#1
Hello!

I've been playing guitar for a while now but playing in key is still a constant struggle. I know the major penatonic scale patterns but I still can't seem to put it all together. I can usually figure out the barre chords to any song in a few licks but I still can't depict a key by ear. I feel like my best bet is to learn each key individually. If anyone knows a good place to do so I would greatly appreciate the help. Any other advice would be great as well.

Thanks.
#2
Use the functional ear trainer, a free download from miles.be.

It'll take a while, but you'l get there.
#3
If you can pick out the chords in a song 9 times out of 10 that will lead you to finding out the key.
#4
If you know the chords, you don't need to know the key. Either it's staring you in the face (in the ears!) or it doesn't matter. The chords should have all the notes you need to improvise with.

But if it's theory you're interested in (what key means, what a key consists of), any beginner theory book or website ought to help.

A good tip is that the key of a song is almost always (in rock) the first chord, and even more often the very last chord. If they're the same chord, you can be 99% certain that's the key. If it sounds finished on that chord, make it 100%.
(I get the feeling I'm sticking my neck out there, but I'll keep it out for a while...)
#5
Find the root. Run your finger along the low E string until you find one note that always works. That is the root. Now if the root is "A" does a major or minor A chord work? Minor? Key is A minor. Play A minor pent. Does it work? Good to go!

Many years ago this is how I learned songs off the radio. I tried to get all the changes down before the song was over (3 minutes). Finding the key quickly is the first step.
"Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It's the way you pick, and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or the guitar you use." -- Stevie Ray Vaughan

"Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent." -- Miles Davis

Guthrie on tone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmohdG9lLqY
#6
The style of music you're playing would help the advice significantly. For example, in metal, many guitarists have a habit of basing the key of the song off of their lowest tuned string, almost always minor. So if a band is tuned to like, Drop C, play a C minor chord over the song and see if it sounds like it fits. Or learn the major and minor scale shapes, download or look at tabs on here, and see if you can find the key that way.
#7
If you're a beginner, it's important that if you're playing a piece in F and then want to move onto a piece in G, you can literally just move everything you just played up two frets. As you begin to progress with the guitar you'll obviously find more elaborate ways to change key but as a beginner it's a good first step
#8
Quote by HotspurJr
Use the functional ear trainer, a free download from miles.be.

It'll take a while, but you'l get there.


for a second i didn't read your name since i don't see you post here too terribly often anymore and was like "oh cool somebody other than hotspur recommended miles.be"

but alas
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#9
I don't think there's any real shortcut, just play a lot of songs, see what scales fit, see if you can pick the chord that feels like "home". Eventually you'll be able to hear it.
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#10
Key is all about tonic. Tonic is your home note/chord.

For example play D major-G major-A major. Doesn't it feel a bit incomplete, like it "wants" to go somewhere? You have created tension. If you replace that A major with an A7, it will have even more tension.

Now play D major again. Now it should sound finished. You have released the tension. This is your tonic. So what this means is that you are in the key of D major.

Looking at the chord tones/what notes the melody uses and finding the scale they fit can tell something about the key, but it's really not an accurate way. Using your ears is the best way. That's because the same chords can be used in many different keys, and sometimes you use non-diatonic chords (borrowed chords).

I would also suggest learning what chords are in what keys. Learn about chord functions (Roman numerals). For example D-G-A-D is I-IV-V-I in D major.
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Last edited by MaggaraMarine at Aug 18, 2015,
#11
Quote by jongtr
If you know the chords, you don't need to know the key. Either it's staring you in the face (in the ears!) or it doesn't matter. The chords should have all the notes you need to improvise with.

But if it's theory you're interested in (what key means, what a key consists of), any beginner theory book or website ought to help.

A good tip is that the key of a song is almost always (in rock) the first chord, and even more often the very last chord. If they're the same chord, you can be 99% certain that's the key. If it sounds finished on that chord, make it 100%.
(I get the feeling I'm sticking my neck out there, but I'll keep it out for a while...)


The chord tones are all tones which are the "good" strong tones for improvisation, but there are also a lot of other good strong tones, which are part of the key, and not the chord. Or part of whatever scale you are using for that chord, if you playing in that style.

So they are all good, but they are not the only good ones, by any means.

@OP

What I do is just play along, then pretty quickly you find the pattern, and then to know what the tonic is, I look at what chord the song would want to finish on. But after a while it becomes really easy to tell.

