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So I'm trying to learn guitar for like the 5th time in my life. I've taken formal lessons, read books, even been in a garage band for fun but have only managed to memorize chord progressions and melody lines versus "just knowing" what to play . . .

. . . and a thought occurred to me that if I could learn the guitar one key at a time it might finally connect with my brain. For example I'd probably start with the Key of E; learn all the chords (at least the most used) and a bunch of progressions, learn the scale(s) and a bunch of licks and then apply it all to learning several songs in the key of E.

It seems like a great idea in my head, but when i google "Learn guitar one key at a time" nothing pops up.

So my question is . . . is this a really bad idea that I just don't comprehend?

  • I don't think it's a bad idea per se, but it might not be phrased that way in any online courses. Of course, I don't know if it would be phrased differently, or how, but it seems like something that someone would write a curriculum around. Learning stuff one [blank] at a time is a favorite cliche of a lot of instructors... ;-) – General Nuisance Oct 28 '16 at 14:02
  • I think your idea is similar to this guys: youtube.com/watch?v=cftl2C-5c_E – J. P. Petersen Oct 28 '16 at 14:23
  • Since I don't know what "just knowing what to play" means, I am going to give you a different suggestion. I think you are far better off memorizing the fretboard first and then learning how scales and chords are built so you can create them by yourself. Then when you look at scale/chord charts to optimize positions or learn common shapes/patterns it will be far less memorization for you. – syntonicC Oct 31 '16 at 20:32
  • I started with the key of Cmaj – Unknown Nov 10 '16 at 1:28
  • I'm like you, I'm wanting to learn the flute one note at a time so I can fully understand theory AND learn to play. And I'm having a really hard time. Thank you for asking this question! – Melanie Shebel Nov 12 '16 at 21:45
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Apart from using open strings for either scales or chords, it could work, but the beauty of the way guitars are laid out is that anything learned in one 'position' - as in a 3/4 fret window - can be moved up and down to produce the same in another key. As in using the 5-8 fret box for the pent minor scale pattern, or even a riff,(in A here) the same fingering and strings can be used in the 8-11 fret box, (in C here). So, learning just one key at a time might even hinder the knowledge of that sort of idea.

My guess is that each time you didn't give it enough time. Learning songs is fine, but to move on, one needs to be aware that certain things keep re-occurring in those songs. To take a simple example, chords A,D and E crop up together in loads of songs. Instead of learning the order of those chords as they come in a certain song, get to understand when the E changes to an A, etc., so in the next song in A, you'll be able to feel when a change is going to happen, and guess which chord will come next. It's a simple example, as I said, but you'll build on from that, given time.

It's basically the same with riffs and melodies. Once you know certain scales, you'll recognise which one is being used, and you'll 'just know' what to play.

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Here's a logical, step by step approach.

Pick a key that is (mostly) easy for you to sing in. Learn the 3 major chords in that key, and play every easy childhood and folk song in that key. Look them up on the internet and follow with voice and fingers. Find notation and see how the notes you sing relate to the chords. Then play the actual tunes. You'll see you use only the notes in your chords. Give yourself a few weeks, and try to do the same with old songs you've heard and don't have the chords for.

Next step is to learn a different key and its major chords. then do the above, in the new key. Sing and play the same songs but in the new key.

Then you can start to explore the minor chords of a given key. find tunes that use minors. rinse and repeat.

The riffs and chord progression of more modern music may not fit so nicely into this mould. So start with trad. tunes, and work up!

  • I think this is actually how I learnt: blues progression and lots of other tunes in A, then in E, then in C.. started spotting the pattern or intervals .. boom. – user2808054 Nov 3 '16 at 16:32
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I think the most important thing for many aspiring guitar students is to enjoy playing the instrument. If it becomes too complicated, it's easier to give up. I am pulling for you to make the 5th time taking up guitar - the one where you find so much joy in the process, that you won't be able to put down your instrument.

There is nothing inherently wrong with your idea of leaning heavily into one key and learning to play chord progressions and riffs in that key before moving to another common guitar key. Others have stressed that to become a true "musician" you will need to be well versed in more than one key.

But you did say "one key at a time" and I don't see that as a major mistake if you don't need to make a living as a professional guitarist. Realistically most guitarist rarely if ever play in certain keys because the open chords for certain keys are few and far between. You won't see many guitar arrangements written for the key of E flat for example. I don't have a clue how to play an E flat chord in open or first position (nor do I feel the need to ever learn to play any of the chords in the key of E flat).

While it is true that scale patterns are movable and the same pattern will work for every scale if you can play it at the right place on the neck, the idea that as a guitarist you MUST to learn every key is not useful in my opinion.

