Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Common chords to listen for when the song is in a minor key?

I am trying to learn how to listen and figure out the chord progressions in bluegrass songs.

When the bluegrass song is in a major key, I know to listen for the 1, 4, and 5. If there’s a flat 7, i can often pick that out. If there’s a minor chord, I try the minor 6 or the minor 2, and it’s often one of those. Sometimes there’s an unusual chord thrown in there, and that stumps me.

Last night, I went to a jam, and there were at least a couple songs in a minor key, and I was pretty lost. I haven’t learned many songs in a minor key, and I didn’t have any sort of “rule of thumb” to know which chords to listen for / watch for. One of them was Little Sadie in Dm and I can’t remember the other one, but it was in Am.

When the song is in a minor key, how do you know which chords to be on the lookout for?


Great question. I will give you the “typical” chords to look for but songs in a minor key are already trying to be weird in the first place, so don’t be surprised for them to get weird…er.

Typically I find that the minor key will use the 4 minor and 5 major. So, if a song is in D minor, it will often go to G minor and A major. Yes, sometimes it will use a 5 minor (A minor in this case) but that’s only the really really sad ones.

However, minor songs are often minor for a bit then jumps to the relative major (like Wayfaring Stranger). In that case, most of the typical chords used in the relative major are now on the table, particularly the 1 and 4, but 5 quite often too.

Let’s say a song is in A minor…I would first look and listen for these chords:

Emaj (sometimes Emin)
Cmaj (relative major)

All that’s left is knowing how to find the relative major. All you do is count up 3 half steps from the minor key!
Amin –> Cmaj
Dmin –> Fmaj
Emin –> Gmaj


Thanks, @BanjoBen! This is just what I needed. I think next step is to dive into a couple of minor key songs and try to apply all this!

I love Wayfaring Stranger, and I should try to learn that one. I listened to it, and I can definitely hear that “lift” as it goes into the chorus, but I did not know it was because it was shifting into the relative major for a few measures. That’s a cool explanation!


You’re right. It got weird…er.:wink: