January 11, 2009

#170: Best jamming keys

Joe from Indiana writes:

I have started going to some jams, and have a problem when it's my turn to sing. I know the best keys for my songs. Some are easier for me to sing in, say, B flat, but some people can't play in that key and don't know how to capo. In an unfamiliar group you don't know the players' skill levels. Would you just go ahead and sing in that key and not worry about it, or avoid those songs and sing something in a key that everyone can probably play in?

Joe,

Before settling on a key, I recommend you ask everyone "If I do it in __, would that work OK for you?" If people say no or look blank, then I suggest picking a nearby easier key. A guide for that is below.

Bb is not a problem for a guitar player with a capo. They can play "as though in G" with the capo on the 3rd fret, and that's fine. It's the non-capoing instruments (fiddle, mando, bass) that would struggle with Bb.

A is so near Bb, and is such a more user-friendly and common key, that is a much better choice for a song that you'd prefer in Bb.

The most user-friendly keys for non-capoing instruments are:
G    D    A

Harder, but common:
C      E (especially for guitar players)

Hard but somewhat common among more experienced players, since many bluegrass greats have used these keys, causing people to learn them:
B     Bb     and to some degree, F

Every other key is better avoided: both hard and uncommon.

So that gives an idea of degree of difficulty, and depending on whom you're playing with, and how hard the chord progression is (number of different chords used, and frequency of changing), you might venture down the list of keys.

It's a good idea to scope out at home what key is optimum for you for each song, and what other key might be a good workable alternative, that people find easier to play.

Remember, a guitar player can match where you put your capo and what key you "think" you're playing in, and it works fine. It's the non-capoing instruments that take more careful consideration.

Hope that helps,

Pete