Turning Notes Into Stone – A Basic Guide To Transposing

Sword in the Stone

Before I go any further, I’d like to give a tip of the hat to Laura Lasley for the suggestion that led to this week’s column. And if you haven’t taken the time to visit the Other Side, our latest addition to our ever-growing departments here at Guitar Noise, let me suggest that you do so. And don’t forget to check out the Guitar Forums as well. If nothing else, you might find some very interesting and talented guitarists to add to your “must listen to” lists.

If you ever decide to play music with musicians other than guitarists (and bass players don’t count!)(sorry, Dan), you will very quickly run into a situation where one of you knows a particular song in one key while the other knows it in another. This will occur a lot if you hang out with pianists and horn players.

The guitar has a natural disinclination towards keys that contain flats. But a lot of keyboard music is in Bb, Eb and Ab. Unless you’re incredibly adept at barre chords (and some people really do enjoy this sort of thing), knowing how to transpose a song will prove to be an invaluable skill. And not only is it easy to learn, it’s actually a lot of fun when you get the hang of it.

So grab a capo, reread my second column (The Underappreciated Art of Using A Capo) if you’re so inclined and let’s go rewrite some songs. Of course, you realize that this means we need to bring back one of our old friends:

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of these songs. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Bet you were wondering if he’d ever show his face around here again, huh?

“To transpose” according to my dictionary means “to change the key of.” There are many reasons to do this, but the major one is to make things easier for you. You may not know it, but each time you use a capo on your guitar, you are transposing the key of that particular song. What I’d like to do today is to show you what you are doing, to make you aware of the process involved so you may be able to figure it out yourself. We’ll do this in our usual way – taking an easy example and then tackling something a bit harder.

First off, though, we need to (big surprise here) think about something, namely which keys do we feel most comfortable playing? The guitar, as we’ve noted on numerous occasions, readily lends itself to the keys of C, G, D, A, E and B, as well as their respective relative minor keys. Speaking strictly for myself, there are times when I could do without the A, E and B. Why? Well, let’s look at the chords associated with each of these keys. Here is a chart of their primary (I, IV, V) and secondary (II, III, VI) chords:

Keys chart

Again, I don’t know about you, but the prospect of meeting up with a number of C# or G# minors does not really thrill me all that much. I am very comfortable in the keys of C and G and D. Now you may think that this is a simplistic way of looking at things but this is precisely the point. Yes, you should learn to play all these chords (each and every chord, for that matter) but not knowing them or not playing them well should not keep you from the enjoyment of playing a song.

The actual act of transposing is as easy as do, re, mi. A more appropriate analogy might be the putting together of a “code,” like the ones we would do as school children in order to keep our secret messages secret. Did I lose you on that one?

Well, let’s back up to our definition of transposing. According to my dictionary, the first meaning of “transpose” is “to change the place or order of by putting each in the place of the other.” Now even though that sounds a bit convoluted, let me show you just how easily we can turn the act of transposing a song from mysterious to practically mundane…

Nowhere Man

I just picked a songbook off a shelf on my bookcase. It turns out to be 50 by Lennon and McCartney. No, don’t ask me how old this book is. I look in the table of contents and see that Nowhere Man is one of the songs that I can learn how to play and I get very excited because I really like that song a lot and I flip to the appropriate page and my heart does a nosedive. The damn song is in Eb! Here’s the chord charts through the first bridge:

Nowhere Man

Okay I know what I don’t want to play. How do I figure out what I do want to play?

Well, I want to point out some things first. This is part of my own personal thought process and may not mean much to you at this point, but I think going over this now will be helpful. Whenever possible, try to transpose down to a lower key. This will make sense to you after we’ve done an example or two. And don’t forget to write things down. Yes, you will eventually find yourself able to do this in your head, but it is important to take things step by step when you are learning something. You are bound to make mistakes the first couple of times you try this, but I can guarantee you that if you don’t write it out you will make more than you would otherwise.

So the first thing we do is figure out where we are. If I were to write out the primary and secondary chords in the key of Eb Major, this is what I’d get:

Primary and secondary chords

Now if I think to myself, “What is the closest key going down from Eb in which I feel comfortable playing?” the answer will be D. It’s simply a half step down from Eb. Okay, so immediately below my listing of Eb Major chords, I will write out my D Major chords, like so:

Down half a step

You can do this process in one of two ways – you can simply write out the primary and secondary chords because you already know what they are or you can look at your Eb chords and then lower it a half step. Either method is fine and I only bring it up so that you make yourself aware of exactly what you’re doing.

