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Lewis Turner - Back To Basics Part 12: Playing In Different Keys

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 36 **

In our last guitar lesson I looked at the relationship between Major and Minor scales and how the method of “Minorising” can be used to help you when improvising on guitar. We tend to learn sets of guitar scales in a certain key. I normally teach scales in the key of A, as it’s a comfortable mid-way point on the guitar and easy to visualise. Clearly not every song or jam session is going to be in the key of A, so we need to get just as comfortable improvising guitar solos in all the other 11 keys. It's not as daunting as it may seem at first, as you have already seen, the five shapes of A minor pentatonic are exactly the same in G minor, just in a different place on the fretboard. We have also seen how the major pentatonic scale is exactly the same as the minor, just viewed from a different starting point, so you should also now be able to understand how to combine the two. This makes the guitar a very pattern-based instrument, learn X scale in X key, move it to another place on the fretboard to play in a different key, simple!

Unfortunately, nothing is as simple as it first seems. All those hours spent practising in A, have had an effect on your muscle memory and how you view the fretboard. I bet if you tried to play all five shapes in Bb you would find it a bit of a struggle. They're still the same shapes, but you tend to memorise certain reference points such as fretboard dots etc., shift it up a semi-tone and it all becomes an alien place! So how can you get over this issue? Be sure to check out the video where I go through a few practical ideas.

Playing a scale shape in all 12 keys is good practice, starting at the lowest point on the fretboard and moving up chromatically. Forcing yourself to play all five shapes of a certain scale set in a different key, up and down each shape, then up one and down the next is another good way. Theses are great technical exercises but not particularly musical. To make your improvising easier and more musical in different keys, it comes down to your chord knowledge. Remember a few lessons back when I kept on about the importance of learning a scale shape around a chord shape? This is when that comes in handy.

Most students don’t take this advice and about now start to come unstuck! Take an A minor 7 barre chord at the 5th fret. The root is on the 6th string and the shape is minor 7, you can also now visualise the scale shape built around this chord, it's good old minor pentatonic position 1. The same principle can be applied to any other chord. Shape 4 minor 7 chord at the 5th fret gives you D minor 7, and the scale shape around it will give you a D minor pentatonic scale, therefore you are now playing D minor pentatonic at the 5th fret, so you are playing a different key. Let’s take a typical minor Blues chord progression:

Amin7 x 4

Dmin7 x2

Amin7 x2

Emin7 x1

Dmin7 x1



This is a standard 12 bar form in A minor, you can just play A minor over the whole thing and it will sound just fine. However, if we were to separate each chord and look at the notes we get the following:

Amin7 = A, C, E, G

Dmin7 = D, F, A, C

Emin7 = E,G,B,D

An A minor pentatonic scale contains the notes – A,C,D,E,G. So you can see that we have two notes from the Dmin7 and Emin7 chord that aren’t in this pentatonic scale– F and B. We are missing out on the opportunity to outline some cool chord tones (notes within a chord). If we took the D and Emin chord and looked at their pentatonic scales we get the following notes:

Dm pentatonic – D,F,G,A,C

Em pentatonic – E,G,A,B,D

When the chord changes in the progression we can change with it, using its parental pentatonic scale, we can then be certain that we are outlining the chord and sound way “hipper” as the Jazz cats say. To do this you must know your chord shapes. Start by playing this chord progression in one area of the fretboard, say 5-7th fret, using all different chord shapes, in this area it would be:

Amin7 – Chord Shape 1

Dmin7 – Chord shape 4

Emin7 – Chord shape 3

Then play the scale shape that goes around the chord, you will now be playing in a different key but in the same area of the fretboard - cool! Rinse and repeat in four other positions of the fretboard. The eagle eyed amongst you would have noticed that technically you aren’t changing key as all the notes are contained in the full A minor scale – A,B,C,D,E,F,G as the chords are derived from this key. That's not really important: it's the thought process behind it and getting used to visualising shapes built around a chord that matters. You could extend this exercise to anything you like Amin – Cmin for example, then there is a definite key change.

Spend some time doing this and not only will your fretboard knowledge improve, but your solos will start to sound more sophisticated as you are outlining individual chords. Practice playing in as many keys as you can, don’t get stuck in the dreaded A minor rut!

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