Week in and week out, acoustic players frequently find themselves facing a common set of challenges. As Jeffrey B. Scott pointed out in his guitar column in this issue, sometimes we get a ton of new songs at the last minute. Per my Better by Sunday with PCO article, this can be further compounded when we don’t get audio files for the keys we’re going to be playing them in. Having an understanding of how chords function together in a common key provides a powerful solution to these challenges, and is as easy as counting to seven!
Noting that a lot of teams lack the time and resource to invest in helping individual players get better, we are often on our own in terms of figuring out where to start. Since the vast majority of the songs we play stay in a common key, knowing how chords work together in a common key is one of the most valuable things you can learn.
In looking at Fig. 1 you’ll see I’ve mapped out the diatonic chords (chords in a common key) for the key of C major. Below each chord you’ll see the scale degree number (number of the major scale) that each of the chords is based upon. Getting used to seeing how the chords “function” based on the major scale is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Let’s start by playing the chord shapes just below Fig. 1, while calling out what scale degree number they represent as shown in Fig. 1.
So now that we have the basics down, let’s apply what we’ve learned using chord progressions based on the key of C major. If
you played C Major, E Minor, F Major and G Major what numbers would those represent based on the chart in Fig. 1? Now strum through them using a rhythm and duration of your choosing while calling out the scale degree number of each chord as you start playing it. That wasn’t hard now was it?
Right about now is probably a good time to talk about the G/B chord pictured above. G/B simply means that you’re taking the notes of a G Major chord and using B as your bass note. This chord is a lot less scary and a lot easier to play than some of the other chord voicings (the notes that go into making a chord) based on the seventh note of the Major scale.
I’ve borrowed Fig. 2 from Mitch Bohannon’s capo article in this issue to demonstrate how easy it is to apply this to keys that are not particularly guitar friendly like Db. After placing your capo at the third fret, play through the same chord progression you played through a moment ago, again calling out the scale degree numbers. What’s great about this method is that it makes if very easy to see how the chords relate to one another based on the Major scale, regardless of what key your playing in – amen to that!
In the next instalment of this column we’ll map out some additional keys and progressions to demonstrate how easy this method makes it to map and transpose songs from key to key!