When guitarists (or musicians for that matter) talk about keys. For example they say that they are in the key of A. Does it mean it could be either A major or A minor or both?

Another example: Some guitarist teaches the E minor pentatonic scale to some beginner. It's a continuation of learning the 12 bar blues in the key of E. So he's going to learn the scale that he can use to start improvising guitar solos in that same key.

Here he uses the words: "same key". He learned E major first, then he's going to learn E minor, but the teacher say that its the same key.

Would this mean that the key of E can contain notes from both E and Em? But its a bit confusing because I heard that with the Circle of fifths the same notes in E major are D-Flat minor, A Major has same notes as F#-minor and so on. How does these things relate to eachother when talking about keys? I think I need some extra push to understand what musicians mean when they talk about keys. Thank you.

2 Answers 2


In naming keys, "major" is often omitted, so "in A" normally means "in A major." I could imagine someone saying "in A" to mean "A minor" in informal usage, but only if the context makes it clear that the key is A minor rather than A major.

The key (apologies) to understanding E major and E minor as the same key is the blue note. If the third scale degree is sliding around a bit, it could be a major third or a minor third, or even both at the same time. It's ambiguous. The same is true of the seventh degree (which is also, of course, the third of the dominant chord).

This ambiguity is often realized by playing the tonic major chord but using the minor third in the melody, or indeed in the guitar solo. As the Wikipedia article notes, the blue note is usually thought of as slightly lower. Pianos can't do "slightly lower," so pianists often just play the minor third, or even the major and minor third simultaneously. With the guitar, on the other hand, you can bend the pitch up rather easily, so if you want a pitch between the minor third and the major third, you play the minor third and possibly bend it sharp.

Would this mean that the key of E can contain notes from both E and Em?

Well yes, any piece in any key can contain all 12 tones. Key is a subtle concept. The most important thing with a key is the tonal center: A, E, or whatever. The second most important thing is the third degree of the scale: major or minor. But saying that a piece is in E major doesn't mean that G natural is forbidden, nor must a piece in E minor avoid G sharp. Using the note that is nominally "out of the key" provides color (hence the term "chromatic"). Blues-scale guitar solos are a well known example of that.

  • That's not the blue note. In E, it's sharp from G and flat from G#. Plus there's B♭ and another between C# and D that's less common. That's a distraction; there's not much about the difference between the major and minor scales that needs to consider the blue third. Otherwise, pretty good. Nov 11, 2021 at 18:38
  • In key E minor, G# is normally avoided, as it just doesn't fit well. The 'blue' notes are b3, b5 and b7.
    – Tim
    Nov 11, 2021 at 19:21
  • @DaveJacoby are you seriously suggesting that, for example, the G flats in Piano Red's rendition of Shake, Rattle, and Roll are not blue notes? What are they then? And I am not bringing up the blue note to explain the difference between the major and minor scales, but rather to explain why one would use the E minor pentatonic scale for a solo in E major.
    – phoog
    Nov 11, 2021 at 20:48
  • @Tim the first piece in E minor I found from a very casual search has a G sharp in its second measure: Bach's suite BWV 966.
    – phoog
    Nov 11, 2021 at 20:56
  • @Tim, within delta. You can hear the blue third as the "Spoon" in "Spoonful" by Howling Wolf. Nov 11, 2021 at 21:05

For starters, D♭ minor does not have the same notes as E major - C♯ minor does. E major and C♯minor both have 4 sharps - D♭ minor has only flats.

On to the question.

When improvising in E major - (not Em), then notes from both E pent. major and E pent. minor are often used - good players will incorporate both sets of notes (and any of the other notes which don't belong as well !)

So, when saying 'E', it will usually mean both pent. sets of notes - from a good teacher.

  • I wonder whether it more common in the blues than in other genres to omit the "major" or "minor" designation specifically because of the ambiguity between major and minor that is created by the blue notes, or in other words because of the fact that you can use both the major and minor pentatonic scales.
    – phoog
    Nov 12, 2021 at 8:07
  • I'm sure it is. The underlying harony will be major or minor, but the notes used (except that one!) will be from both parallel keys. It's what Blues players do.
    – Tim
    Nov 12, 2021 at 8:33
  • The typical blues is more on the major side than the minor, and typically this would be expressed by chordal accompaniment sticking more to major flavour, with the ambiguous/minor tonalities superimposed in melodic or lead parts. Specifying a minor key is useful to indicate a strictly minor tonality, where major notes would be avoided - this is found less in Delta blues and more in the jazz side, e.g. tunes like "St James Infirmary", or later electric blues like BB King "The Thrill Is Gone".
    – blueskiwi
    Nov 12, 2021 at 16:32

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