"Light The Ignition of Transposition..."

Jordan Warford here, Editorial Manager for Guitar Tips.

Every so often, we decide to dive into a new aspect of playing guitar that many are either afraid of, or just simply have no idea what it's all about. Today, we're going to tackle one of the more feared issues evolving around guitar... Transposition.

Join us as we teach you the most simplistic and easy ways to transpose your music.

Getting That Riff In Your Favorite Key!

Where to get started.

How many times have we composed a riff that we absolutely love, or perhaps found a song that we really enjoy playing and wanted to put it into a new, original song and truly make it ours? Chances are that we've all wanted to at least try it out once or twice but always came across one roadblock... Keys.

As mentioned in our last article, the probability that two riffs will be in the same key is very low if you are writing a lot of songs or wish to link two well known songs together. This is where you need to transpose one of those riffs so you can connect them together and put them in that song.

Another scenario is that you just wrote an awesome riff that you envision going into one of your band's songs... The only problem is that it's in the wrong key! With transposing, you can still use that riff and play along with the rest of the band.

If you're a true band nerd, like myself, you have probably been around transposition since the days of Jr. High or Middle School. Now, if you're still like me, you didn't have two clicks on how to do it either. I was always amazed to see how my teacher would take a trumpet part and transpose it so I could play it on my sax and still be in the right key!

With guitar, this is invaluable. You can take a sax part and transpose it to your guitar. If you happen to have a sax player around, you can now play along with that sax and still be in the proper key.

One of the most unique things about playing guitar is that we have a number of tools available to us to use for easy transposition. Many other musicians envy us for this and call us cheaters in the game of music theory, however, if you can use it... Why not?

The tools that you can use.

One of the most common tools used to transpose music on the guitar is the capo. The capo is essentially a piece of rubber that is glued onto two pieces of metal with a spring placed in between. When clasped onto the neck of your guitar and placed behind a fret, it acts as a new nut (AKA the "zero" nut.) This new nut raises the pitch of your guitar, therefore changing the key.

Most guitarists use them so they can make really complicated chords into easy open chord shapes. This is where the whole joke about cheating comes in. Instead of actually practicing those really hard chords and getting your technique down, you can transpose that chord using the capo and turn it into an open chord shape such as an E Major or an A and still have the same chord.

While I don't recommend that you always do that because it's always good to know how to play a song if your capo breaks, it's great for live performances where you want to minimize the risk of messing up a complicated chord. If you're a lead guitarist, you can still use a capo but in all honesty, it's far easier to find the key that everyone else is playing in relative to the capo and just use the scale that suites the song best.

In most cases, it's actually quicker for a lead guitarist not to use a capo and just find a scale. Switching a capo around the neck of your guitar can cost valuable seconds between songs.

So enough talk, you want to know how this works, right? Ok, lets start by looking at the chart below:


...So lets put this chart into practice. Suppose you are playing a song in the key of A and the chords that you are playing are A, D, and F#. The problem is, you want to play along with the rest of your band and they are playing in the key of B. Simply look at your chart and find the A chord, which is in the first column. Then look to see what capo number B falls under. In this case, it's fret number 2, so you place your capo on number two.

Continue to play the same chord shapes as you were before. The difference this time is that A, D and F# have now turned into B, E, and G#. You have just transposed a chord progression!

If you're unsure of where to start so you can transpose those chords, follow these quick steps:

  1. Find what key you are currently in.
  2. Use that note (for example A) to locate your position on the chart.
  3. Then move over to the right and find the note of the key you are looking for (ex. B.)
  4. Take a look at what fret number that note falls under and place your capo there.

Now that we know how to use the capo to transpose, there are a few techniques to get the best tone while using a capo. Looking past its theoretical use... The capo is not unlike your pick. There are tips on taking care of it and which ones that you should get over another, because there are differences.

First off, it would probably help you if you knew what one of these things looked like. This is one of the more popular models made by Kyser.

Photo courtesy of http://www.yourdictionary.com/images/ahd/jpg/A4capo.jpg

Most capos are in the same price range and it comes down to personal preference. Be prepared to pay around $17 USD for something that should last you a lifetime. Kyser and Shubb are the leaders in this industry and have made a product that is absolutely superb. Jim Dunlop is also on the scene with some honorable mentions but this editor recommends one capo over all of the rest... The Shubb capo.

Shubb has a unique trait that isn't found on other capos... Tension adjustment. You see, when you place something that's spring powered onto your strings, you're bound to end up pulling them sharp... And playing out of tune isn't something that we enjoy.

Shubb capos have a little knob where you can slightly release a bit of that tension and your guitar will go back into tune. You can check out Shubb capos by clicking here.

When using a capo, you want to place it inline with the fret you are putting it behind and keep it roughly a mm away from the fret (see picture above for proper reference.) Do not, I repeat, do not place a capo directly in between two frets, it's always closest to the fret in which you wish you place the capo on.

Every now and then you should place a few drops of light oil on the pivot point of the capo to keep it functioning properly.

There's a lot of newer alternatives to capos that are now on the market. There are capos especially for 12 string guitars, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or both. However, my new favorite gadgets include capos that can give you drop D tunings and capos that only cover half of the strings... These are called partial capos. You can use them alone or with another capo.

They can give you really exotic tunings in a jiffy, without the need of a tuner and a lot of patience. It's perfect for the guitarist who writes a lot of songs with weird tunings but only has one guitar to perform on. I personally use them for the enjoyment of the beautiful sounds you can get from them.

Putting It All Together

Now that we have the tools, how about you hear what it sounds like? Here are some quick compositions that anyone can do. Notice how the sounds differ from one another depending on where the capo is placed. It's a lot of fun and I encourage you to try new chords using the capo in different locations and see what you come up with... You might just surprise yourself!

* Relative to the capo on the 5th fret.

Here's how it sounds:

*Relative to capo on the 2nd fret.

Here's how it sounds:

...You may have noticed my improv near the end of both riffs. This is my way of showing you that you can do this too and it's not that hard! Be yourself and you're bound to make music that inspires.


Well, we have come to the part of the newsletter where we rap things up yet again. I truly hope that you feel more confident in your abilities as a musician and no matter how daunting the task of transposition may seem to you at this point in time, I encourage you to continue to try! It will be well worth it to you in the long run.

To your credit, it isn't easy picking this stuff up if you don't know a little bit about music theory. Over the coming months, we're going to show you some of the inside tricks of music theory that any guitarist can use. Next week we'll approach the subject from a different angle and also give you a brand new challenge to work on.

On another guitar related note, my apologies for the lack of video and audio in the last two newsletters. Things have been a little hectic around here as of late but I assure you that you can look forward to more video and MP3's in the near future!

Until next time, keep on picking!



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