Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Playing in a Key

If you were to explain what it means to “play in the key of [blank]” to a newbie, how would you do it?

If the newbie were sitting in front of a piano, I would say something like: “An example of a key is C major. All the white things are in the key of C major, and none of the black keys are. To put it another way, the white keys are what are in the C major scale. So I can play a C major chord and then you can play a melody on any of the white keys and it will fit.” I would then ask if they were familiar with the song from the Sound of Music, “Do… a deer a female deer, Re a drop of golden sun, Mi a name…” If they were nodding instead of looking at me like I was purple, I would explain that the “Do Re Mi” song is actually one of the most creative ways a scale was ever described (IMHO). If he/she were still with me, I would say that major scales are used for happy sounding songs and show them the “Do Re Mi” song on the piano keyboard. There are other types of scales used for other sounds. For example if you wanted a sad song change a few notes in the scale to make it minor. By changing a few of the notes we can make C major into C minor. I would then play a verse of “Mary had a little lamb” followed by pointing out a few notes that would change for a minor scale and then play a verse of my world famous ominous/minor version (with minor backing chords) of “Mary had a little Lamb.” That would probably be enough for a first foray into what a key is.

I might explain at some point that the notes on the keyboard are a half step apart each. While a chromatic scale contains all the notes, most music only uses a subset of the chromatic notes (certainly most music that anyone has ever purchased). Playing in the key of C you would typically use only the following notes…

The next session, I would probably go ahead and describe the relationship of what makes a major scale. In C that would start with C then a whole step to D, whole step to E, half step to F, whole step to G, whole step to A, whole step to B, half step to C. An easy way to write that is 1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1, 1/2. I’d then show how to find the notes in another key (say G). I’d show how to repeat some of the things I had shown in C.

I’d then ask the person to transpose Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to E flat. Just kidding on the transposing assignment. :laughing:

That’s a whole lot of stuff to throw at a newbie! Not sure how to do it more succinctly, though.

It really depends on the person. I have done some basic music theory, and some people get it real quick. Others need to hear it a few times. Many don’t care to ever hear about it and just want to learn how to play “A horse with no name” :laughing:

I’m familiar with the Do, Re, Mi, song, but not from Sound of Music, but rather from Jeff Foxworthy :smiley:

That does help, and thank you very much for taking the time to write that out, but here’s where I really have trouble understanding it:

In Ben’s Old Joe Clark banjo video ( … art-1-295/) he mentions that he is teaching us in the Key of G, but that it’s actually a fiddle tune and they’ll want to play it in the Key of A. So when we got to a jam, we should slap a capo on the 2nd fret and be good to go.

So if the chords are G,D, and F, what’s the difference in playing a G chord with open-G tuning and playing a G chord with a capo on the 2nd fret? Or do I slide everything two more frets down and it changes the chords, notes, and everything?

To go from G up to A is two half steps. That would be two frets. Keep that in the back of your mind and aside from that, forget all about theory for a moment…
When you look at your banjo, the nut is in a fixed location. That is to say, you can’t adjust where it is. So when you play a G chord (which I think is everything open on the banjo, although you might fret a note or two by choice). Visualize that exact chord shape moving up two frets on each string. That would raise the pitch of each string by two half steps. Raising each note in a G chord by two half steps makes that G chord an A chord. To finger that position would be more difficult than playing the G chord. So what we do is use a capo to effectively replace the nut and it raises the open string pitch of each string by two half steps. And we also have to imagine that the capo is the nut… if we are supposed playing something on the second fret before we put the capo on, we now play it on the 4th fret. But to be honest, don’t even think about the math (2+2 = 4)… just visualize the capo as the nut and play the second fret up from the capo. So when you are playing a G chord shape with a capo at two, you are now playing an A chord. So when the fiddle is playing a melody in A, you will be matching it playing G chord shapes because you have the capo at two.

Back to theory. The primary chords used in G are G, C and D. G is the root note in the key of G and is called the 1 note or chord(the “Do” note in Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do). C is the 4th note (“Fa”) in the key of G. D is the 5th note (“So”) in the key of G. That same relationship between notes defining the normal primary chord (and notes in the scale) will occur in any key. We simply change the starting point. So if we go up two half steps from G to get to A (“Do” now is an A instead of a G), the 4 chord needs to go up two half steps as well (C to D) and the 5 chord needs to go up two half steps as well (D to E). So now instead of having the primary chords G, C and D in the key of G, we have A, D and E in the key of A. So, you might ask, why can’t I just skip the capo and play A D and E chords? You certainly can. However, using a capo allows us to choose easier (or better) fingerings for a given song.

