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Background

I'm a novice. I'm currently learning to play and sing a "country"-style song on guitar.

I'm playing it in G major.

The melody is just over one octave, from E3 though G4.

That's difficult for me to sing: because I seem to have a bass voice range, from G2 through E4 -- so G4 is too high for me.

Anyway, the original song is recorded in the key of A (two semitones above G).

And my (amateur) teacher performs, but doesn't profess much music theory: so I'm asking you here.

Question

In the movie The Blues Brothers, when they're at the night-hall where "we got both kinds (of music): we got country and western", they decide to sing Rawhide -- and the dialog includes:

  • Remember the theme from Rawhide?
  • The old favourite. Rowdy Yates.
  • What key?
  • "A". Good country key.
  • "Rawhide" in "A".

Is it true that "A" is "a good country" key: or just a joke?

Or meaningless, e.g. every key is a good country key?

If it is a meaningful statement, why is "A" a good country key: what's good about it?

5

A lot of country stuff is written on guitar to be played on guitar. A is just about perfect for playing, as it will use the I, IV and V of A - A, D and E in open position, making the three open bottom strings the three roots of those chords. This is easy to play, and sound good - and means that more people will be able to perform those songs. If they were written in, say, Bb, including Eb and F, or Ab, including Db and Eb, first everything would have to be barred, and secondly, a lot of players would not bother with those songs, preferring more simple stuff.

All this, though, is subject to the range of the song, and the range of the singer's voice. It can't always work. Guitars can always be re-tuned so they play those open chords, but effectively are then in a different concert pitch. Tuning down a semitone and still using those open A, D and E chords means that the song will then be in Ab, which may make some horn players happier.

The other 'country key' would be G, giving G, C and D, again all 'open' chords on guitar.

4

I'd say it's probably a joke in that context, but it contains a kernel of truth: A might be the easiest key to play on a guitar for simple progressions. (Maybe that's part of the joke.) You can play simple barre chords on the 5th fret, and everything is nice and accessible and almost entirely symmetrical, and you just have to move in ascending order to play most of the chords in a typical country style A Major progression. Very little shifting or changing positions required. Same is true to a large extent for A major off the 2nd fret. It's a very accessible, centrally located key.

See here:

A is also an open string and you have your 5th right there on the E string and your 4th on the D string, making A in general a nice, centrally located place to play off on a guitar.

Same is true to a large extent for D and G Major - easy, accessible guitar keys.

Perhaps country style vocals also very sound good in A - that is something I don't have the expertise to opine on.

FYI, a great deal of blues is also in A or D or G, for similar reasons.

G is also fairly easy key on guitar. Compare to a key like F or Bb or Eb, which are usually considered 'hard keys' on the guitar, but are very popular jazz keys because they are easier, more accessible keys for most saxophone and clarinet players.

Broadly speaking, IMO it's fair to say that certain genres tend to use certain keys more because of the instruments typically used in those genres, and the technical expertise of the musicians that typically play those genres.

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"A" plays well on fiddle and guitar. It's actually less than fabulous for the brass and winds making up a good part of the Blues Brother's band, but then even according to movie plot they haven't been out of the loop for all that long, so the key is probably "whatever" territory to them.

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The 'A' referred to in The Blues Brothers is in fact A minor, but A minor is still an easy open chord to play on guitar. The theme for Rawhide was written by Dimitri Timken, a classically-trained, Russian-born composer of film music, not a country and western musician at all.

A quick survey of songs by some iconic country performers reveals some interesting information. Take Hank Williams. I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry: E major; Lovesick Blues: F major; Hey Good Looking: C major; Cold, Cold Heart: D major; Your Cheatin' Heart: C major. Jimmie Rodgers sang Waiting For a Train and He's in the Jail House Now in C major. Buck Owens sang Together Again in C# major, although in this clip

he's strumming the chords in D. What can we conclude from this little survey? The key of A is far from ubiquitous in 'big name' country music.

So, is A (major or minor) a good country key? Yes, because it is simple, and country is, in essence, simple music.

Why does 'Duck' Dunn say 'A. Good country key'? It's just a joke - "We really have no good reason to play this song..."

  • Yes, his guitar is tuned down a semitone, for some reason. – Tim Apr 29 '18 at 9:37
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    Probably to poke fun at the squeaky-clean moral righteousness associated with the country music stereotype - Why again bring sociology and psychology into things. Please leave your personal stereotypes and biases out of posts about music. Very simply understood, the joke has nothing to with that at all. It's simply saying 'we really have no good reason at all to include this song but I'm making up a nonsense reason.' That is the joke - nothing more needed. You did the same thing on the post about blues. I object here, as I objected there. – Stinkfoot Apr 29 '18 at 21:06
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    Yes, because it is simple, and country is, in essence, simple music Simple music can be played in many keys, particularly C,G,D,A and E. – Stinkfoot Apr 29 '18 at 21:10
  • @Stinkfoot easiest just to downvote – Doktor Mayhem May 2 '18 at 16:53
  • @DoktorMayhem - I notice on a sister site when downvoting, a sign flashes up saying something to the effect of 'how could this be improved'. Why isn't that facility or something similar available here? – Tim May 4 '18 at 11:03

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