Transposing for guitarists – don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit

If you’re expecting a huge theory lesson that’ll make your eyes roll up inside your head, have no fear. These methods are so easy your cat could do them … if she had opposable thumbs.

Say you’ve found the perfect sheet music for your favorite song but you’re a soprano and it’s set up for a tenor to sing. There are two easy ways to change the key:

Use a capo (cape-oh)

Even Clapton uses a capo.

My piano playing friends are so jealous ‘cause there’s nothing like this for them. You slap this little thing on your guitar. Treat it like the top of your strings and use the same chord shapes you normally would use. Voila! Different key.

Kyser capo, my favorite kind. There are lots of different kinds out there.

If you’re playing a G shape with the capo on the second fret, it’s actually an A chord. A C shape would actually be a D chord. You don’t have to worry about that, though, if you’re a solo performer or if your band plays strictly by ear. If not, just tell them you’re playing everything up a step. (A step = two frets. )

What happens if the key is too high for you? You can still use a capo, just sing an octave lower.

Change the chords

Don’t run screaming from the room. Really, it’s simple and I’m only going to throw a tiny bit of theory at you: there’s a half step between B & C and E & F. The distance between other notes (without sharps or flats) is a whole step. Now, remember that ‘cause it’ll come in handy in a minute.

Look at the first chord. If you need to raise the key, just take it up a couple of steps. So, if that chord is A, you’ll go up to C. Look at the next chord and go up the same number of steps. Say it’s a D. That means you’ll go up to an F. Same goes for minor, seventh or any other color of chord. An E minor would change to a G minor. A G7 would change to a B7.

So, just count on your fingers!

Sometimes this method won’t work, especially if you’re moving to (or past) a B, C, E, or F, ‘cause it’s only a half step and not a whole. If that happens, take the offending chord and raise it by a half step. Try an F sharp instead of an F. Still doesn’t work? Lower it to an E instead. (Remember, there’s only a half step between E & F.)

You can also lower the key this way. A G chord could become an E and so on. As long as you’re consistent with the number of steps for each chord and you alter any chords that don’t work, you’re good.

Not so scary, eh? Now you can tell people you know some theory. You don’t have to tell them it involves a capo or counting on your fingers.

About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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4 Responses to Transposing for guitarists – don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit

  1. Yvette says:

    It’s a piece of cake!!! When I was a teenager and something was in the wrong key for me, I’d go back and transpose the chord symbols in pencil. Now I can see how much lower my voice is…

    And the capo trick really isn’t fair. 😉

  2. Pingback: January 25 – Music at Avalon | Avalonians

  3. A G7 would become a Bb7…

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