Guitar Keys: An Essential Guide

Want to learn about guitar keys? This guitar lesson will tell you everything that you need to know about guitar keys.

guitar keys

In this free guitar lesson you will learn:

  • The easiest way to understand theory and guitar keys.
  • 3 quick & easy steps to working out a song’s key.
  • 5 must-know guitar keys. (Bonus scales and chords!)
  • How to learn chords in ALL keys in 5 simple-steps.

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What Is A Musical Key?

The best way to think of a musical key is:

  • A group of chords and scales which work together. 

Some people often think a that musical key just contains chords, however a musical key also contains scales.

Why Do I Need To Understand Musical Keys?

Here are 3 reasons why you need to understand musical keys.

  • Understanding musical enhances your lead guitar playing.

Learning musical keys makes becoming a lead guitarist SO much easier. If you don’t understand musical keys, you will never become the lead guitarist you want to be.

To learn more about lead guitar go here: How To Play Lead Guitar

  • Learing musical theory boosts your songwriting skills.

If you’re a budding songwriter, having a solid understanding of musical keys accelerates your musical creativity.

Think of it like this: imagine you’ve written a few chords, and you want to put a melody to it. However, you don’t understand what musical key the chords are from.

This makes it difficult to create a melody which will work over the top of this.

Some people think learning music theory makes learning the guitar difficult. However, it actually makes it easier.

  • If you want to become a advanced guitarist, you must know musical theory.

There’s only so many songs or chords you can learn on the guitar before it becomes a little stale.

Learning music theory enhances your knowledge as a guitarist. We guarantee that if you learn guitar theory, you will become an amazing guitarist.

Guitar Keys

How Do I Work Out a Musical Key?

One really useful thing to understand as a musician is how to work out a musical key. We’re going to show you 4 quick & easy steps which will show you how to work out a musical key.

Step 1) Look At The First And Last Chord

The easiest way to work the musical key of a song, is to check the first and last chord in a progression.

Here’s a classic chord progression:

 G Major | C Major  |D Major  |G Major  |

The first and last chords in this progression are:

  • G Major.

Therfore the chord progression is in the key of G.

99% of the time, this works for ANY key. If this doesn’t work, there are other methods you can try. Let’s look at some..

Step 2) Try A Major Scale Over That Chord Progression

Another way of working out a musical key is to play a scale over that chord progression to see whether it works.

For example, if you thought that a chord progression was in the key of C, but you weren’t 100% sure, you could try a C major scale over it to see if it would work.

If you hear any of the notes clashing with the chord progression, then it’s probably not the right key.

If you’d like to know more about musical scales, go here: Learn Guitar Scales In 8 Easy Steps

Step 3) Look At The Stave

If you want to get really geeky about working out musical keys. You can double check what the stave says at the side of a piece of music.

This is a little more complicated and takes a bit more work than just looking at the chords of a chord progression.

However, if you can understand this concept it will take your guitar playing to the next level.

To learn more about musical staves, keys and theory, go here: musictheory.net – Lessons

What’s The Difference Between Musical Keys And Guitar Keys?

There is actually NO difference between a musical key and a guitar key.

What people are often referring to when they talk about guitar keys, are the keys C, G,D, A and E. 

The reasons for this, is that the chords in this key are more suitable for the guitar.

You can play ANY key on the guitar, it’s just these specific keys are more guitar friendly than the others.

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Understanding The Fundamentals Of Guitar Leys

Before we can learn about what chords are in each key. It’s very important that we understand a few fundamentals first.

You Must Know The Notes On The E And A Strings

It’s important to understand these notes as they will help you to develop your fretboard knowledge and allow you to play any chord all across the fretboard.

Some chords are not accessible in an open position, so if you know what the note names are, you can use barre chords to help you gain access to the rest of the fret board.

Here are the note names on each fret of the low E string. (6th string.)

guitar keys

Here are the note names on each fret of the A string. (5th string.)

guitar keys

Eventually it would be awesome if you could know where all the notes on the fret board are, here they are:

guitar keys

You don’t have to know EVERY note on the fret board if you’re a beginner. For now, focus on the E (6th string) and A string. (5th string.)