I like to teach beginning guitarist by focusing on one key at a time in the beginning and then get them playing songs they enjoy in that key so that they can discover the joy of making music without making it more complicated than it needs to be! Once they can learn the three major chords and a couple of minor chords in one key, with the help of a capo, they can play at least a basic version of most of their favorite songs, in a key they could sing them in. After they get comfortable with that key and develop the requisite passion by enjoying learning to play many songs, then we can move on to other keys and learn the chords for those keys.

I will agree that in more advanced guitar training it is helpful to learn scales in multiple keys simultaneously so you can see how a particular scale pattern can be used in any key. So yes - when you get to the point where you want to be able to improvise and accompany other musicians on the fly, regardless of what key they are playing in, you will want to focus on learning how the licks based on scales can be played in any key.

My go to key is G - because that key fits my voice, the chords are easy, and I have used it more than any other so I instinctively know where to find the notes in that key on my guitar. But having said that, I can front my own band - but I would never make it as a hired guitarist for someone else's band because they might want to play some songs in other keys and then I would face a learning curve. But that's fine with me because I don't aspire to be a guitarist in someone else's band. And if I hire guitarist to play in my band - I can say "I play this song in the key of G" and if they are a pro, they will say "no problem".

So if you just want to have fun and play songs for your own enjoyment and the entertainment of your friends (or front your own band so you can decide what key to play the songs in), you can do that by only learning the chord progressions and licks and scales in just a few of your favorite keys. And I see nothing wrong with starting with the key of E if you like that key. But it might not be the best path to becoming a professional session guitarist.

The most important thing is to keep it fun. If it ain't (isn't) fun, it ain't (isn't) worth doing! Here's hoping that for you - the fifth time is the charm!

  • 'F flat' was probably one of the first chords you and most guitarists ever learned to play! Aka 'E' in open position!! Playing big band arrangements of standards often finds one playing in Eb and similar 'guitar-non-friendly' keys. You'll find that some songs you won't be happy singing in G. That key only fits your voice when the two ranges are similar. – Tim Nov 1 '16 at 7:47
  • @Tim Good catch - meant E flat. Edited. thanks. I don't play anything in guitar non-friendly keys. I play in a rock country pop folk band and anything I need to play can be played in guitar friendly keys. No need to accommodate brass, strings and woodwinds in the genres I play. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 3 '16 at 19:45
  • I play in all sorts of ensembles, and often wonder about appropriate keys. Reggae in Bb for a guitar based band, rock with a big band in Eb. Always ask why, never get a sensible answer...Often wondered why guitarists don't retune to Eb, maybe that's why SRV and Hendrix did, not sure... – Tim Nov 3 '16 at 21:03
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To answer the question, yes, it's what I'm doing and it's a great way to concentrate on what's fundamentaly being added to your knowledge. By the time you feel you have mastered one key your knowledge of the fretboard will be so instinctive that transferring to other keys will be much smoother. I am currently doing this with the key of Cmaj, which I think is the easiest due to the fact that there are no sharps/flats in the scale. Other than this, I see no reason why any key would be easier or more difficult than any other. Hope this helps someone

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I'm the OP and just wanted to swing back to share that I actually committed to this concept but started with the key of G.

Focusing on just one key has helped my mind to be able to grasp guitar theory so much more. And at this point I'm very comfortable knowing what and where all the chords are and how using a certain progression lends to a certain feel or genre.

And that in knowing the chords, knowing the "lead" notes and creating licks becomes silly-easy.

Bottom line: now I know what to play.

I'm not a shredder and have no desire to be in a band but I do enjoy playing so much more now.

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Further to Jimmy Ando's reply: Fixing on one key will work fine for that key (of course).

However the great thing about Guitar is that apart from open notes, they're a 'relative' instrument. So rather than think about a C chord as being a finger pattern, try working out what the intervals are in the chord and see that you can get the same thing with different shapes.. eg an A shaped chord (002220), shifted up the neck 3 frets, is a C.

Up two more frets ... it's a D. At this point you're a third of the way up the neck, playing no open strings. So anything you learnt for that shape of chord will still work in the new position.

I'd advocate learning to not use open strings ifyou can avoid it, so that what you learn becomes completely transferrable to other keys. there will be exceptions of course, for example playing an E chord sounds much more full with open strings.

Also learn the penatatonic scale on guitar. It's a shape based around root notes which you can apply in any key, and effectively enables you to noodle out a solo without being concerned about shaprs and flats etc. It;s just a shape on the fretboard, so note names become pretty-much irrelevant (unless you want to communicate what you're playingto someone else)

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