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Lead Patterns VS Box Shapes

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Illustrious Member
Joined: 18 years ago
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Wes, thanks for your posts. I have one question though about the key. What determines the key that you are playing in? Is it the chord progressions? If I looked at only the chords and the riff, how would I know that one is C major, and the other is A major? Maybe I am putting the cart in front of the horse. Does the key determine the chords that you use? If so, then maybe going in the other direction doesn't make sense.?.?

In an earlier post, you said that it is common to start a riff on the root of the scale, but not a requirement. For the sake of discussion, let's merge the two solos into one by starting both riffs on a D, fifth fret of the A string. But leave the chord progressions alone. Do you still have one song in C major and one in A major? (never mind that starting on a D may not sound right).

OK, first of all, I am not a music teacher, and do not understand a lot about theory like Noteboat, Arjen and others. I am just a guy who has played guitar a long time and picked up things along the way.

To answer your questions, it was the chord progression that determined the key.

Here is a simple fact that will help you.... 90% of the time, a song will start with the root chord in the key of the song. So if the first chord in the song is C Major, then that song is probably in the key of C Major. If the first chord in the song is E Minor, then that song is very likely to be in the key of E Minor. There are exceptions, but they are pretty rare. So, if you learn a song by ear, figure out that first chord and you are going to know the key most of the time, almost always.

Generally, most songs will be composed of the 3 major chords and 3 relative minor chords in that key. There are many exceptions to this however. But generally;

The key of C has 3 major chords, C (the Root), F (the 4th), and G (the 5th). The "relative" minor chords are very similar to the 3 major chords. They are based on the 6th tone, which in C is "A". But this is minor, so it is an Am (A minor) chord.
Now, the 4th tone of A is D, so the next chord is Dm. Then the 5th of A is E, so you have E minor.

So really they are both I, IV, and V chords. The first 3 are Major, the next 3 are "relative minor" so they are Minor chords.

C D E F G A B (the notes of the C Major scale)
1.......4 5

Go to the 6th tone to find the "relative minor" chords. The 6th tone above is A. Now start at A and find your Root, 4th, and 5th, and make them minor.

A B C# D E F# G# (the notes of the A Major scale)
1..........4 5
Am.....Dm Em

Hope that made sense. :D

Probably confusing you now, but in C you have C, F, G, Am, Dm, and Em. Most (not all) songs in the key of C will be made of these 6 chords. So if the song starts with a C chord, it is very likely to be in the key of C. To figure out the song, just try one of these other chords against the song. You will find out most of the time you can figure out the song in a few minutes.

If you were in the key of D, everything is exactly the same except you move everything up one whole step (two frets on guitar). So, your C chord would become D, your F chord would become G, your G chord would become A, your Am chord would become Bm, your Dm chord would become Em, and the Em chord would become F#m. You are simply moving everything up one whole note.

Sometimes you cannot sing a song in C, doesn't fit your voice. So you try other keys. Move every chord up one whole step, now you are in the key of D. Now you can sing the song. But the chords stay in the same order. If the original progression in C went,

C, Am, F, G (old 50's progression), if you go to the key of D it would become
D, Bm, G, A. You have simply moved up two frets on your guitar. It is simple, do not make it complicated.

If you wanted to play the same song but in the key of E, go up another two frets. Now this progression is E, C#m, A, B

But the first chord will almost always tell you the key of the song.

Hope I haven't completely confused you.

To answer your 2nd question. You could have started either solo with the D note you mentioned. The first progression would still be in the key of C, the 2nd progression in the key of A. The chord progression determines the key, not the particular notes you play in a solo.

And as others said, you can play outside these scales. The Major scale, Major Pentatonic, and Minor Pentatonic scales are just the most popular scales in Western music. But there are many other scales that use other notes. These are just the scales you are most familiar with and probably recognize the sound.

Here is a scale I learned many years ago called the Gypsy Scale (in the key of A)

Gypsy Scale in the key of A


Make up a solo with these notes and play over the A, D, E, A progression I showed earlier. This is a really cool scale that will make your music sound very Middle East.

This is just one of many scales you can play, the Major, Major Pentatonic, and Minor Pentatonic are just the most widely used scales in Western music. But don't be afraid to venture into other scales, they can add real interest and color to solos.

Hope this helped a little.


If you know something better than Rock and Roll, I'd like to hear it - Jerry Lee Lewis

Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 5384

Here is a simple fact that will help you.... 90% of the time, a song will start with the root chord in the key of the song.

And to add to that: the other ten percent will use the root chord as final chord of the song. So if the first doesn't work (and as Wes said that's a rarity in western contemporary music) try the last. You'll probably discover that the vast majority of songs use the same chord as first and last chord of the song. Life's easy. :D

Reputable Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 269

cool post wes

Active Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 17

Hope this helped a little.

It helped a lot. Thanks for taking the time to write such a terrific post.


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