To learn more about guitar notes, go here: Guitar Notes Explained: A Guide For Beginners

Learning The Chords In A Guitar Key

Each musical key is only ever going to have:

  • 3 major chords.
  • 3 Minor chords.
  • 1 diminished chord.

You can forget about the diminished chord for now. Just know that a musical key will only ever have 3 major and minor chords.

Each Chord Is Built Off Of Each Degree Of The Scale

The scales we’re dealing with today, have 7 notes in them.

DISCLAIMER! There are other scales which have more notes but don’t worry about them for now.

For now, let’s keep it nice and simple and work this out in the key of C major.

Here are the notes in a C major scale.

 

guitar keys

For every note in the scale, this represents a chord. Your formula for the scale will ALWAYS be:

  1. Major.
  2. Minor.
  3. Minor.
  4. Major.
  5. Major.
  6. Minor.
  7. Diminished.

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again. Click here to download your copy.

For every note in the scale, the:

  • 1st, 4th and 5th notes in the scale represent major chords.
  • The 2nd 3rd and 6th notes in the scale represent minor chords.
  • And the 7th note in the scale represents a diminished chord.

This will NOT change! This may seem like a little bit much right now, however there is a really easy way to work out the chords for all guitar keys.

Here are 5 quick and easy steps to help you find the chords in any key.

Step 1) Find The Root Note

In this case it’s C, so your root note will be on the 8th fret of the low E string. (6th string.)

Step 2) Go Across A String

So here, you’ll be going to the 8th fret of the A string. (5th string.) This is where your 4 chord is, in the key of C major that’s the F chord.

Step 3) Go Up Two Frets

Now, you’re moving up to the 10th fret, this note is a G. This is the 5th note in the scale, and therefore the ‘G major’ chord.

To learn this chord go here: 4 Easy Ways To Play The G Chord On Guitar

For the first 3 steps, we have found every single major chord in our musical key.

Step 4) To Find Your Minor Chords, Move Down 3 Fret

Go back to the root note and then move down 3 frets.

This takes you to the 5th fret, this is your 6th note of the major scale. In this case, the 6th note in a C major scale is ‘A’. Therefore, that chord is the A minor chord.

Step 5) Repeat Steps 2 And 3

Make sure when you do this, that you do it FROM the 6th note in the scale.

If you’ve followed the steps correctly, you should have played a D minor (2nd chord) on the 5th fret of the A string, and a E minor chord (3rd chord) on the 7th fret of the A string.

This only works if you use the appropriate major and minor barre chord shapes on each string.

Learn barre chords here: 3 Tips For Clean and Easy Barre Chords

This works in any key, all you need to do is find the right root note for each string. The most common keys in music are C, G, D, A and E. Let’s learn more about these fundamental keys.

Guitar Keys – C Major

The notes in a C major scale are as follows:

guitar keys

That means that are major chords are:

  • C major.

Learn this chord here: Easy Ways To Play The C Guitar Chord

  • F major.

Learn this chord here: F Guitar Chord 3 Easy Alternatives

  • G major.

Learn this chord here: 4 Easy Ways To Play The G Chord On Guitar

The minor chords are:

  • D minor.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways To Play The Dm Guitar Chord

  • E minor.

Learn this chord here: Em Guitar Chord 4 Easy Ways To Play This Essential Chord

  • A minor.

Learn this chord here: Am Guitar Chord For Bezginners

Our diminished chord is:

  • B diminished.

To learn more about the key of C, go here: Understanding the chords in the key of C

Download a free beginner chord guide and learn easy versions of every chord

 Say goodbye to frustration and twisted fingers. Say hello to MAKING MUSIC.

  Learn beginner-friendly versions of every chord.

  This is one of our most popular guides and will improve your chord ability quickly. Click here to download the guide.

 

Guitar Keys – G Major

The notes in a G major scale are:

guitar keys

Therefore the major chords in G major are:

  • G major.

