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A Solution for ♭ and ♯ Keys on the Guitar

A Solution for ♭ and ♯ Keys on the Guitar

A concise outlook on how retuning the guitar and applying a capo, when necessary, is an excellent solution to ♭ and ♯ keys.

Dr. Jonathan L. Smith
Dr. Jonathan L. Smith

Composers despise writing in exotic keys on the guitar. They know how difficult it can be for a guitarist. In my dissertation, I zoomed in on Prelude No. 34 from Book II by William Bland (see the before and after below). Bland has written 3 books, each containing 24 preludes (one in every major/minor key!).

Bland, Preludes, Book 2, No. 34, m.9
Bland, Preludes, Book 2, No. 34, m.9

Bland, a non-guitarist composer, was able to write his preludes effectively with the helping hands of Michael McCartney (Boosey & Hawkes).

Here is an excerpt from my dissertation referencing Bland’s prelude:

Flat keys are tricky on the guitar because the standard tuning for the instrument does not always allow the pitches of the open strings to work comfortably. Open strings help a guitarist increase the guitar’s natural resonance while facilitating left-hand gestures. Measure 9 from Bland’s Prelude 34 does not allow for any open strings whatsoever. This does not make it impossible, rather, it requires a simpler texture to achieve legato phrases. McCartney suggests omitting a few notes (notated with small noteheads). This measure is a challenge because of the consecutive thirds in the upper voices occurring simultaneously with arpeggiated bass notes, all without the use of any open strings. Even with McCartney’s suggestion, the part would still require careful left-hand practice and planning. Omission of inner voices and use of 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths would help this measure feel more cohesive and legato.

It takes great care and effort to write in flat or obscure sharp-keys and I applaud Dr. Bland for achieving a great challenge.

For the purpose of serving multiple genres, I’m going to take a step back and have you think about my proposal below.

This experiment dawned on me by playing church music where every song or hymn was in E ♭, B ♭, or A ♭. These keys are great for singers, wind players, and pianists, but can be a nightmare for a strumming guitarist.

For guitar players, we know how tiring barre chords can be. So, below is a concise outlook on how retuning the guitar and applying a capo, when necessary, is an excellent solution.


De-tune the guitar one half-step from standard tuning.

Standard tuning minus one 1/2 step.
Standard tuning minus one 1/2 step.

This is not uncommon. It can be found in fingerstyle guitar music by Mike Dawes, Andy McKee, and Antoine Dufour and in classic rock songs by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Fingerstyle players are the most adventurous when it comes to alternate tunings—some of which sound incredible!

Listen to these great players here on Spotify while you read the rest.

Many guitar pieces or songs are written in reference to chords that use the open strings (E, A, D, G, B, and E). By de-tuning the guitar, it gives us new opportunities to utilize the open strings in different keys.

In addition to playability, open strings resonate. It helps the guitar sustain and sound full. If the chords we play are consistently “closed” and fretted, the sound may come off as dull or uninteresting, particularly with un-effected and un-amplified guitars.


Now, you can easily play in:

C♭, A♭, G♭, E♭, and D♭,

G♭ Major: I - IV - V - I
G♭ Major: I - IV - V - I

and their enharmonic equivalents:

B, G♯, F♯, D♯, and C♯.

F♯ Major: I - IV - V - I
F♯ Major: I - IV - V - I

For standard tuning, add a capo to the 1st fret.

This allows you to play all standard guitar keys. Be mindful of your fret markers—they are now one fret off.

G Major: I - IV - V - I (Capo fret 1)
G Major: I - IV - V - I (Capo fret 1)

This capo by D’Addario has been my choice for years (affiliate link):


Add more flat-key flexibility by moving the capo up* to the 2nd fret.

A♭ Major: I - IV - V - I (Capo fret 2)
A♭ Major: I - IV - V - I (Capo fret 2)

Comfortable keys, now:

C♯/D♭

A♯/B♭

G♯/A♭

E♯/F

D♯/E♭

*up refers to pitch direction. For RH players, it is to the right.


Takeaway

At times, it will require real-time ‘transpositioning’ brain power, but the reduction of barre chords and the option to use more open-strings (in ♭/♯ keys) makes it a rewarding experience!

I’ve applied this method to praise and worship music as well as songwriting projects with my wife, Angela Galestro. Back in my classic rock days, I even retuned the guitar to match Jimi Hendrix’s sound.

Plus, who doesn't like the rich sound of the guitar in E♭?


I’d like to hear what you think about my experiment. Drop a Tweet on this thread:


Also, if you want to learn more about how composers, producers, and plucked string instrumentalists create music in simple, creative, and collaborative ways, subscribe here: