Banjo Ben

Playing in a Key

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Playing in a Key

Postby 5stringpreacher » Thu Feb 27, 2014 9:59 pm

If you were to explain what it means to "play in the key of [blank]" to a newbie, how would you do it?
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby mreisz » Thu Feb 27, 2014 11:03 pm

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.
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby mreisz » Thu Feb 27, 2014 11:14 pm

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. :lol:
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby ldpayton » Fri Feb 28, 2014 5:07 pm

That's a whole lot of stuff to throw at a newbie! Not sure how to do it more succinctly, though.
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby mreisz » Fri Feb 28, 2014 5:33 pm

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" :lol:
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby 5stringpreacher » Thu Mar 06, 2014 2:17 pm

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

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 (http://www.banjobenclark.com/videos/ban ... 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?
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby mreisz » Thu Mar 06, 2014 4:16 pm

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.
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby fiddlewood » Thu Mar 13, 2014 8:49 pm

beardedbanjo wrote:In Ben's Old Joe Clark banjo video (http://www.banjobenclark.com/videos/ban ... 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?


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: Now slide that fingering up 2 frets and play again :arrow: that is a G chord :arrow: check it against the G chord you are use to playing :arrow: you should be able to hear that they are the same chord.
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby verneq » Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:40 pm

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
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Re: Playing in a Key

Postby fiddlewood » Fri Mar 14, 2014 11:13 am

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).
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