Learn this chord here: 4 Easy Ways To Play The G Chord On Guitar

  • C major.

Learn this chord here: Easy Ways To Play The C Guitar Chord

  • D major.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways to Play the D Chord on Guitar

The minor chords in G major are:

  • A minor.

Learn this chord here: Am Guitar Chord For Beginners

  • B minor.

Learn this chord here: Bm Guitar Chord For Beginners

  • E minor.

Learn this chord here: Em Guitar Chord 4 Easy Ways To Play This Essential Chord

The diminished chord is:

  • F# diminished.

To learn more about the key of G, go here: Chords in the key of G and tips for understanding keys

Guitar Keys – D Major

The notes in a D major scale are:

guitar keys

The major chords in the key of D major are:

  • D major.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways to Play the D Chord on Guitar

  • G major.

Learn this chord here: 4 Easy Ways To Play The G Chord On Guitar

  • A major.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways To Play The A Chord On Guitar

The minor chords in the key of D major are:

  • E minor.

Learn this chord here: Em Guitar Chord 4 Easy Ways To Play This Essential Chord

  • F# minor.

Learn this chord here: F# Minor Chord For Beginners

  • B minor.

Learn this chord here: Bm Guitar Chord For Beginners

The diminished chord in the key of D major is:

  • C# Diminished.

If you’re not to sure where to find these chords, find your root note on the 10th fret of the low E string. Then follow the 5 quick and easy steps to find the rest of the major and minor chords in this key.

Want hundreds of free guitar lessons from the best online guitar school in the world? Go here: Learn Guitar Online: Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced Lesson Programmes

Guitar Keys – A Major

The notes in a A major scale are:

guitar keys

Therefore the major chords in the key of A are:

  • A major.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways To Play The A Chord On Guitar

  • D major.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways to Play the D Chord on Guitar

  • E major.

Learn this chord here: 4 Easy Ways To Play The E Chord On Guitar

And the minor chords are:

  • B minor.

Learn this chord here: Bm Guitar Chord For Beginners

  • C# minor.

Learn this chord here: C Sharp Minor Chord – 4 Easy Ways To Play This Chord

  • F# minor.

Learn this chord here: F# Minor Chord For Beginners

The diminished chord in the key of A is:

  • G# diminished.

If you want to find out where you can play the rest of these chords on the fret board. Start on the 5th fret of the low E string, then follow the five quick steps to finding every chord in a guitar key.

Guitar keys – E Major

The notes in a E major scale are:

guitar keys

The major chords in the key of E are:

  • E major.

Learn this chord here: 4 Easy Ways To Play The E Chord On Guitar

  • A major.

Learn this chord here: 3 Easy Ways To Play The A Chord On Guitar

  • B major.

Learn this chord here: B guitar chord – Tips for this tough chord

The minor chords are:

  • F# minor.

Learn this chord here: F# Minor Chord For Beginners

  • G# minor.

Learn to play this chord here: G# Minor Guitar Chord For Beginners

  • C# minor.

Learn this chord here: C Sharp Minor Chord – 4 Easy Ways To Play This Chord

The diminished chord in the key of E major is :

  • D# diminished. 

If you want to find out where you can play these chords on the fret board, you’ll need to follow the 5 step system.

Watch out for the key of E, you may have to start on the 12th fret on the E string (6th string.) rather than play the open E chord.

To learn more about the key of E, go here: Chords In The Key Of E

Find Out What You Should Learn Next With Our Guitar Map

If you want to understand where you’re up to in your guitar journey you should take a look at our Guitar Map. It will show you what you ‘should’ know by now (and also what you need to learn next to move forward as a guitarist).

Most people find that the Guitar Map shows them how everything fits together and best of all, it will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that are holding you back.

(There is often just one piece of information that holds people back, 1 key insight that they need to know so they can continue moving forward and improving in their guitar journey.)

We made the Guitar Map so people like you can quickly identify what you don’t know, that you need to know next. We hope that makes sense!?

NOTE: The Guitar Map is now included in our free special report: 'The 7 Steps To Guitar Mastery'.

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