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Kind of like how the piano is biased towards C major. I'm wondering if the guitar makes G major and its associated chords easy to play.

In a Spotify research article they found that G is the most used key (followed by C major). In the article they theorize that most compositions are done on either a piano or guitar.

From that article:

So, why is G major the most popular key signature in Spotify’s catalog? It’s likely because most popular Western contemporary music instruments are biased towards certain keys.

They conclude that G is easy to play on both guitar and piano. By why is G so popular on guitar? The tuning is EADGBE, so it could also be C major for example. I personally thought that C major would be the most popular because its diatonic chords are easy to play on both piano and guitar.

  • Found it! Spotify had this to say about why G major is more common than C major. – user45266 Aug 30 at 4:51
  • Are you asking specifically about chords, or playing in general? – Tim Aug 30 at 11:48
  • @Tim chords mainly, but also the guitar's open tuning can suggest a key. I personally like to play in the key of C, in the key of G, and A minor bc I can use the open strings on them. – foreyez Aug 30 at 15:45
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Another factor needs considering: not just each chord and how easy/hard it is to play, but the transitions from one to another.

I don't believe that key G is easiest. The I IV and V are G C and D. Looking at the plane each hand shape has to be in, there's a lot of movement between each.

I've always found that key E is easiest for beginners, who are able to play several songs in a couple of weeks, using three chords. I IV and V here are E A and B7. All are in the same plane, and there are common notes which can be pressed by the same fingers - thus there's fewer moves needed to change chords.

When other chords present themselves - mainly ii iii and vi, it throws the whole argument open. Why would key G be best, with Bm?

The question is flawed unless it's established whether we're discussing three chord wonders only, or pieces in a key with any appropriate chords. And popular isn't really a synonym for easy. There are actually a lot of classical pieces based in key E and A, probably because those two notes can be played open as bass notes easily. Genre will also be a deciding factor.

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    well pop songs. so the I IV V are the most important. I don't think E is easiest as the B chord is somewhat hard. Good point about Bm (iii) in the key of G, but pop is usually the vi and ii so that'd be Em and Am, which are famous chord shapes. – foreyez Aug 30 at 5:56
  • @foreyez - Of course the B chord is hard - really it needs to be barred. That's why I use B7 instead. – Tim Aug 30 at 6:05
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    still you can't compare a E,A,B7 to a G,C,D. every beginner is taught G,C,D on the very first lesson. B7? c'mon. – foreyez Aug 30 at 6:10
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    @foreyez - having taught guitar for 50 odd yrs, my go-to chords in the first couple of lessons has always been E A and B7. I tried G C D and all the stuff other publications tell us is the way to go. It was always a slower progress, so I ploughed my own furrow, with better results. I don't like making rods for my own (or anyone else's) back, so despite seemingly mounting evidence, I'll take no notice! Not every beginner is taught G C D on the very first lesson. Depends whether teacher has thought things through. Then they might - or might not. – Tim Aug 30 at 6:18
  • @foreyez - I answered this on the premise of chords. Maybe it needs deleting? Although the classical reference stands true for keys E andA. And since B7 is the V7 of E, it's never going to be a problem. E7 and A7, yes. – Tim Aug 30 at 6:22
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One thing to consider is that the open strings really only matter to guitarists on the less advanced side of the learning curve. Typically, guitarists care about open strings for two things: open chords (you know, two-three fingers and a bit of muting), and harmonics. Open chord voicings are what beginners use the open strings for (not that there's anything wrong with that, though).

Anyway, in G major, the I chord, IV chord, and V chord are G, C, and D. All of those have nice, easy open voicings.

In C major, those same chords are C, F, and G. C and G are fine, but people who play open chord voicings often note that the F major chord is one of the most difficult ones to play. So, at least by the I-IV-V metric, C major's not as easy as G major for open chords.

Actually, D major is another possibility: D, G, and A are all pretty simple (especially compared to F).

E major also is another popular guitar key, for good reason: most guitarists learn pretty early on how to play E, A, and B.

A major, too. A, D, and E are prioritized chords as well.

