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As an example, the key of G is played alot due to the guitar’s default tuning of EADGBE. In the context of fingerstyle/chord-melody guitar it’s nice to be able to drone on open strings that are in the key.

So whenever I play a song in a certain key, esp. for fingerstyle guitar, should I make sure my open strings are tuned to that key as well? (and use a capo and/or change tuning of strings if needed). For example, let’s say I wanted to play a song in the key of C# major.

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    It's also just as easy to play in A, D, E minor, A minor, and it can be easy to play in F#, B, and other keys depending on what you're doing. So I'm not sure what your question is. If you're asking whether keys are often chosen to be ones that are easier to play on the guitar, then absolutely yes. That's true about all instruments. At the same time, keys are just as likely to be chosen based on the one that sounds the best or fits best in the vocal range, and if that makes it hard to play then so be it. – Todd Wilcox Aug 26 at 20:52
  • I think I kind of see where this is headed, but are you asking about whether you should always have open strings match the key or not? Because if so, that seems pretty subjective. Every guitar player has a different philosophy on that. You could ask about the differences between playing with open strings and playing without them, I guess, if you felt it wasn't well-documented on this site... Clarification would be greatly appreciated. – user45266 Aug 27 at 0:16
  • @user45266 I thought for fingerstyle it would be common to do that that's why I asked. but if not, then it becomes subjective. – foreyez Aug 27 at 1:55
  • In general, rock, pop, funk, R&B, etc. guitarists do not retune their open strings for specific keys. Blues, country & western, and maybe bluegrass players can be more likely to use alternate tunings, especially open tunings for slide. Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin used alternate tunings on several songs, including Kashmir and When The Levee Breaks. But at least for Kashmir, the tuning came first, then the song was written to work with that tuning, not the other way around. For Levee, he used an open tuning to make slide playing easier. So generally the guitar is not retuned to fit a key. – Todd Wilcox Aug 27 at 3:11
  • If you wanted to play a song in C# Major (not an open string key) you could put a capo on the 6th fret and play the song using the chord set from the key of G Major. With capo on 6th fret, if you finger an open 1st position G chord, you will be playing a chord that will sound out as a C#. So you will be able to use all the open strings normally available in a key of G arrangement but be playing notes that manifest in the key of C# Major. For an easy reference for how capo positions correspond to different keys see this (music.stackexchange.com/a/30935/16897) – Rockin Cowboy Aug 27 at 16:03
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It is clear that some keys will have many open string notes in them. You will find that much classical guitar music is written in such keys. This is due to the desire to have open string resonances contribute to the volume of the instrument. However on the electric this is not as much of an issue. In fact on an electric open strings can generate unwanted feedback. So the motive for what to play is different in each case. You had mentioned a motive of having open strings to drone on. Yes when arranging a chord melody using open strings can (1) make the chord melody easier to play and (2) allow for some beautiful effects. Kenny Burrell's chord melodies I find quite beautiful and he will often tap out a rhythm on a low string while playing melody lines or chord melodies on the top strings (but that doesn't mean he's using open string keys all the time, he's just really good).

I am not sure what specific thing motivates your question, but I'd rewrite the tune in an open string key in certain cases. A lot of Jazz standards in the Real Book written by horn players are in Eb or Bb since those are the keys the horns read in. But there is no reason you need to follow that. Take Anthropology by Charlie Parker (in Bb) and arrange it for guitar in C. If you are playing with a group it's no problem. I play all of Parker's tunes in the Bb Real Book key and it doesn't bother me. But then again I'm not playing chord melody. As for that, you do not need to change key to play a beautiful chord melody. You can use the movable chord forms and not worry about open strings. However, some choices will be out of reach. If you really want that open drone available to you then I think you really do want to transpose to another key.

If your are arranging tunes to be played on a classical then I would be more adamant about doing it in an open string key to maximize the resonance opportunities provided by the instrument. One final point, you can create those resonance opportunities by fingering all six strings even when you are only playing a few notes. For example, the E string will not likely vibrate much when you play Bb. But if you use a full barre and grab the F on the E string then yes, it will resonate. this is because you've essentially tuned that string to F. I use this trick all the time to get more and better resonances. I will finger the whole chord even if the sheet music doesn't ask for it. This, of course, requires more skill and will reduce mobility. It's fine for some classical pieces that are not too quick but would be harder on fast jazz tunes. This is the same thing as using the index finger as a capo. So if you have a reason to stick to a key that does not have any open strings you may want to use the capo to help with this. But I am only addressing this from the point of view of playing classical guitar where the resonance is critical to a good full sound. I would never (and have never) used a capo for this. If your interest is in being able to grad an easy open string bass line then yes, either transpose the song to an open string compatible key or use the capo.

  • Why not use the capo? I didn't understand that part. Thanks. – aparente001 Aug 27 at 4:38
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    @aparente001 -- you don't really need a capo unless you need open string pitches that aren't in your usual tuning, and you can at least interpret any piece of music without open strings. Some styles (e.g. jazz) involve so many keys and so much chromaticism that there is no point in using a capo. The only thing I have used a capo for in recent or distant memory is to hold down the strings when I am doing a setup. – ex nihilo Aug 27 at 6:05
  • @aparente001. I didn't suggest not using it. In fact I do recommend it at the end if you really need it. I personally don't like it so that's just a preference. And I've never seen a classical guitarist use one. – ggcg Aug 27 at 10:28
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    @aparente001 The capo is your friend if you are not an accomplished classical guitarist. I use it often to transpose songs or more commonly to change the chord set to those of a key that uses more of the open strings in order to afford the ability to use open strings as part of my guitar arrangement. – Rockin Cowboy Aug 27 at 15:50
  • @ggcg - That is interesting. I will ask a related question. – aparente001 Aug 28 at 2:11

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