All of you have no doubt as to what I am going to do next, right? Remembering my “secret code” definition – “to change the place or order of by putting each in the place of the other” – I will simply do just that. Wherever I see an Eb in the music, I will put a D in its place. A replaces Bb, G is substituted for Ab and so on. Here’s what our song looks like now:

Nowhere Man

And I bet you’re now wondering what all the fuss was about…

It Makes No Difference

Now here is the reason that I suggested you transpose down – suppose you want to play this song with a keyboard player. All you have to do is put your capo on the first fret and voila! You are now both playing in Eb. That is all that it takes. Since you have transposed the song down a half step, you simply use your capo to raise the chords up that same half step. You are playing your D Major chords but what you hear are Eb Major chords. Pretty freaky, huh?

And even though most of the keys that you encounter do seem to offer you the instant satisfaction of simply transposing them down a half step (Bb becomes A, Ab becomes G, F becomes E, etc.,), it is still important to think things through. You may find that the key you’ve transposed the song into is no better than the one you’ve left behind!

It Makes No Difference, written by Robbie Robertson and performed by the Band, is a good example. It is a wonderfully soulful ballad that can be a showcase for a solo performer as well as an ensemble piece. Here’s the (first) chorus:

It Makes No Difference

It is written in Bb and my first inclination was to transpose it down to A and then play it with my capo on the second fret. But I was not at all happy with the results. I wanted to be able to play around with the bass lines a bit, give them a kind of gospel feel and I can’t really do that in A (my hands have a hard time reaching the fourth frets on the fourth and fifth strings). In G, though, I have no trouble at all with this. So I set about re-transposing the song into the key of G. Here are the chord transpositions for all three keys:

Transposition chart

“Hey!! Wait a minute, David,” you’re saying. “There’s a C7 in this song and that is NOT one of the chords in the Bb chord chart!”

I’m glad you caught that. This is why I told you about writing things out. When you are transposing the only thing that you are transposing is the root. Whatever follows the root of the chord, whether it be an “m,” “7,” “sus4,” “dim9add15” or whatever, will always be part of the new transposed root. Since Am is the key of G equivalent for Cm in this case, you can trust your logic and know that A7 will be the substitute for the original C7. Take a look:

It Makes No Difference

Transposing to this key also provided me with a bonus. I could play many of the chords with variations that used the notes on the third fret of the first two strings as sustained tones (much like in Wonderwall by Oasis, which we discussed in last fall’s column, Sustained Tones – you can find these chord fingerings there is you so desire):

It Makes No Difference

And it goes without saying that playing this in G means I should put my capo on the third fret.

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald/Losing My Religion

Sometimes you will find yourself transposing a song for reasons other than putting into an easier key to play. Often it can be a matter of chord voicing, of the sounds you want to hear from your guitar. Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, for example is written in C, which is one of those keys I’m very comfortable playing. The chord progression for any given line (and I’ve picked a line from the middle of the song – right now my brain is a little fried I guess) is:

The Wreck

This, converted to A (capo on the third fret) will become:

The Wreck

Being able to play this with a lot of open strings in the bass gives the song more resonance in the lower tones and contributes greatly to the overall feel of the song.

Sometimes you want to bring out the midrange or the higher end of a song. Transposition will help you with this as well. Last week, one of my students told me that he had found the TAB for REM’s Losing My Religion but was unhappy with the way it sounded. So we looked at the chords:

Losing My Religion

The trouble here is that we are used to hearing this song with the mandolin that stands out so strongly in the mix. So after talking out the various options open to use we settled on transposing the song to Em and putting a capo on the fifth fret in order to get this:

Losing My Religion

These chord voicings sound much closer to the original recording and make the song sound better to the solo guitarist trying to play it by his or herself. Of course, if you had two guitarists, each of you could play it (one in A minor and one in E minor) and give it a lot of depth.

The bottom line is that knowing how to transpose will create all sorts of opportunities for you as a guitarist. Songs that you might have avoided because of hard-to-play key signatures will now be yours to enjoy. Likewise with songs out of your vocal range. Or you can use your newly found ability to come up with some interesting arrangements.

I try to encourage my students to try their hand at transposing, particularly relatively easy songs. At the very least it allows them to use theory in a practical way that they can appreciate. If you happen to be fortunate to play with other musicians on a regular basis, I would suggest that you incorporate this technique into these sessions. Transposition is a simply way to inject new life into your playing.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…