Working in Key Signatures on Guitar (Part 1)

working in key signatures

A great way to consolidate what you’ve been learning on guitar is to apply it to key signatures. This gives you a context for all the scales, arpeggios and chords you know, and makes them far more usable than treating them as separate entities. The benefits of working within key signatures are numerous as you’ll be able to see the options available for coming up with parts, arrangements, chord voicings, modes, triads, arpeggios, and a whole lot more… Key signatures also help you understand things better as there’s an immediate context. A Bm7b5 chord on its own is far less useful than knowing that a Bm7b5 chord belongs to the key of C Major, is the vii chord, is built on a diminished arpeggio; you can play B Locrian (C major starting on B) over it etc. So let’s see what else is available in the key of C Major.

The Real Meaning of CAGED

Don’t worry, this article won’t feature the awful CAGED system; if you’re stuck in that particular trap then check out our CAGED System Antidote series of posts, or some CAGED System Alternatives.

CAGED really refers to the five keys (rock) guitarists play in… and maybe a few others. This is to avoid you getting depressed by the classic guitar instruction book line: NOW LEARN THIS IN ALL KEYS. We’re not going to look at every key as some of them, such as F# Major, C# Major, and Ab major are hardly ever used (in rock), unless you have a particularly trying singer. We’ll concentrate on the most used guitar keys, but you’ll find it progressively easier to apply this information to the underused keys should you ever need to.

The Key Signature Eye Test

Take a look at the following two diagrams which represent what you should be seeing when you’re thinking ‘C Major’.

If you don’t know the notes on the neck you may see something like this:

With a little bit of this thrown in:
What else do you see when you look at the diagrams? A mush of notes? Chords? Scales? What pops out? If you haven’t been playing long you may see a few familiar chord shapes in there and probably a Stairway to Heaven lick or two.

The truth is that there’s an incredible amount of information which you can bring out when you start working within key signatures.

The following table is a great place to start picking out bits of information from the bigger picture. Find the notes you need and start playing triads, 4-note chords and modes. The great thing here is that you can find shapes and patterns that are comfortable for you rather than those dictated by the CAGED system or other methods. You should soon start to find a lot of familiar shapes you’ve learned along the way, and realize you know way more than you thought you did! All those isolated bits of information should make a lot more sense too.

Aeolian is another name for the Natural Minor scale – the natural minor key of C major being A minor. This is good to know as you should also see the mother of all guitar scales, A Minor Pentatonic, hiding in there too. If you take a closer look you’ll also see D Minor Pentatonic, and E Minor Pentatonic, as well as the C, F and G Major Pentatonic Scales, which should give you some ideas for some interesting applications for these scales. There’s also a great explanation of this in one of my all-time favorite guitar books: Jon Finn’s Advanced Modern Rock Improvisation.

In Part 2 we’ll look at arpeggios and more complex chords.


-How to Get Deeper into Pentatonic Scales

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