I am playing bass for a church retreat. The guitar players will change keys by moving their capos. What is the easiest way for me to tell what the new key I should be playing in on the bass. I know the answer is learn music theory but looking for a quick way on the fly. Thank you

  • Do you know your open guitar chord shapes? Meaning if the guitarist is playing an open c chord could you recognize it be site?
    – b3ko
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 17:25
  • SOme but not confidently in the midst of a practice.
    – gamwaco
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 17:36
  • 3
    If it's a practice just ask "what key are we in". A capo is just shifting the shapes so you can play easier shapes in a different key. It doesn't magically put you in a specific key. If you can't hear the key, ask.
    – b3ko
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 17:40
  • @b3ko - I've played with many people who do not know what key the capo takes them into.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 18:06
  • @Tim would they know the key without the capo in that case? like we are in C but capo second fret...ah ok, yeah we are in D?
    – b3ko
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 18:10

4 Answers 4


Don't try to spend (waste?) time watching them. get used to listening for what must be the I chord bar - often but not always the first- and find that note a.s.a.p. It's what I do at open mic nights, and once you have that, the key is apparent. Play a couple of random notes, and work towards the root. It may take a couple of weeks, but you'll get quicker and more accurate. In fact, when someone at an open mic tries to tell me what key (I'm often on bass), it's best to just nod, and try the aforementioned method. It's safer!

  • Haha, yeah. I'm one of those players who will tell you the wrong key. Why? Maybe I'm in open G tuning, but have a capo on the 2nd fret and I'm playing in C, so actually in the key of D. If I'm thinking about it, I'll tell you it's in D. Or I might forget I'm capo'd and tell you it's in C. Or if I'm really not paying attention, I'll tell you how I'm tuned and tell you it's in G. Sorry for being one of those guys. Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 19:44
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    @WayneConrad - it's players like you that have made me what I am. Thanks.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 19:56

I think if you combine the answer from Tim about watching and listening with the answer from Jimmy about the relationship between the chords, I IV V etc you will be fine. I just started playing bass in a band where they use capos a lot and speak in French and don't often know what key they are in or use solfege to communicate, its in 're' mineur

I'm converting all my chord charts to just I IV V etc. then its just a matter of finding the I and off we go

Hope this helps I'm new to the forum and look forward to learning from all of you


You don't even need to know the key. Just see on which fret they place the capo, and play everything the same amount of frets to the right.

  • ok so if they put the capo on the second fret then first string open is a G; but how do I convert the chords they were playing in a Key of C to that of G?
    – gamwaco
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 17:39
  • I think I didn't understand. Considering standard tuning E A D G B E, if they put a capo on, lets say, 3rd fret, than the new open strings are G C F Bb D G, right? Lets suppose the original chords were E G A, and you played this on the top string 0 3 5. Now you just play it 3 frets to the right: 3 6 8
    – coconochao
    Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 18:11

Is there a cord chart from which you are playing? If not then it's time to write out a chart of what you're playing on the bass.

For example, the chart (for guitar) has capo 1 and the chords are in 'G' (G, C, D). In this case your chord chart would be one step higher as that is what is actually being played - the I, IV & V chords would be Ab, Db and Eb so that is what you would play.

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