Not sure whether you could say that G is the best key for guitar. But it certainly ranks pretty highly on the list, especially against C major because of the difficulty of the F major chord. Most chords in G major (not just the I, IV, and V) are pretty easy to play, and by the time a guitarist learns about chords going much farther outside of the key, they can probably play in just about whatever key they so desire.

Keep in mind, also, that this is within a very specific context of generally harmonically simple songs, and in different genres, the easy keys may vary (as an example, Blues, with its 7th chords, would have different entry-level difficulties for its 12 keys).


These are the types of chords I'm talking about, for reference:

Beginner

Major

  • D major is a good candidate, but E major and A major don't fit the guitar's standard opening tuning. – foreyez Aug 30 at 5:10
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    @foreyez E and A are the two bottom strings... and the rest of the notes are pretty easily playable. Both are no more than three fingers (perhaps looking at some diagrams would help - I might find the time to add those). Are you also aware that guitarists commonly mute some strings for these kinds of voicings? – user45266 Aug 30 at 6:06
  • no I mean the notes for E are: E,F#,G#,A,B,C#,D# ... and A are: A,B,C#,D,E,F#,G#,A. but the default tuning is EADGBE. So some of the notes in open tuning would be outside those keys. – foreyez Aug 30 at 6:14
  • look at the ii and vi in G major, Em and Am are arguably the easiest minor chords to make. and ii and vi are played more often than the iii. see here hooktheory.com/blog/… – foreyez Aug 30 at 6:19
  • Noticed how every single one shows as root position. Can't find a lot wrong with using 2nd inversion on a lot of them. And that B in the last row? What's the point? – Tim Aug 30 at 13:57
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I'm suspicious of that Spotify survey, not least because the chart was laid out by someone who includes A♯ minor and D♯ major in the list of keys.

My experience tells me that while some genres (country perhaps) might tend towards guitar-friendly keys - not because the chord shapes are 'easier' but because of the characteristic licks that use open strings - most songs are pitched to suit the vocalist's range. And those studio guys didn't bat an eyelid at keys like D♭ or B.

Maybe if you only listen to second-rate Ed Sheeran wannabees the picture is different :-)

Incidentally, a lot of untutored pianists gravitate towards playing in F#. If you stick to the black notes, a whole lot more random stuff fits. It's the same idea as guitarists copping out with a pentatonic scale.

  • Stevie Wonder used a lot of F♯. Of course, he was blind, but I'm just using that as an example of what you mentioned. – user45266 Aug 30 at 17:23
  • @user45266 - Stevie was blind? Why, what's happened now..?! – Tim Aug 30 at 18:11
  • @Tim :) Last I checked, he's still blind... is blind, my bad – user45266 Aug 30 at 20:05
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I'm skeptical of the article you cited, but there's a lot of upside to basing a song on G. Not necessarily G Major mind you, but having G as the root of a song written in a minor key, or mode or something other than the traditional Major scale.

One reason I like G as my key center is that it's near, but not at the bottom of the range of the instrument. I can establish a good key center, but I have the ability to go down to the m6 and resolve up to my root. That can create some nice effects.

But, there are more, and arguably better reasons to chose key centers. As someone else mentioned, you need to accommodate the other instruments in the band, usually the vocalist. And if you're playing with a horn/sax player, you're gonna play in Eb and Bb a lot. 😉

One benefit of the guitar, however, is that unlike a brass instrument or a vocalist, you can dramatically change the range by changing your tuning. Eb is pretty reachable for most guitars as is. Going to other keys is possible, but it' probably going to require different strings and a setup on the guitar. That's a bit extreme, but I have a friend who plays in some jazz groups who bought an inexpensive guitar, and had is restrung and setup for Bb. Works for him...

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I am actually not too enamored with G major since trying to accommodate this chord's purity pushes the intonation of a guitar way into awkward region. Its base notes on the E strings are a minor third off from the open G string, and the other open intervals don't help. So intonation of G major tends to be a prime source of conflicts with getting other important chords and scales to sound well.

  • Interesting. I've always thought beginners struggle with the simple open D more than anything else when it comes to tuning. They always manage to push the D on the B string out, or they were tuning using open to 4/5 fret & the 4 confuses their ear, so it's flat. There seems to be no happy medium on that chord for me. – Tetsujin Aug 30 at 8:11

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