The Musician’s “Cut Out & Keep” Guide to Transposing
Transposing for guitar, keyboards and bass
For lots of players the real world way of transposing involves keyboard transpose buttons or capos to put a song that’s in a complicated key into an easy-to-play key. But how many semitones up or down do you go with that keyboard button or, for guitarists, which fret do you actually put the capo on? Here’s a quick and easy method for guitarists, keyboard and bass players to make sure they are always playing in the right key.
Transposing for keyboards
If you’re new to keyboards you’re probably most comfortable with playing in the key of C. If that’s you then find the key that song’s actually in on our guide and then count the semitones clockwise or anti-clockwise round the wheel towards C. So if a song’s in G# simply start with C count the letters/semitones anti clockwise until you hit G#. I.e. 4 letters…1=B, 2=A#/Bb, 3=A and 4=G#. Then, because you are transposing downwards, hit -4 on your keyboard transpose button. Alternatively if the song’s in Eb you’ll want to count clockwise 3 letters forward to C. Therefore put your transpose button to +3.
Transposing for guitar
For guitar the easiest way to transpose is to use a capo. But with a capo you can only transpose upwards to make the pitch higher. So to begin with start with the guitar friendly key that you want to play in, probably G, C or D. Then count clockwise around the wheel until you hit the key the song is really in. E.g if you want to play with G shapes and the song is in Bb find the G then count 3 letters/semitones round to Bb i.e. 1=G#/Ab, 2=A, 3=Bb. Now place your capo on fret 3. Similarly if you want to use D shapes and the song is in F#, find D on the wheel and count clockwise until you hit F# – (i.e. 4 letters/semitones), now put your capo on fret 4.
Transposing for bass
With bass we’d recommend using the one octave scale shape outlined in our transferring from guitar to bass article and then use that very same shape up or down the neck in the appropriate place by placing the root note marked as ‘1’ in the diagram on the relevant E or A strings. So, if you know a song in the key of G and the chords go G, D, Em, C, transfer those notes to the numbers in the diagram which refer in turn to the notes in the scale. E.g. G=1, A=2, B=3, C=4, D=5, E=6 & F#=7. Then think of those chords as their number – G=1, D=5, Em=6 and C =4. So your chord sequence in numbers goes 1 5 6 4. Next move that octave shape up or down the relevant number of frets (each fret equals one semitone) until you are in the correct key. For instance if our song is going from G up to C# count clockwise round the wheel from G to C# (6 letters). Then move your octave shape 6 frets up the bass neck that the 1 or root note on the diagram is on the C# (fret 9) and play your sequence of 1 5 6 4. This will give you the correct notes to play in the key of C#. Similarly if the song is moving from G to F count anti clockwise on the wheel from G to F (two letters/semitones) then move your shape down the neck towards the headstock two frets so that the 1 or root note on the diagram is on the F (fret 1) and play the very same 1 5 6 4 sequence.
Was this helpful?
Do you find the Guide above a helpful visual aide? If you have any comments or questions please post them in the comment box below. We wrote it in response to a customer of the Worship Backing Band MultiTrack Player which now incorporates key change functionality. She was struggling to work out which key to select to suit her chord charts.
Still need some more help?
Getting to grips with music theory can be quite challenging which is why we created the Play By Ear, Improvise and Understand Chords course. As well as teaching you all that it promises on the cover, it will give you a superb foundational understanding of the need-to-know music theory all explained in simple layman’s terms.