Awkward Key Signatures Made Easy

Are you totally comfortable with some key signatures but the rest stubbornly refuse to stay in your head? Read on.

Ultimate Guitar
This 'lesson' relies heavily on the assumption that other learner guitarists will have run into the same problems as me. This of course might not be true. I'm guessing a bit here. I have on the other hand thought about it logically, and it's seems to be an issue with the way a guitar works rather than with my own particular blind spot for at least 6 of the key signatures. So while writing this, it's probably best if I abandon the all-encompassing group hug of we, and stick with the egotistical I.

As a beginner guitarist, I found myself becoming very familiar with keys such as, C, G, D, A, E and F, but when it came to keys such as, Ab, EB, Db etc., my mind would always take a vacation and leave me counting on my fingers.

So why do I know the key of D but not Db? Why can I reel off the notes of A as unthinkingly as if they were the letters of the alphabet, but with Ab, I have to refer to a mental chart?

I believe there are 2 factors at play here. The first is the design of the guitar, which lends itself to some keys and not others because of the availability of open strings. The second is that the unconscious mind only gives us access to the absolute minimum amount of information needed to perform any task, and keeps the rest locked-up tight.

It has been proven that the unconscious mind not only absorbs everything we experience, but also stores it EVERYTHING! So if you glanced at a chart of key signatures 5 years ago, a hypnotist could refer you back to the time and have you reel it off as confidently as if you had it in front of you. Amazing!

The trouble is that our unconscious minds, as well as having a chart of all 12 key signatures, also know that we're guitar players, and so we only need half of them.

If we're honest, we guitar players are a pretty lazy bunch. If we want to play a song in Ab on an acoustic guitar, we can always slap a capo on the 1st fret, and think in G. If metal/rock guitarists want the more unusual feel of Eb minor, they tune down a half step and think in E minor. And because the shapes on a guitar fretboard are so movable, even in standard tuning with no capo, we can still get away with thinking A while we play in Bb. Can't we? Surely it's not just me who's this lazy. It's the way the mind works. Isn't it?

Okay, I've accepted that no matter how much I study, my mind isn't going to let me familiarise myself with the half of the key signatures that are less used. So here's a trick I came up with.

I can't believe no-one ever mentioned this. I've never read it anywhere. Perhaps it's so obvious that people think it's not worth mentioning. Maybe it's just Captain Stupid here who took 20 years to realise it.

The fact is if you're totally familiar with half of the key signatures, you have the means by which to get access to the other half. It's unbelievably simple.

'Author braces himself to be laughed at for not realising this sooner'.

If you know the key of G contains 1 sharp and it's F, you also know that the key of Gb contains 1 natural and it's also F. Everything else is flat: Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, F. If you know the key of D contains 2 sharps and they are F and C, Db contains 2 naturals, and they are F and C, everything else is flat: Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C. A has 3 sharps, F, C, and G. Ab has 3 naturals, F, C and G: Ab, Bb, C, DB, EB, F, G.

Adversely, if you know that the key of F contains 1 flat and it's B, then F# contains 1 natural, and it's B. Everything else is sharp: F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E#.

It's so obvious! You can stop laughing now.

