We all come across songs that are too high or too low for our voices – or that have chords that we just can’t play yet. This article will show you how to change the key of a song to make it easier to play or sing.
If you want to print out this chord chart for easy reference, left click on the small picture and you will get a larger version to save and print.
You might notice that the columns aren’t in numerical order (by the roman numerals). That’s because I wanted to order the chords by how likely you are to play them in any given key, rather than by their correct title. Hopefully you will find it easier to use this way.
How to Use the Chart
- Each row on this chart represents a key. The row starting with A is the row for the key of A. The rest of that row is made up of the chords you are most likely to use if you are playing a song in the key of A.
- Each column down the chart is a key higher. So in moving down the chart from A to A# we are moving one key higher – and vice versa.
- If you get to the bottom of the chart, just go back to the top and keep going – and vice versa.
Finding the Original Key
When you need to transpose a song, the first thing you’ll want to do is figure out what key it is currently in. With a little experience this becomes very easy – but for now just look at the chords in the song and find them on the chart. For example if the chords in a song are G C Em D, these are the first four chords in the penultimate row on our chart – meaning the song is in the key of G (the first chord in that row). Nine times out of ten, the first chord of the song is the key the song is in. If the first chord in a song is G, it is very likely the song is in the key of G. So to save yourself some time always check the first chord of this a song against its corresponding row on the chart first.
“Nine times out of ten, the first chord of the song is the key it is in.”
Changing the Key
Now you know how to find out what key a song is in, changing to another key is incredibly easy. If we had a song in the key of D – the chords D G Bm A, for example, we could make the song a bit higher by moving down the chart two rows and play E A C#m B instead. If we wanted the song a little lower we could go a couple of rows up the chart and play C F Am G instead.
Two steps higher: E A C#m B
Original chords: D G Bm A
Two steps lower C F Am G
You can go as many steps up or down the chart as you like to find where you are most comfortable playing and singing. The important thing is that the order of the chords is staying the same – so you are always playing the same chord progression – just in a different key.
In an ideal world all of us would be able to play every chord from every key smoothly and cleanly. Until that day we have the capo to fall back on. The capo is a very useful transposition aid. It also enables an acoustic guitar player to get some great sounds and is worth experimenting with for that reason alone.
Using a Capo to Play in a Higher Key
A capo basically raises the key of a song without the need to play different chords. If we put a capo on the second fret we are moving two steps down the chart (up two keys). If the capo goes on the fifth fret we are moving five steps down the chart (up five keys). It works like this:
Chords played without a capo A D E
Playing same chords with capo on the third fret C F G (two steps down the chart)
Playing same chords with capo on the fifth fret D G A (five steps down the chart)
Using a Capo to Play in a Lower Key
This is slightly trickier to explain. A capo can’t lower the pitch of a guitar – only make it higher. However, if you want to make a song lower, but the next lowest key you are comfortable playing in is too low, you might want to bring the song back up a part of the way with the capo.
Here’s an example; you come across a song in the key of G that is just a little too high for you to sing. You look at the chord chart and find that the next lowest key you can play all the chords in is C – but that means you’ve gone a full seven steps down. Vocally, you only needed to drop around three steps – so you can use the capo to bring it back up again. In this case, if you played the chords from the key of C with the capo on the fourth fret, you are actually playing in the key of E – the three steps back from G you originally wanted to go. You’ve gone seven steps down, but come four steps back up by using the capo.
I hope at least some of this article has made some sense and helped to demystify transposition a little. I have also made an accompanying video, which includes some practical demonstrations of these principles. You can watch it here: