Guitar chords by key (and how to use them in songwriting)

In this lesson on writing your first guitar song I gave you six chords to choose from to use in your song. These chords sound good together because they’re all derived from the key of C major.

If I added the chord of say, F# minor in that mix, though you could still use that chord in the song (since music theory is a set of guidelines, not a set of rules) it would give you a hard time fitting it in and resolving it because the chord of F# minor is found in the key of D major, but not in C major.

Thus, with the six chords I gave you (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am) you can create as many songs as you want – as long as you remain in the key of C.

If not, you have no guarantee that those chords will sound pleasant with the others you’re playing.

I suggest you revisit that lesson linked above if you can’t write a song with these chords yet, since in this lesson we’re going to take it a step further and see what guitar chords we find in every major key.

Guitar chords by key formula

The good news is that finding what guitar chords are in each key requires less memory work than you may think since these chords follow a given formula which goes like this:

Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished.

Let’s take a look at the key of C major (which is the easiest key to work on since it’s the only one that doesn’t have any sharps or flats)

The notes in the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

Thus, if we apply the formula above, the chords in the key of C major would be:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B dim (The same chords I gave you to write a song with as well as the chord derived from the seventh note of the scale: B diminished. The reason I had left that chord out is that its dissonance makes it more difficult to use than the others)

Roman numerals

To make life easier, this formula is also notated in Roman numerals where upper case numerals are followed by the quality of the chord:

I   IImi   IIImi IV   V VImin VIIdim

A variation of this is using upper case numerals to indicate the major chords and lower case numerals to indicate minor or diminished chords:

I     ii   iii IV    V vi vii (dim)

We’ll be use these Roman numerals later on in this lesson to transpose chords from one key to another.

Chords in each key

If we had to apply this formula to the key of D major, the pattern of major, minor and diminished chords remains the same, but some of the chords are different since the key of D major has the notes F# and C# (instead of F and C).

Thus, these would be the guitar chords in the key of D:

D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm, C#dim

Next, I’m going to give you the chords found in every major key:

Key of C major

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B dim

Key of C# major

C#, D# m, E# m, F#, G#, A# m, B# dim

Key of D major

D, E m, F# m, G, A, Bm, C# dim

Key of Eb major

Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb, Cm, D dim

Key of E major

E, F# m, G# m, A, B, C# m, D# dim

Key of F major

F, Gm, Am, Bb, C, Dm, E dim

Key of Gb major

Gb, Ab m, Bb m, Cb, Db, Eb m, F dim

Key of G major

G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F# dim

Key of Ab major

Ab, Bb m, Cm, Db, Eb, Fm, G dim

Key of A major

A, Bm, C# m, D, E, F# m, G# dim

Key of Bb major

Bb, Cm, Dm, Eb, F, Gm, A dim

Key of B major

B, C# m, D# m, E, F#, G#m, A# dim

How to use this knowledge: Transposition

Let’s say you’re playing the following chord progression in the key of C major:

C – Am – F – G

If we had to transcribe the roman numeral to each chord it would give us this sequence:

I – VIm – IV – V

The chord progression given above, can be replicated in any major key. All we have to do is find the chords that belong to that roman numeral in the other key.

For instance, if we transpose this chord progression to the key of D, we would get these chords:

D – Bm – G – A

If we transpose it to the key of E major, we will get these chords:

E – C# m – A – B

So on and so forth…

Conclusion: Internalize this information by writing songs

You may have noticed that today’s lesson is more of a music theory lesson than a guitar lesson. However, it’s music theory you can instantly apply to create music.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn music theory this way. I had to write countless things on music sheets and take half a dozen exams before I ever started using music theory in real musical situations.

Music theory and learning the guitar seemed like two completely different subjects.

It doesn’t have to be this way for you. 

Not only is learning a music theory concept and applying it to make music more fun, but you will actually learn and internalize those concepts better when you’re actually using them on your guitar rather than writing them down on a sheet of paper.

What I suggest you do now is this:

  1. Decide on a key 
  2. Learn all the guitar chords in that key.
  3. Choose some of those chords and write your own song.
  4. Repeat in all keys

If you do this, you will not only learn and internalize all guitar chords in the major key, but would be steady on your way in guitar songwriting because you would have written 12 songs!

At the expense of sounding monotonous, I feel the need to repeat the most important advice I can give you related to songwriting:
It doesn’t matter if some, or all of the songs your write are complete crap. Writing a lot of crap and improving a little each time, while learning more theory and improving your general musicianship, is the path to writing great songs. 

I laugh when I find some of my earliest songs tucked away somewhere. They sound so cheap.

Yet, what I’ve learned in the process of writing them, is priceless!

You may consider giving a donation, by which you will be helping a songwriter achieve his dreams. Each contribution, no matter how small, will make a difference.

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