin’ and flattin’!

The first step is to look at the following charts:

 

Key Name

No. of Sharps

Which

letters

are

Sharped?

 

 

 

C

0#

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

G

1#

F#

 

 

 

 

 

 

D

2#

F#

C#

 

 

 

 

 

A

3#

F#

C#

G#

 

 

 

 

E

4#

F#

C#

G#

D#

 

 

 

B

5#

F#

C#

G#

D#

A#

 

 

F#

6#

F#

C#

G#

D#

A#

E#

 

C#

7#

F#

C#

G#

D#

A#

E#

B#

 

 

Key Name

No. of Flats

Which

letters

are

Flatted?

 

 

C

0b

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F

1b

Bb

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bb

2b

Bb

Eb

 

 

 

 

 

Eb

3b

Bb

Eb

Ab

 

 

 

 

Ab

4b

Bb

Eb

Ab

Db

 

 

 

Db

5b

Bb

Eb

Ab

Db

Gb

 

 

Gb

6b

Bb

Eb

Ab

Db

Gb

Cb

 

Cb

7b

Bb

Eb

Ab

Db

Gb

Cb

Fb

 

 

Determining the chords in any key is easy.  There are 7 basic chords in every key, and we must determine the quality (major, minor or diminished) of each chord.

  • Write out the numbers I ii iii IV IV vi vii in a column on a piece of paper.  We use Roman numerals in music to determine the chords.
  • The ‘capital’ Roman numerals are always major. The ‘lower case’ Roman numerals are either minor or diminished.

 

  • Let’s say you wanted to figure out the chords to the key of A.
  • Write out the letters of the musical alphabet starting with A:

A    B   C   D   E   F   G

 

According to the chart above, the key of A has 3 sharps. They are for the F, C, & G notes. Fill them in next to the letters:

A   B   C#   D   E   F#   G#

 

  • In every key, the order of chords is exactly the same.  In other words,

I is always major.

ii is always minor.

iii is always minor.

IV is always major.

V is always major.

vi is always minor.

vii is always diminished.

 

So:

I=A

ii=B

iii=C#

IV=D

V=E

vi=F#

vii=G#

 

Now fill in the qualities of the chords:

I=A

ii=Bm

iii=C#m

IV=D

V=E

vi=F#m

vii=G#dim

This gives you the 7 chords in the key of A, which you can use in any order to construct a song or chord progression. If there are chords you do not know, you can either ask about them, look them up in a chord book, or look them up online.  Coming up with voicings that are unusual will help set your music apart. Remember, these are triads– 3 note chords. You don’t have to use all 6 strings, but you generally have to use at least 3, although they don’t have to be adjacent. If you are playing with a larger band, you can even spread the chords out among the band members- have the bassist play the root, one guitarist play the 3rd and the other play the 5th. They can be in varying octaves as well.

Learning the chords in a key is as easy as picking the right pickup.

 Learning about chords in every key isn’t difficult, and after awhile it is second nature, just like learning to read tab or understanding the difference between an LP or a Strat.

 

Written on September 27, 2012, by Dave Eichenberger

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  • Axedoc2010

    I wish you guys would label the blogs as beginner, intermediate or advanced so people would not waste their time.

    • mr_insane_1000

      i wish you would not waste my time by having to read your faggot ass bullshit

      • Pick a Name

        You are an idiot. This article is a waste of time and is a disgrace to Seymour Duncan.

    • If you think it’s a waste of your time then maybe you should take up a different instrument where you won’t need to know how to construct a chord for melody. Also so you will not read and comment on these killer guitar articles so others don’t all have to waste their time coming to the bottom of the comments to read yours?

  • this is pretty awesome. thanks!

  • That’s really helpful, except you should add that the order of chords is exactly the same in ever MAJOR key (natural, sharpened or flattened). Because for minor scales, it’s a different case, worthy of a separate article.

    • Pastasil

      The order is still the same, except you start on a different step, three semi-tones below the root (A if the root is C).

  • Pick a Name

    This is a very 3-year old lesson. Those who play music and still have to be coached on this rudimentary regiment should give up playing music.

  • C, G, D. A, E, B, F#, C#. What is the logic behind this and what’s the shortcut to remembering it (You know, like ‘every good boy does fine’? Is there a series of shortcuts to remembering the entire lesson?

    Thanks!

    • Pastasil

      Hint: Circle of fifths. Google. Read. Learn.

  • You listed 7#’s for C#…………B#is not sharp ,it’s a C

    • luke Smith

      While you are correct saying B# is the note C, in a chart of sharps C is written as B#. Just like you missed the Fb and Cb’s in the flat chart… They are E and B, but in a chart of flats they are written as Fb and Cb.

      • Chris G

        B# isn’t the note C, it’s the same pitch but a different note.

  • paul wizard

    awesome o wow thanks guys you rock

  • Not surprisingly, as a teacher, I find many long time players do not understand this concept at all. The surprising thing to me is that some comments here are derisive of them that do not yet possess this knowledge, one even saying that if they don’t know this, they should give up music. Wow. All musicians have “holes” in their knowledge. Most self taught players have massive holes in their understanding; them that want to learn more, seek out people such as myself to help them fill in the holes. In the 25+ years I’ve been teaching music (not just guitar), except for beginning students, every single person has lacked some very fundamental understanding, most of which relates to theory. To those critical of this fact, I say: you need to stop with the arrogance, shut up, sit down and listen with a little humility – you, too, once were ignorant of this knowledge. Folks in need of help in learning should be encouraged, not derided.

  • My brain is leaking….How does one memorize the number of #’s or b’s within a key without the handy chart? Also, if there are only 12 keys why are there 15 keys represented in the charts or is it because some #’s and b’s overlap as the same key? Help. Confused.

    • Tim

      Hey Kevin the keys of B and C flat are the same. D flat and C# are the same. G flat and F# are the same. That is why there is only 12 keys. Hope this helps.

      • Kevin L. Gibbs

        Thanks.

  • Thanks for the comments. As a teacher, you would be surprised at how many pro players have no idea how to figure this out. My guess is that most guitarists don’t know it, just as most guitarists haven’t taken lessons and learn strictly by tab and YouTube. Neither way is the best way to make good music, though.

  • DebNZ

    What I find useful is choosing a key, then listing the chords available (with all their notes and chord numbers) at the top of the page. I then choose a chord progression, from which I build a melody and corresponding rhythm… Done!

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      Great idea!

  • Georgy Zykov

    Since I am learning scales and keys and didn’t reach high level at it yet, I have some questions:
    1) Does the “I ii iii IV IV vi vii” progression work, for instance, for Minor or Phrygian?
    2) You’ve written that order of chords is always the same and then you add “.., in other words I is always major. ii is always minor…” etc.
    Does this mean that I always have to play chords in this order “A B C# D E F# G#” + qualities (in the key of A) or I can mix them up the way I want, for example, “B D E F# C# G# A” + qualities when I play in the key of A ? 🙂

    Thanks in advance!