Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Playing in other keys

Hi Ben

Lately I have been trawling YouTube looking for jam sessions to practice my rather ropey backup skills and I am increasingly finding these guys tend not to stick with G, D, C and A. The keys I normally play in and I am having a hard time trying to find the key signature they are in before the song ends. Please forgive me if you have covered this topic already but could you do a lesson sometime on playing in F, E and Bb. Also any tips one can use to find the key by ear quickly when it’s not possible to see the guitar players hands or where a capo is placed.

In this video at 6.40 the mandolin player has her instrument capo’ed at the 3rd fret what key are they in. I don’t ever recall seeing anyone capo a mandolin before seeing this.

They are in B. Capo is actually on the 4th fret…

key to keys: usually find the root note of the 1 chord (usually first bass note) = key…there are always exceptions…for instance White Freightliner starts on the 4 chord…

Are you talking about playing banjo or mando? no need for capo on mando…
Usually, on banjo: E = D capoed 2nd
F = D capoed 3rd
Bb = G capoed 3rd

hope this helps…

Does @fiddle_wood’s response answer you or are you looking for more?

Hi Ben, In response to the query about the video yes It goes. But on the topic of identifying an unfamiliar key signature not really. I can usually figure out the key of G, D, C and A fairly quickly but struggle with other key signatures. I am just wondering if there is an easy way to do this. In a normal jam session one can ask the key but the guys in the video barely draw breath before they shoot to the next tune and when they get to it there not hanging around. .

Thanks Dave, I don’t play mandolin and I couldn’t figure out the key just from listening… The capo on the mando further confused the situation. Thanks for your explanation that helped some. Outside the 4 key signatures listed I don’t often get an opportunity to play in other keys. So I am hoping Ben can come up with a simple strategy for identifying a key signature by ear.

Archie, it works the same regardless of what key the song is in.

I usually just try quick test notes to see what fits.

I’d normally use the G and D strings for this on the banjo.or guitar. (X and Y positions can be used also)

That’s how I figured out the video…

As soon as you find a note that you think fits the One chord try the actual chord that corresponds with the note to see if you are correct…


You can listen to the bass note and find that on your fretboard. Also, most always the melody note at the end of the chorus is the note of the key the song is in.

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Thanks I 'll try working through the video’s hopefully I can figure something out on my own. I just thought maybe the professionals had a something worked out that used on such occasions.

It takes practice and ear training, but there’s no big secret. I listen for the chords (the bass is easiest to hear many times) and find that note on my banjo neck, usually the 4th string. Then I make a D or F shape with that note in the bass and see if it matches.

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Thanks Ben much appreciated, I’ll give that a try see if I can hear the bass over the other instruments.

If you have a problem with figuring any out feel free to post again or message me and I’ll be happy to give you a hand.


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Thanks Dave

Like Ben said the melody note at the end of a chorus is normally the key the song is in. The easier way for me to find the key is to just scroll to the end of the song. The last chord is almost always the key, and I can figure it out pretty quickly since the song normally hangs on that chord at the end for a while. After you know the key, you can quickly experiment with the 1, 4, & 5 chords to figure out where they go. For all the places where those chords don’t fit, try the 2, 6, and lastly the 3 chord. Remember that you can easily capo up if the key is unfamiliar for you. I.E- I always capo guitar on the 3rd fret when the song is in Bb, and then use Key of G chord shapes. Same applies for banjo.

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Thanks Brandon, much appreciated.

i dont understand E=D capoed 2nd or F=D capoed 3rd. Are you saying you can capo at 3rd fret to play key of F? If so then do you play D,G,A fingering for 1,4,5 chords?

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If you capo on 3rd fret and play out of D position you will actually be playing in F. Why? Because there are 3 half steps between D and F in the chromatic scale, and each fret on a stringed instrument is a half step.

Yes, you do play the D, G, and A fingerings for 1, 4, and 5…you got it!

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