By Michael Korte
As a singer-songwriter or interpreter of acoustic songs, especially covers, who accompanies the voice with the guitar, you might find yourself in situations, where you found chords to a song, or you wrote a song yourself, but the melody you want to sing or you had in mind is too high or too low for your current abilities and simply out of reach for you.
To get comfortable with your singing, you need to learn how to transpose a song into a key, that fits for you.
What does that even mean?
The beauty of the way our modern times musical system since the development of the well-tempered piano is built up, lies within the relation between all the notes, that we have. An example:
You can start a Major (or minor, or every other type of) Scale on any note you want, and it will always sound like a Major (or minor, or whatever type you choose) Scale. You can play a minor or major starting on any note and it will be a minor or major chord.
That also means, that you can start your song on any chord or note you want, as long as you keep the relation between the chords and notes consistent. That means: As long as you transpose all of the chords in the same way. To give you a little example right away:
If your musical piece, that you want to play, consists of the chords Bm, G, D and A and it is too high for you to sing, you lower the root notes of the letters that indicate the starting note of the chord (for example the B in Bm) by the same degree, let us say for instance 2 half steps, and keep the chord gender (major or minor) the same.
For B minor that means it turns into A minor, G major turns into F major, D major turns into C major and A major turns into G major.
If you line them up, you get: Am, F, C and G. Congratulations, you might just have transposed your first chord progression!
So, what basics do you need to know, to be able to do this?
If this seems complicated now, do not worry. For guitarists, there is an interesting twist in the end, that will make it very easy for you to transpose anything.
You need to know all the notes and the order, that you can play in general, so C D E F G A and B and the notes in between the whole steps C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, A#/Bb. For the sake of completeness, there is also Cb which equals B and B#, that equals C and Fb that equals E and E# that equals F, but who needs those?
You probably do not. And if you do, I would not need to explain them to you here
Here is how the notes are arranged on a piano, and the only reason I show this to you, is for you to see, what the order of the notes is.
As you can see there, though, if you want to transpose anything, you cannot simply lower the letters of the alphabet, because of those black keys.
If you want to transpose the chord progression G – C two steps lower, you cannot simply go along and play F – B, because that would mean, you lowered the G by two, but the C only by ONE, so you need to write it as Bb instead.
This becomes important, if you want to write out the chords you play, and you are using open chords.
Let us look at barre chords now.
If you play a chord progression, that consists of a minor chord on the 7th fret of the E string, a major chord on the 3rd fret on the E string, 5th fret on the A string and 5th fret on the E string and it is too high for you, all you need to do is SHIFT ALL CHORDS down for example TWO frets and you are ready to go.
So, a minor chord on the 5th fret on the E string, a major chord on the first fret of the E string and on the 3rd fret of the A string and on the 3rd fret of the E string.
Question to you: What chords did you play before and after? Can you name them?
Here is a way you can use equipment to quickly transpose between keys.
If you are playing with open chords a lot, you might want to think about using a Capo. You can put it anywhere on the fretboard and play the same open chords, and what this does with your sound is, that it automatically transposes for you.
For example, you have your capo in the 2nd fret and you are gripping the chords Am, F, C and G but with the capo as your new point of reference, you turned them into Bm, G, D and A effectively.
Transposing downwards can become tricky here though. If you want to play in G Minor instead of A Minor, and you want to avoid barre chords, here is a way that you can go.
Instead of playing in A Minor, go even lower to the next key, that you are comfortable to play in, that has open chords, for example: E Minor, which is five steps lower than A minor.
The chord progression from the example above would theoretically be: Em, C, G, D.
Those are the chords that you would technically play now.
Now, since you went down FIVE steps, you need to go up THREE steps, in order to arrive in your desired key of G Minor, so simply put your Capo into the 3rd fret et voilà! You can now play your song in G Minor without even knowing all the chords from the key of G Minor.
About the author:
Michael Korte is the most sought-after guitar teacher from Tampere/Finland.
In his Kitaratunnit in Tampere he teaches his students effective and simple ways to get to enjoy their playing as quickly as possible.