Changing keys. There can’t be an instrument that is easier to change keys on than the guitar (unless you’re using the transpose button on your keyboard)! I’ve explained in other articles before that the capo is used to raise pitch or to change the voicing of guitar chords. My normal response to non-musicians when they ask me what a capo is…is that it’s used to change keys on the guitar. The capo is truly just as important as a guitar pick; you can play without it, but it sure can make things easier and sound better when you use one regularly.

For church worship, we play music not to be heard, but for people to sing. Lately, on Facebook, I have read many discussions around the topic of finding or deciding on the best congregational keys. Many of those discussions ended unresolved and/or spun off into varied and, sometimes, heated opinions. Well, after leading worship for over 30 years, I’ve got a few opinions of my own!

When you have a congregation like I do at my current church, where there is an 80-year age spread from youngest to oldest, I believe that question really should not start with “congregational” key! It should start with what the best key is for the leader. If the key is comfortable for the majority of the congregation but a terrible key for the leader, it’s a recipe for a bad situation. The congregation will most probably be more distracted with the poor leadership than they will be singing out.

On the other hand, if the key is comfortable for the leader to sing with confidence, the whole room will most probably be more comfortable, even if the key is a stretch for many. It’s really part of good leadership…passing along confidence. I also believe a rule of thumb is to really know your congregation. Every group is different and will respond differently. Even having the same people week to week, they may sing differently when there are more or less of them in attendance. Smaller groups usually won’t sing as loud, and will often need a slightly lower key.

When leading vocally, we need to be flexible and realize that there are times a key can really feel out of reach to the average singer in the congregation, and it should be US who make adjustments that will make folks more comfortable singing. When you’ve been leading new songs, have you ever been surprised that one fell flat even though you really were excited about the song and expected the congregation to grab ahold of it like you did? Have you tried bumping your capo down a fret or two (drop the key a half-step or full step) to see if that made a difference?

At our church, we’ve sung “What A Beautiful Name” in the key of D when a female took the lead, and in the key of G with a male lead. Guess what? The congregation sang out strong in both keys! As the leader, I will often change the key of a song so that I can slide smoothly from one song to another rather than end up playing song 1 in F and song 2 in E… So, guitar players, that’s the beauty of the capo! Capos make for easy key changes and multiple voicing options. Now a side note… do you ever play in Eb? Have you tried simply tuning your guitar down a half-step and then using a capo on fret 1 to place the guitar back into standard tuning?

My bottom line is that I feel like a leader who is being stubborn about a song key often boils down to a pride issue. If we can comfortably sing a song in the key of E, we should most certainly be able to sing the same song in Eb or F…and most can probably stretch to D or F#. Remember, we are the leaders…in order to BE a leader, we need to help followers
sing successfully.


  1. Perhaps the discussions are unresolved because each key must be picked on a song by song basis.

    The melody’s range must be taken into account

    The tessitura must be considered (it’s fine to sing a high D with a congregation, it’s not fine to stay around a high D for an entire phrase)

    Does the melody center around Do, Mi, or So? Because the key of G is great unless you have to sing G above middle C or a low low G

    Also, it is dangerous to compare the guitar and the voice. On the guitar, there is no difference in difficulty when moving from half step to half step. But with the voice one halfstep, like B to C, could be easy while another, D# to E, could be difficult.

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