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I play flutes, whistles, and the alike in sessions and have recently got myself a decent guitar to start my journey. Whistles are transposing instruments so if I am playing a whistle in the key of D, somebody could put a capo on the 2nd fret, use the same chord shapes that would be needed for an instrument in C and it would sound good. Am I correct so far?

If I am, what would I do, guitar wise, if I wanted to play along with somebody who was playing a whistle in the key of Bb? I've seen many people play along with a whistle with a capo on the 3rd fret, or 2nd, 1st, why?, what are they achieving by doing this? Would they have to know different chords for each fret? Is there no 'easy' way of just playing along with somebody in a session if you knew the shape of the chords on a guitar which did not have a capo? Does this make sense?

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For guitar players the keys E, A, D, G, C (and relative minors/modes) are considered "easy" keys -- the common, beginer open chords fall in these keys. And especially for acoustic guitars, the ringing of open strings in these keys is a part of the guitar's tonal quality, and is desireable for some styles of music.

So what do you do when you want to play in B flat?

  1. Use barre chords as indicated in Dom's answer, but then you loose some of the strummy goodness that open chords provide,

  2. Capo 1, and play as if in A, using the A,D,E chord shapes for I-IV-V -- note that you can get the relevant open strings to ring out

  3. Capo 3, and play as if in G -- this will have different chord voicings and allow for different decorations that the Capo 1 option.

You already understand the logic of what the capo does, so it's just the idea that these keys are the easy strumming keys for guitars.

One other consideration is that it is less common to capo the guitar at above the fifth fret or so -- it is easier to get into tuning/intonation problems with the capo that high up the neck.

  • "some styles of music" would include Irish traditional music, which I suspect might be relevant here considering the asker's references to whistles, flutes and sessions. – Bacs Jan 20 '15 at 9:34
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A guitar in standard tuning is actually a good fit for the key of G major (E minor) since the you can take advantage of some basic open chords in the key of G major which are G(I), Am(ii), C(IV), D(V), and Em(vi) as shown below:

G  Am  C  D  Em

If you were to put a capo on the 2nd fret you would be able to use the same shapes to make the same relative chords as shown above in the key of A major (F# minor) which are A(I), Bm(ii), D(IV), E(V), and F#m(vi). It makes transposing a lot easier for playing chords because you only have to think the open shape in the key.

This however is unnecessary because the on the guitar you can play chords in many different places especially if you learn barre chords. For example you can play the chords mentioned the following way:

A Bm D E F#m

In the example above the F#m is an example of an Em shape barre chord and the Bm is an example of an Am shape barre chord. If you learn all five barre chord shapes you can play in any key without a capo. It's not easy, but it's a lot more rewarding.

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Adding to Dave's answer, specifically playing along with a Bb instrument,

*capo 1st fret, use 'open' A, D and E, or E7.

*capo 3rd fret, use 'open' G, C and D, or D7.

*capo 6th fret, use 'open' E, A and B7.

Slight problems for a beginner would be - in the first case, F#m, Bm and C#m. In the second - Bm, and the third - F#m, G#m and C#m, as all those chords ideally need to be barred. Of course, those barre chords may not be needed in particular songs.

Learning to play barre chords will save the day, but as Dave points out, the brightness of open chords tends to be less, especially using an acoustic guitar.

Other fret options may be available for the capo, but it obviously depends what key the whistle, etc is in.

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You could also tune the guitar down a half step to get the Natural open Bb / Eb and Ab. Some of the open chords may be different then but it is an option.

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I'm guessing since you mention sessions and whistles that your major focus is on Irish or Scottish music. With a D whistle you'd be playing mostly in D and G, I think you'll find the best results to capo 3 and play in G positions for Bb (equivalent of D in a D whistle) and stay on capo 3 and play in C position for Eb (equivalent of playing in G on a D whistle). You can then play in D position for F (equivalent of playing in A on a D whistle)

Good luck!

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Kudos for expanding your musical horizons by learning the guitar. I find it to be one of the most versatile musical instruments available.

A capo is not required to play a song on guitar in any key you desire but will make it much easier to play in certain keys. The way a guitar and similar fretted stringed instruments are set up makes it difficult to play certain chords in certain keys. Many professional musicians even use a capo - although some very accomplished and experienced guitarist consider the use of a capo akin to riding a bicycle with training wheels.

But as a beginning guitar student, you will find that the capo is your friend and will greatly reduce the learning curve.

I feel like the chord formations for playing guitar in the key of G are the easiest for a beginning student to learn. So if you learn the G, C, and D major chords and the Em and Am chords which can all be played as open chords, you will be able to play most songs in the key of G. Later you can add the Bm Barre chord to play even more songs. Once you learn these chord formations, you can transpose to other keys simply by using a capo and playing those same chord formations. Put the capo on the 2nd fret and play the same chords - now you are in the key of A. Capo third fret = Bb, fourth fret = B, fifth fret = C and so on. Unfortunately things start getting tight past the 7th fret.

But after you learn the first position chords to play guitar in the key of G, the next easiest to play for most beginning guitar students would be the chords in the key of C.

But - to play the chords in the key of C you must master the dreaded F chord. It's difficult mainly because it involves barring either 2 or 6 strings (depending on if you play the 4 string version or full barre chord) on the first fret which is harder than the second fret or third fret because the nut raises the strings above the fret board and that close to the nut it is harder to press the strings down to the frets. The good news though, is that using a capo to transpose to other keys from C, actually makes the F chord shape easier to play than without the capo. This is because the capo lowers the height of the strings down to the fret it's behind and thus closer to the fret board than the height of the strings at the nut.

If you learn the basic first position chords for the key of G and C (most are open chords), the capo will allow you to play in all the major keys with just those chords.

As you continue learning chords in other keys, the capo will allow you to achieve different nuances for songs in a given key by using the capo and different chord formations to alter the voicing used for the chords.

Or you may find certain transitions between chords in a particular song easier to play using the chords of G versus the chords of A for example - so you could put a capo on the second fret and play as if in G - even though you may be capable of playing the chords in the key of A.

Beyond making certain keys much easier to play in, the capo also gives you more options - even as you become more experienced and expand your chord vocabulary.

Enjoy your journey.

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