40 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It's all half and whole steps, what letter we put on it is inconsequential. With that said... lol at the idiots arguing with the guy. Who cares when you guys figured it out, this is for the people who haven't.
    Gonna be the first one to say i noticed this when I began learning key signatures. I probably only discovered it because i had a chart of the key signatures and was looking for an easy way to get them memorized. Being able visualize theory stuff really helped me out.
    Sultan Of Rock
    To J Master, Bb is used a lot in Jazz and Blues music, whereas most Rock that i've seen doesn't use too many flats.
    Thanks man. So what if it doesn't work for some scales, it still works for most of them.
    good lesson! please keep in mind this doesn't work for every key change (at least not the naming of each note). also, there's no such thing as Cb. nor is there an Fb. i don't know where people are getting this from... i have to say, though... this lesson is basically just the circle of fifths...
    another trick for flats: start in the key of F and find the only flat, which is Bb. This means the next flat key with 2 flats is Bb. Now, in Bb, the new flat is Eb, so the next key with 3 flats is Eb. etc etc
    jetman666 wrote: good lesson! please keep in mind this doesn't work for every key change (at least not the naming of each note). also, there's no such thing as Cb. nor is there an Fb. i don't know where people are getting this from... i have to say, though... this lesson is basically just the circle of fifths...
    They are enharmonically the same. Like G# and Ab are the same. Look at Cb Major - a scale with 7 flats. Contains Cb and Fb because the scale can't be B Db Eb E Gb Ab Bb B
    Its so simple i cant believe more people didnt think of it, I was always thinkin back tot he circle of fifths this is so much easier! 10/10
    Somebody's head is going to explode when he learns about double flats and sharps. This should be fun! I think I'll do a lesson on augmented and diminished chords! LOL
    I too am a lazy A$$ guitar player, who's missed this little bit of notso common sense for the past !$%@$ years. Thanks. So much for my mensa membership. :grr
    Thomas Vela
    wut i never understood is, when letters in music were thought of, why the hell didnt they just pick 12 letters instead of adding flats and sharps, it just makes shit more hard (constipated lol) i have never thought of it as A thru G
    Didn't they just base themselves to one key without sharps or flats (the key of C major which is enharmonical to A minor, contains the basic 7 notes+Octave) and from there-on searched for the others? If you understand the theory beghind the circle of 5ths it's easy to see why they used flats and sharps...
    Great lesson! At first I wasn't understanding what you were getting at, but then I started putting two and two together, and it hit me. Very helpful, man.
    Great article! It would seem that very few people knew this and I certainly was not one of them! *commits article to memory*
    first it is no magic at all and second, I have to tell you that you just mislead us big time. Try the key of F. F major contains this: F,G,A,A#,C,D,E. Is it right ain't it? Now then let's go to Fb which is just a simple E - not surprisingly. If we follow your method, it would mean, that we must get 1 natural, as we had 1 sharp in the key of F. But what do we get? E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#. Wow. 3. good maths. And you mistook one thing second time: Cb is B. Then your first example of G and Gb is just drowned too... For other keys it might work, I have to admit. But you should have been more aware of this...
    Wow, I wish someone had proposed this to me the first time I learned about key signatures, it would have made my life much easier. Nice piece of advice.
    I've been playing for about a year now and have become pretty familiar with the "normal" keys. This is a really interesting way to think of the less used keys, I'll definitely remember this next time I jam in one of those "odd" keys. Thanks
    this is probably the easiest way i've heard of for figuring out the notes in certain keys. good job
    i was expecting a cool trick, not the super obvious explanation of key signatures. this is just the theory, which isn't even that hard either, both theoretically and musically. What's the difference between B and Bb ? one fret, literally, for me. There's no magic change to make, you just play everything you know from a different key in the new key.
    Its the same as when i attempted to figure out the piano..I used the Black keys as markers b/c theres less of them and easier to keep my place, but one the sides are the regular notes..the fact that your brain is just remembering the "OFF" notes or natural notes in flat or sharp like the economy of mental storage..i agree with can play a normal scale just a half step down ...There's no magic change to make, you just play everything you know from a different key in the new key
    F major is: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E Fb major is: Fb, Gb, Ab, B, Cb, Db, Eb Blas3, he is right.
    The Pickle Man
    If this article was published about 2 months ago it would have saved me a lot of pain. It really is a genius way to think about this.
    Great article. Lol @ the guys arguing against the correctness of this article with displays of ridiculously incorrect theory.
    I think you made a lot of people do a facepalm on themselves. I can't believe I never thought of that when learning key signatures lol.
    "duh...this post sucks! it doesnt work cuz i dont get it- you jerk. your use of theory is so far over my head that i am going to dispute it with ignorance!" ha,ha just kidding! what a bunch of suckers! "f,g,a,a#...." huh? ..... magic? dude, dont sweat the haters. there is an ***** in every crowd and usually several on a message board. your discovery is brilliant and yet quite simple. i am always fascinated to come across things like this in theory that are "cooincidental" for lack of a better word. it all just always works out wso logically. with all the study that ive done in this area i have NEVER come across this anywhere. nice job/well done. i usually just think of it intervallically (wwhwwwh) in whole steps & half steps. but this is a great shortcut that simplifies the circle of fifths. i too got a kick out of some of the ignorant responses!