Now as it happens Old Joe Clark is not a standard tune in terms of the chords used. You play an F chord (minor 7 chord). No big deal… if you want to play in A, just put a capo on two and play that F chord and it will be correct for the key of A (which coincidentally is a G chord).

To give you an idea of the power of the capo, let’s say that you are playing with someone that has an instrument that is tuned a half step sharp. To play with them, you could figure out how to play everything up a half step (not fun). You could also tune your instrument up a half step (time consuming and you may break a string). But simply throw on the capo at the first fret and everything moves up a half step.

Also of note to banjo players is the 5th string. They typically need to adjust that for a capo as well. I think the most common ways are with “railroad ties” or a 5th string capo.

I hope I didn’t confuse the issue.

— Begin quote from "beardedbanjo"

In Ben’s Old Joe Clark banjo video ( … art-1-295/) he mentions that he is teaching us in the Key of G, but that it’s actually a fiddle tune and they’ll want to play it in the Key of A. So when we got to a jam, we should slap a capo on the 2nd fret and be good to go.

So if the chords are G,D, and F, what’s the difference in playing a G chord with open-G tuning and playing a G chord with a capo on the 2nd fret? Or do I slide everything two more frets down and it changes the chords, notes, and everything?

— End quote

1 - open g chord becomes A when capoed at fret #2
D chord becomes E when capoed at 2nd fret
F chord becomes G when capoed at 2nd fret

This happens automatically, you play the song the same way you learned it in G except the “nut” (open string) is now at fret two.
Thus, a 2-3 hammer-on done in key of A (capo 2nd) would actually be performed on the 4-5 frets.

An easy way to check this is play an F chord :arrow_right: Now slide that fingering up 2 frets and play again :arrow_right: that is a G chord :arrow_right: check it against the G chord you are use to playing :arrow_right: you should be able to hear that they are the same chord.

This may be getting ahead a bit, but this is also where the “Nashville” numbering system will help you, and I find in jams people talk in the numbers more than chords.

As you move the capo around you change the notes, chords, and probably keys. When this happens people communicate with numbers to represent the chords in a key. So G C D is 1, 4, 5 or I IV V. The first fourth fifth chords in the key of G. If you start moving the capo those chord shapes remain 1 4 5 but they do not remain G C D. For example put the capo on the 2nd fret and play the G C D chord shapes and it becomes A D E but remains 1 4 5 or the first fourth and fifth chord of the key of A.

The numbers represent the notes and chords in the key so in G the notes are G A B C D E F# G or in chords G Am Bm C D Em F#dim or in numbers 1234567 or roman (which is typically used and lower case means minor) I ii iii IV V vi vii

Hopefully this didn’t confuse

I tried putting up a chart of the number system (how I play & think0 but it came out all screwed up in the post so I deleted it.

Yes the number system is VERY useful. for beginners it can really help you decide whether to play a major or minor chord, and where/what the next chord might be (anticipation through listening).

I think it is important to mention to beginners that there are many choices made while playing leads that can make a song sound more happy or more bluesy depending on the feel/mood one is trying to get.

If you stick to the major scale notes you will get a more “happy” sound.
If you flat the 3rd and/or 7th notes in the scale you can get a more bluesy sound. These flatted notes a VERY prevalent in bluegrass, blues, Rock, and old fiddle tunes,

This is done quite often with chords also in rock, bluegrass, and other genres.

Scale example: G Major - g,a,b,c,d,e,f#,G
G with dropped notes = G,A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G

Also: chords are chosen for mood quite often.
The II, III, and VI chords are played either as a major or minor to create a specefic mood/feeling to the experience.

For beginners: I suggest reading some of this and maybe experimenting a bit with things that come to mind, but don’t get too hung up or frustrated with it all. It all takes time and much of it comes to one naturally eventually with just spending time on your instrument and listening to music. :smiley: Take it a step at a time and enjoy the journey.

1 Like

Sorry I haven’t replied to all of yall’s answers lately. Life has been pretty hectic. In the past couple of days I’ve finally been able to really sit down with my banjo and play with some of the things yall mentioned.

About a year ago I picked up the banjo for the first time, and by extension I was also picking up my first instrument. Therefore, at 27 I’m trying to learn what most 3rd graders learn in music class (all I cared about was getting to P.E. and recess so I could play football).

The general direction I was looking for was the responses about the use of the capo, and the Nashville Number System really helped organize things in my brain.

I do appreciate all the responses and the time yall took to post them, and they did help tremendously. I’ll be posting follow up questions as I continue learning.

I think I’m having some more key confusion.