I think experience would help a lot. I always found it easy to find the pattern of good notes, I don't really know how to explain how to do it. But if you know your major scale pattern well, you will see that there are few possible shapes for each string in every box, and only ever one way to switch string for every pattern, and then you just need to find which is the tonic, which is usually the standard major and natural minor.
Last edited by fingrpikingood at Aug 18, 2015,
#12
Quote by fingrpikingood
The chord tones are all tones which are the "good" strong tones for improvisation, but there are also a lot of other good strong tones, which are part of the key, and not the chord.
But they're usually part of the other chords, that's my point.
It's rare that you get a chord sequence which doesn't include every note of the key, which is what I meant by working from the chords and not worrying about identifying a key. On any one chord, you can use notes from any of the other chords as passing notes. Pretty much a no-brainer IMO.

If that's not enough notes, then you're free to add any others you like the sound of. Blues - of course - features notes in its scale which are often not in the pitch collection represented by the chords. Those are "good notes", naturally. But blues is a rather unusual kind of music, in that respect...
#13
Quote by jongtr
But they're usually part of the other chords, that's my point.
It's rare that you get a chord sequence which doesn't include every note of the key, which is what I meant by working from the chords and not worrying about identifying a key. On any one chord, you can use notes from any of the other chords as passing notes. Pretty much a no-brainer IMO.
I never looked at music that way, but I would imagine that most songs do use every note in the key through the progression, but that's not really too helpful for playing guitar, really. Not immediately anyway. That's just a useful method you could use to workout the key by using a pen and paper. Which could be helpful to OP, idk. But I see what you mean now.

If that's not enough notes, then you're free to add any others you like the sound of. Blues - of course - features notes in its scale which are often not in the pitch collection represented by the chords. Those are "good notes", naturally. But blues is a rather unusual kind of music, in that respect...


Of course, but generally, the good notes are the key scale notes, for popular music. What you were saying sounded to me like you were saying to just sort of arpeggiate chords, or solo around using only chord tones of the chords being played. Some players play like that.
#14
Quote by fingrpikingood
I never looked at music that way, but I would imagine that most songs do use every note in the key through the progression, but that's not really too helpful for playing guitar, really. Not immediately anyway. That's just a useful method you could use to workout the key by using a pen and paper.
Pen and paper? I use the fretboard. I know my chord shapes.

What I'm saying is that this is the way I always improvised right from the start. I did know something about the major scale (in theory), but it was obvious to me how the melodies of songs (yes I played those) used the chord tones, and the chords between them contained all the notes of the scale. So it was equally obvious how to improvise. You used the material the song gave you, in the chord shapes (and melody). You made sounds using that stuff that sounded like sounds on records.
Of course, I heard blues, and the way it used chromatics and bends, and it was quite easy to incorporate those.

Of course, I wasn't playing bebop (let alone modal or fusion jazz)! But I was playing hot and swing jazz from those principles. And when I began studying more advanced jazz, those principles held good: construct melodic/rhythmic phrases linking chord tones, with chromatics added to taste. What's all this chord-scale theory about? Who needs it?

(OK, I accept I'm a jazz philistine... )
#16
Quote by jongtr
Pen and paper? I use the fretboard. I know my chord shapes.
So do I, but chord shapes are not a key. You're talking about looking at the chords of song, and now knowing what notes one can play. That's a very logical approach, requiring looking at what actual notes are in chords. It is not a shape approach.

You appear to be talking about arpeggiating again.

What I'm saying is that this is the way I always improvised right from the start. I did know something about the major scale (in theory), but it was obvious to me how the melodies of songs (yes I played those) used the chord tones, and the chords between them contained all the notes of the scale. So it was equally obvious how to improvise. You used the material the song gave you, in the chord shapes (and melody). You made sounds using that stuff that sounded like sounds on records.
Of course, I heard blues, and the way it used chromatics and bends, and it was quite easy to incorporate those.
It is extremely common for songs to use notes that are part of the key, and not the chords, in their melodies.

Sure, you could play only chord tones and the melody tones. That won't sound bad. But there are more "good notes" than that, without going into blues, or more complex progressions that go more off key. All the notes in the key are the "good notes". You don't have to use them all, obviously, but there are there, and they are very different from the other 5.


Of course, I wasn't playing bebop (let alone modal or fusion jazz)! But I was playing hot and swing jazz from those principles. And when I began studying more advanced jazz, those principles held good: construct melodic/rhythmic phrases linking chord tones, with chromatics added to taste. What's all this chord-scale theory about? Who needs it?

(OK, I accept I'm a jazz philistine... )



This approach to improvisation is not uncommon, but there are other good notes that your approach kind of ignores. You probably still play them, when you do your chromaticism, but playing chord tones to improvise is actually very basic. Even though it can be an approach used in jazz, and can work well enough, independently of what key you might be in.

