If you have spent any amount of time in the music world, you may have heard the term “key” used at some point. For example, someone may have told you that The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby is in the key of G-major.
Every song has a key associated with it. However, you might not know that instruments also have keys associated with their tunings. The clarinet is in the key of B-flat, while the horn is usually in the key of F. This may lead you to wonder, “What key is a guitar in?”
Today we will examine what key the standard guitar tuning is in. We will also discuss alternate tunings and how you can change the key of your guitar.
What Key is the Standard Guitar Tuning In?
Beginner guitarists are usually taught how to tune their instrument during their first batch of lessons. They quickly pick up on the fact that the standard tuning on a six-string guitar is E, A, D, G, B, E from top to bottom.
As a guitarist, you may have devised memory aids such as Elephants And Dogs Give Biology Exams to remember the aforementioned string tuning pattern. However, knowing this tuning alone doesn’t tell you what key your instrument is in. So what key is the standard guitar tuning in?
One might assume that the guitar is in the key of E, as this is the lowest note it can play in the E, A, D, G, B, E tuning. However, it is actually in E phrygian mode, which is also the key of C major. This makes sense as each of the aforementioned open string notes are in the key of C.
Why is C Major Considered the Standard Key?
There are many possible reasons why C major is the standard key for guitar tunings. The most obvious one is that C major does not contain sharps or flats, which makes playing easier.
This tuning also aids with chord shapes, as open strings strummed in a chord all fit neatly into the key of C.
Understanding the C Major Scale
In music, a major scale is generally made up of different interval patterns consisting of “steps” and “half steps”. A semitone is considered one half step. If we were to ascend from C on a guitar, we would go from C through C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B and then back to C.
A major scale general moves in the following pattern: Step – Step – Half Step – Step – Step – Step – Half Step. Applying this pattern when you start at C gives you D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Notice how none of these notes contain flats or sharps.
You can apply the above pattern to any note to figure out the other notes in its scale. For example, notes in the key of G would be G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#.
What Key is the Piano In?
After learning that the guitar is in the C-major key, you may be wondering what key the piano is in. You may be surprised to learn that the concept of instrument keys only exists for diatonic instruments.
A piano is a chromatic instrument capable of playing all twelve tones in the chromatic scale. Therefore it does not have any particular key associated with it.
Can You Change Your Guitar’s Key?
It is certainly possible to change your guitar’s key. Many guitarists do this to achieve a certain sound or feel in their playing. There are two ways to do this.
Changing Key By Retuning
The first method is to re-tune your guitar. You can tune it down or up by a few semitones. This process can be time-consuming, so you should ideally take out some time to find your ideal tuning.
Many guitarists also experiment with alternate tunings such as drop-D, DADGAD, DADF#AD, and DGDGBD. Such tunings allow guitarists to harmonize between the different strings easily and create a fuller sounding tone.
Changing Key With a Capo
The easiest way to change your guitar’s key is using a capo. A capo is a small tool that attaches onto your guitar’s neck and presses the strings against the fret. This tool essentially repositions where the open string note occurs. Setting a capo at the second fret of your guitar would increase the pitch by two semitones.
Many guitarists prefer using a capo than re-tuning their guitar to a higher key. This is because setting a capo takes only a few seconds. You can then undo your key change by removing the capo after your performance.
Using a capo is also advantageous if you want your guitar to be in a much higher key. For example, setting the capo at the fifth fret would increase the tuning by five semitones. You wouldn’t be able to re-tune your guitar to this pitch using the tuning knobs, as many of the strings would likely snap from the high tension.
Is It Worth Playing in Keys Other than C-Major?
If you have started playing the guitar only recently, you may be satisfied with learning and performing songs using the standard tuning and C major key. However, you may be interested in expanding your compositional capabilities over time using different tunings and keys.
Many guitarists also prefer to transpose certain songs because it makes them easier to sing. For example, some female vocalists set a capo at the third fret position on their guitars to sing a song comfortably at this higher pitch.
Guitarists can also experiment with different keys and discover which ones produce interesting sounding note harmonies or chords. The possibilities are endless given the wide number of harmonic scales out there. So consider investing in a capo or trying out alternate tunings to find your signature sound.
Understanding the guitar’s default key is important as it allows you to compose songs in different ways. The C-major key is one of the easiest scales to compose in, but don’t be scared to pick up a music theory guidebook and venture out a little. Happy composing!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.