Guitar keys: beginner’s guide to keys in music

Yousician team 6 min read

You may have encountered some words in music that sound strange at first. For example, do you know what keys are and why you need to learn them? Let’s have a look at keys to understand music theory a bit better.

What’s the difference between musical keys and guitar keys?

There’s a simple answer to this question: there’s no difference between musical keys and guitar keys. You might’ve heard people talking about guitar keys, and what they refer to are different chords that are easy to play together on the guitar. A “key” in musical theory is a collection of pitches or scales that form the foundation of any musical composition in Western music. In practice, this means that keys are groups of chords that sound good together.

Importance of understanding guitar keys

Imagine having a set of chords but struggling to find the melody because you don’t know the key. Instead of just knowing about the chords, a fundamental understanding of keys unlocks your potential to become an exceptional guitarist, as you’ll know which chords sound good together. Understanding keys takes your guitar skills to the next level, allowing you to become a great guitarist. Learning about keys also improves your songwriting abilities.

What is a guitar key chart and how do I use it?

A guitar key chart displays the chords typically found within a particular key. It organizes chords based on their relationship to the key’s root note, making it easier for guitarists to understand which chords fit together within a given key. Let’s look at chord charts for some major and minor keys.

Major chords

Major chords are essential in forming the tonal foundation of many songs across various music genres. They convey a sense of resolution and stability when used in chord progressions. There are various shapes and voicings for major chords, allowing guitarists to play them in different positions on the fretboard. Mastering major chords is essential for any guitarist looking to play a wide range of songs. The chart below shows the chords associated with major keys:

Minor chords

Minor chords create a melancholic and darker sound compared to major chords. A minor chord is written with a lowercase “m” for minor, such as Am for A minor or Dm for D minor. These chords are often used to convey sadness or tension within a musical composition. The following chart displays the chords associated with minor keys:

3 ways to figure out the key of a song

Being able to figure out the key of a song is important for any musician. Here are three easy tips to help you.

  1. Identify the first and last chords of a chord progression. This method is often the simplest and most reliable way to identify the key. For instance, if the progression starts and ends with a G major chord, the piece is likely in the key of G.
  2. If the chord progression method doesn’t offer clarity, try playing a major scale over the guitar chords. This helps you hear if the key fits with the progression. For example, if you suspect the key is C major, playing a C major scale over the chords should sound pleasant.
  3. Examine the sheet music for additional confirmation. This method requires a bit more knowledge about reading musical notations, but analyzing the sheet music alongside the chords will elevate your skills to a new level.

Finding the key of a song helps beginner guitarists play simple songs. The most common keys are G, C, E, D, and A. You can find plenty of easy guitar songs in these five keys.

Basic guitar chords to learn

Now that you know how to recognize the key of a song, let’s begin exploring the chords within different keys and how to play them. Start by learning the primary chords in different keys. The key of G is an easy one to start with, as it contains the three basic guitar chords: G, C, and D. Practice playing the chord progressions within the key. When you become familiar with this, try practicing more complex chords.

After mastering the key of G, you can move on to another key. The key of C is a great option. Though this key is very common in music, the key of C is a bit more difficult than the key of G, as it contains the F chord, which is a barre chord.

Learn more about musical theory with Yousician

Learning how to play basic chords in different keys is easy with Yousician. You can download Yousician on your desktop computer or any mobile device and take guitar lessons at your own pace. If you’ve already mastered the guitar, you might want to try other instruments, such as the ukulele or bass. Make sure you check out our full Musician’s Glossary to learn all the important terms in music.

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