Beginners Guide to Guitar Chord Transposition.     PJ. Murphy, webmaster,

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Transposition is when you take a piece of music tablature, written to be performed in a particular key, and change it so that it can be performed in a different key.

The two main reasons for wanting to do this are (a) because the key of the song doesn't suit your singing voice, and (b) the tablature features chords which you find difficult to play.

I should point out at the outset, that transposition doesn't always work. If you transpose a song in the key of D major to C Major, for instance, the piece may have featured a nifty little riff around the D chord ( e.g. D - Dsus2 - D - Dsus4 ), which is much more difficult to play on the C chord. If you want to transpose because your repertoire of chords is limited, well, some songs just have a lot of difficult chords, and transposition won't always get rid of all of them!

Music is essentially based on mathematics. The art of transposing chords is really a straightforward process of addition or subtraction. Music is notated by use of the first seven letters of the alphabet, each letter being assigned to a note or 'tone' on the musical scale. For reasons best left alone, most of these musical notes are seperated by two semi-tones, with E-F and B-C being the exceptions, these being seperated by only one semitone. Each fret on the guitar fretboard represents one semitone.

With the inclusion of the semi-tones, there are 12 notes in the musical scale, which basically means that you can perform any song in a choice of 12 keys. The notes/keys are: A, B-Flat(or A sharp), B, C, C-sharp, D, E-Flat, E, F, F-Sharp, G, G-Sharp.     Notice again that there are no flat/sharp keys between B and C, or between E and F.

There is no hard and fast rule about what the 'in-between' keys are called, but they usually appear as B flat ( Bb), C sharp (C#), E Flat (Eb), F Sharp (F#) and G Sharp (G#).

To transpose the guitar chords of a song, firstly assign a number to each of the keys, e.g.

A   Bb   B   C    C#     D    Eb    E    F     F#    G    G#    A     Bb    B    C

1    2     3    4      5       6     7        8    9    10     11    12    13   14     15   16 etc...

Now, take a look at the song you're trying to play, and the chords shown. For a minute, just forget about the format - minor, 7th, major 7th, whatever - just focus on the root of the each chord. You can add these back when you've finished.

Example: Song has chords E F#m A B C#m ( 8, 10, 13, 15, 5 ) You sing the song and find the key too high for your voice. So slide each chord down on the scale above. Sliding down by one semitone would give you: Eb Fm G# Bb Cm. ( 7, 9, 12, 14, 4 )

Hmmm, not the handiest of chord sequences, so slide each chord down one more semitone. Now you have: D Em G A Bm - a much more manageable set of chords. If this still proves too high for your voice, slide down another 2, and you get: C Dm F G Am. ( 4, 6, 9, 11, 1 )

If the song key is too low for your voice, you can apply the same principle - just slide each chord upwards by the same number until you find a set of chords that work. Of course, the simple solution in this case is to use a capo, which is often preferable, because some songs are just meant to be played with a particular chord sequence.   

The capo allows you to use the intended chord shapes, but just produce a higher pitch. A Capo is also useful if you find that the perfect key for the song for you is an 'in-between'. For instance, if D is just a little to high, and C just a touch too low, transpose to the C, and place the capo on the 1st fret of the guitar.


P.J. Murphy

Webmaster, PJ's Guitar Chords & Lyrics Site     (   )

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