You could just look at a chord sheet, and know the melody and off you go. But, that approach is missing something as compared to looking at it more from a key point of view. I know other musicians that play that way also.

Knowing the key is not without purpose. Even though one can just play chord tones and the melody and chromaticism without ever sounding off.
#17
Quote by jongtr


Of course, I wasn't playing bebop (let alone modal or fusion jazz)! But I was playing hot and swing jazz from those principles. And when I began studying more advanced jazz, those principles held good: construct melodic/rhythmic phrases linking chord tones, with chromatics added to taste. What's all this chord-scale theory about? Who needs it?

(OK, I accept I'm a jazz philistine... )


No true Jazzer would be trapped by anything so confining as scales or keys. It's all 12 tones all the time. The secret is knowing exactly when to use each note to best advantage.

"Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It's the way you pick, and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or the guitar you use." -- Stevie Ray Vaughan

"Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent." -- Miles Davis

Guthrie on tone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmohdG9lLqY
#18
Quote by Cajundaddy
No true Jazzer would be trapped by anything so confining as scales or keys. It's all 12 tones all the time. The secret is knowing exactly when to use each note to best advantage.

Sure. There's a hierarchy, at any one moment: chord tones (most "inside") > consonant extensions (probably diatonic scale notes, ie neighbouring chord tones) > chromatics (most "outside").
Melodic and rhythmic imperatives govern it all, and chromatics can often be the best notes to hit.
That doesn't go against the principle that (at beginner level anyway) you begin from chord tones. You have to understand how the harmony works first, how the voice-leading joins all the chords up (guided by the melody on top), and work within that. Then you can understand the role of chromatics as contrast.

(Admittedly this is still in the context of tonality, of functional harmony. Modal harmony operates differently - not totally, but significantly.)
Last edited by jongtr at Aug 18, 2015,
#19
To Coalesce (great band btw) Jong's point.

"If you know where the chord tones and harmonic checkpoints are, you can put literally anything between them"
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
#20
Quote by jongtr
Sure. There's a hierarchy, at any one moment: chord tones (most "inside") > consonant extensions (probably diatonic scale notes, ie neighbouring chord tones) > chromatics (most "outside").
Melodic and rhythmic imperatives govern it all, and chromatics can often be the best notes to hit.
That doesn't go against the principle that (at beginner level anyway) you begin from chord tones. You have to understand how the harmony works first, how the voice-leading joins all the chords up (guided by the melody on top), and work within that. Then you can understand the role of chromatics as contrast.

(Admittedly this is still in the context of tonality, of functional harmony. Modal harmony operates differently - not totally, but significantly.)



I prefer the philosophy that there is a key of inside notes, which each have their own character, and you can make chords out of these, which each have their own character, and you can stack the character of the key notes on top.

I prefer that, because the character of a single note will remain constant in the context of the key, and it is just a matter of whether you want that sound on top of the collection of other key tones you have going in your chord, or not. So, as long as you're staying in the same key, the 7th of the key will always sound like that, and depending on what chord comes up, you might want that sound or not. Chords are just playing a few of those at once.

It also makes it simpler to add chords on top of chords, for example, if you were going to build a 9th chord, by sticking a triad on top of another.

I began thinking this way, but with the pentatonic scale first, before I understood the concept the key. I remember thinking that I was kind of cheating, because all I would do is use the same pattern all the time.

I find that playing by thinking of chord tones, and melody is sort of too much work for the brain, and makes phrasing through chords more difficult. Or idk, it doesn't suit the way I like to think of music.

If you think of it as being in the key, then you can more easily phrase wherever you want, thinking about the phrase in its entirety, and you just introduce the chords, or pieces of them as you travel through your phrasing. Or grip a chord and phrase while you hold that grip, or switch to the next grip of that chord.

I found this way of playing easier on piano, since on piano, you can easily make chords with the notes you solo, but on guitar, the chord might require you to play that note elsewhere. And that chord might not be the chord on the sheet, it might be the top triad that builds the maj7, or something like that.

For me, the key is the key. Everything is relative to that. That's why I don't like music that doesn't stick very well to any tonal center. It's like if someone keeps changing their mind on me.
#21
Quote by Jet Penguin
To Coalesce (great band btw) Jong's point.

"If you know where the chord tones and harmonic checkpoints are, you can put literally anything between them"
Thanks JP, nicely summarised! If I ever write a book, you can be my editor. But you'll probably have written the book first anyway...