This is the link to the tab I’m referring to: … ab.pdf?277

As mentioned in the top left, he capos the banjo at the 2nd fret and tunes the 5th string up to A, which tunes the banjo to the key of A.

Why then are the chords still G, D, Em, C ? Wouldn’t it bump all the chords down a whole step to A, E, (not sure what Em bumped a whole step is), and D?

Or am I just flat out reading his tab sheet wrong?

the chords as well as the tab is written as if it was in G. When the chord says G above the tab you are playing as if you were in G tuning aka Kay of G.

Because your actually tuned (capoed ) up to the key of A, your actual (real) chord there is an A even though you are playing out of a G position relative to pretending the fret you are capoed to is the “Nut”.

If you put your banjo back in G tuning, w/no capo, you could play this tab as written and be in the key of G.

If you capo to the 4th fret and tune 5th string to a B you could play tab as written and actually be in the key of B.

The “key” is the actual pitch of the notes your playing.

Try a couple measures of the tab with no capo, capo on 2nd fret (5th to A), and again w/ capo at 4th fret (5th string to B)
You will notice you can play the same fingering of notes but it ends up at a higher or lower actual pitch.

All tab are not written this way…some are written with the actual/real chords, but most are written to refer to the finger position you are using rather than the actual pitch.

Help at all?

As a sid note:

the chords shown in the title area are how you would finger those actual chords.

when you capo up to A they become A, E, F#minor, D.

but your still using finger positions demonstrated in the chord charts. :smiley:

— Begin quote from "fiddlewood"

Help at all?

— End quote

Makes total sense! Thank you.

Take a moment and go to youtube and learn about the “CAGED SYSTEM”, this will help you understand how chords are “movable” in music and will help you understand “key” along the way.

Since banjo is open tuned sing the first part of a song you know that starts in G, then bar the 2nd fret and sing the song there (now you are starting the song in A vs G)…notice the difference in the pitch of your voice? It’s the same song but in a different key. To an untrained ear (in the audience) it will sound like the same song but as musicians we know it’s not exactly the same song as we changed the key.

All of our vocal ranges are different, so in music one is taught to sing in a “key” where they can sing comfortably through 3 octaves and not strain their voice. Your voice may fit perfectly say in “G” where as maybe I can’t hit the low G because my vocal range is better suited for the key of A…that is why we capo.

Ever notice that the Key of C is very rarely used by men? Most men hate singing out of C but the females fit in there perfectly.

Take your time and start working on grasping the concept of keys and scales and movable chord shapes and it will all come together over time. Even if you can’t carry a tune, try to at least hum along to everything you play, even while doing scale practice try and hum or sing the notes in pitch.

We all started at some point just like you, so being the realist that I am I will say that you are not special…we all had to fight grasping it all and stuck our nose to the grindstone and figured it out SLOWLY OVER YEARS OF TIME. Most of the guys I play with think I am pretty good, however I still think I suck at music. But I do realize that if I went back to 20 years ago and got to see my older self play I’d think “Damn he is good” and I want to be like him when I grow up…but in reality I am decent at best.

Good luck, we all started just like you at some point in time.

Regarding the Nashville Number System:

Ben has Old Joe Clark in the key of G. The chords and corresponding numbers would be:
G - I
D - V
F - ?? (F# would be the VII chord, yes?)

So how do you number an F chord when in the key of G?

F in G is flatted 7th.

many times when jamming & such it is just referred to as the 7 because in the music of the Western hemisphere the 7 tends to be flatted more often than not.

In key of G I would usually call the F a** 7** or flatted 7 and the F# a ** natural 7 **

Also, in G the Bb chord would normally be a flatted 3rd just for some extra info in case you don’t have enough things to keep track of… :laughing:

The V chord is known to many as a/the turn-around chord - it turns the progression back toward the I in a natural way to the ear. This is why it is most often the last chord before you start back on the One.

Songs like somehow Tonight, and Sally Goodin use only the I and V

There are many turn-around type progressions also that you will find repeating in many songs.

II is Most usually Added in front of the V and we have a II,V “turn”.

add a VI in front and we get a IV,II, V. (Salty dog Blues/ don’t let your deal go Down)

Add a III and now we have III, VI, II, V. (B, E, A, D IN KEY OF g)

If you get used to the sound of these changes you will find your hearing them in many songs (regardless of what key it is in).

There are many small progressions like this, I just picked the most easily usable for starters.

With some experimentation this idea of progressions of chord patterns that lead into another chord can be used to create improvisation.
for example: If you are playing along and know you have to get to a II chord but don’t want to use the standard “guitar run” moves you might try throwing a quick III, VI in front of it and see if you get some ideas on other ways to get there.

just some thoughts to add to the confusion. :wink: