Do you secretly get uncomfortable when someone mentions “the key”? Do you find yourself struggling to find the right key to play in? If someone says “let’s play in the key of…”, could you do it? Do you want to ditch all the theory and just play guitar with feeling?
Most people can’t. And contrary to popular belief – where you “start” is not the key.
If you’ve ever wondered about keys, I’m going to show you a simple analogy for how it works, and by the end of this article, you’ll never wonder about keys again.
Not understanding keys can be frustrating. But fortunately, it’s simple once you get it…and when you do, a new dimension of freedom will be open to you to be able to play by feel.
So what is a key?
A Key is a Container
Just like a can of nuts. The can “contains” the nuts.
Instead of nuts, a key contains notes. But which notes? The ones in that key.
For instance, the ‘key of C’ contains the notes A B C D E F G. Each key has certain notes that “belong” to it.
For now, though, the names of the notes are irrelevant. All you need to know is that there are seven of them. Only seven notes (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) in every key.
Substitute the nuts for marbles and the can for a bag, and now you have a “bag of marbles”.
So you have your bag (let’s call it bag #1). And there are seven marbles in it. Each of the seven marbles is a different color.
To keep from losing your marbles, of course, you put them in the bag.
At first, your new bag of marbles really tickles your fancy. But over time, the luster wears off, and you get tired of the same old bag.
So now what? Out to collect more marbles of course!
You find a new bag (bag #2), and new marbles. But since you feel you got the color combo right the first time, all your new marbles are the exact same colors as the marbles in bag #1.
Now you’ve really got the itch. You’re obsessed with collecting marbles. So you go back out, and finally rake in a nice loot – 12 bags of marbles – all with the same color marbles in them.
Why all the same color marbles?
All Musical Keys have the Same Contents
Each bag is like a key. The marbles are like notes.
Remember that a key is a “container”? Each bag contains seven marbles – because each key contains seven notes.
In every bag, the first note is yellow, the second note is red, the fourth note is green, and so on. The colors are the same across every bag. Why?
Each marble of the same color feels the same. Let me explain…
Each “color” represents a different feeling… or emotion.
There are seven different colors in each bag. There are also seven different colors in each key – we call them feelings, emotions, or moods.
Except in a key, we refer to those colors by numbers (1 2 3 4 5 6 7).
Each of the seven numbers in a key creates its own unique mood within that key.
The first note of any key has the same mood as the first note in every other key… the second note of any key has the same mood as the second note in every other key… and the same is true for numbers three through seven.
In other words, the same “number” in any key always feels the same.
That explains the different colors of the marbles.
But why are there 12 bags?
Each Musical Key has Seven ‘Right’ Notes out of 12
In all of Western music (99.9% of the music you hear), there are only 12 different notes.
Every song. Every album. Every concert. Just 12 notes. Yes, really.
These 12 make up the “letter notes” you’re familiar with (A, B, C#, Db, etc.). However, these letters aren’t important right now. Let’s stick with the numbers.
If each key contains seven notes, what about the other five notes?
Since there are 12 notes total – and only seven notes “inside” the key – by default, there are exactly five notes out of the key.
When you discover how to play only the “right” seven notes in a key, you can avoid playing the five “wrong” notes… and always sound good no matter what you’re playing.
(If you want to know how to do that, get the free training.)
Now you know there are seven notes in a key, and five notes out of the key.
So here’s another question.
If the seven notes in every key create the same seven feelings, why do we need different keys?
Use the Musical Keys to Move an Entire Song Up or Down in Pitch
By now you know that within any key, there are 7 feelings – a different mood created by each of the seven notes.
Different keys are used to move these seven feelings – collectively, in one package – up or down in pitch.
Imagine walking upstairs. As you walk up the stairs, your elevation gets higher. If you turn around and walk down the stairs, your elevation gets lower.
Now imagine you’re walking upstairs while holding a bag of marbles. No matter what step you’re on, the marbles in the bag do not change. The only thing that changes – going higher and higher with each step – is the elevation of you and your bag.
Elevation is like pitch. Think of your bag of marbles getting higher in pitch with each step up the stairs.
Let’s look at our 12 bags of marbles another way.
Here you can see your 12 marble bags, each on their own step, each with the same seven marbles.
Of course, the bags represent the keys of the song, and the marbles represent the notes in each key.
Say you pick a key and play the notes 1-4-5, one after the other.
Whatever “numbers” you play in one key can also be played in any other key.
No matter if you move one step higher or lower, the only difference is that in the new key, the pitch of the numbers you played is higher or lower.
You could continue to move up the steps higher and higher in pitch, or down the steps lower and lower in pitch – playing the exact same numbers in each key as you march up or down.
Since you’re playing the same numbers in each key (1-4-5), the notes you play in each new key create the exact same feeling in every key… just higher or lower in pitch.
No matter how high or low you move the key, the notes that you play within any of those keys will still feel the same.
This is exactly what singers do to move a song up or down in pitch to fit the natural range of their voice. They simply move to higher or lower keys. Up or down the stairs. Until they find the overall pitch they’re most comfortable with.
You can change keys to fit a singer’s voice, or creatively within a song (called “modulation”).
If you can change keys, you can play with any song or solo over any piece of music. You can jam with anybody at any time and know exactly what to do to sound good.
If you don’t know how to do this yet, and you want to play lead guitar, solo, improvise, or jam by feel, follow this simple three-step process:
- Memorize the notes on the low E string
- Memorize scale patterns that start on the low E string
- Use those patterns to practice playing over tracks in different keys of your choice
By going through this process you will internalize the feelings of the seven notes in a key on guitar. That way, you’ll be able to express yourself how you want in solos or jam sessions – and even pick up songs and solos by ear.
If you want more on this, I’ve created a free step-by-step guide that walks you through exactly what to do. By following the free guide, you’ll understand how to change keys on guitar and you’ll be creating your own solos in any key you want as soon as today!
If you haven’t already, get your free training for soloing in any key on guitar and learn How to Play by Feel here.
How has this helped you?
I want to hear two things from you. In the comments below, tell me:
- What is one thing you thought about guitar keys before reading this
- Also share, one thing that helped or surprised you after reading (your insight will help someone else understand the topic further, so make sure to answer in detail).