Try this trick to accompany any song

Let’s face it, a lot of chords on the guitar are quite hard. Take, for instance F on the guitar, equivalent to Bb on the ukulele, which requires a barre and a lot of pressure on all strings. What’s worse, F is a very frequent chord in the very common keys of C and F. In this post, I tell you a trick that professionals use (well, at least the Beatles did) but don’t talk much about.

First some statistics. According to this article, the distribution of key signatures of the millions of songs on Spotify is the pie chart on the right. Major keys dominate, likely because they are perceived as “brighter” or “happier” than minor keys, and within them the most popular are G (10.7%), and C (10.2%), followed at some distance by D at 8.7%, A at 6.1%, and C# (Db) at 6.0%. This other article breaks down the statistics by genres, partly to try and explain the apparent popularity of Db, and concludes that this is likely an artifact caused by the analysis software, which tends to classify spoken speech as Db. There is a lot of plain spoken words in Funk, Hip Hop, and R&B, and it shows in the statistics. If we ignore Db as an artifact, the next most common key is F (5.3%).

One reason that has been given for the popularity of these key signatures is that either they are easiest on the piano because they involve few sharps or flats (C has none, F and G use just one), or they are easiest on the guitar, which has a standard tuning of open G6 (also known as “E tuning” due to the 6th string). The popularity of A major, then, would come from the ease of putting a capo on the second fret and using standard key of G chord shapes, or because the most common chords in that key (A, D, E) are easy to play in standard guitar tuning. I feel the relative unpopularity of the key of F is due to how hard this chord it is on the guitar, with the consequent difficulty to make it sound good.

And yet, “Yesterday” by the Beatles, is originally in the key of F (so is “Hey Jude,” but “Yesterday” is accompanied by guitar while “Hey Jude” uses a piano). They made it sound nice and mellow by tuning the guitar to F6 instead, that is, lowering the pitch of all strings by two half-steps. And this is the trick I’m proposing here.

Lower the pitch of all strings by two half-steps so it is in open F6 (also known as “D tuning”), then put a capo on the second fret to get back to standard tuning. This allows you to do the following:

  • With the capo on, you can make the main chords of the key of G major quite easily: G, C, and D (D7). You can also make those of the key of D: D, G, and A (A7). Going one or two more steps clockwise on the circle of fifths, you can also do those in the keys of A: A, D, and E (E7), and E: E, A, and B7 (plain B is hard, however). All of those involve easy fingerings without barres.
  • If you now remove the capo and use the exact same fingerings, you get the chords in the keys of F, C, and G and D again (different inversions). Because the difference with the other set is only a couple frets, resonance and general pitch aren’t affected very much.

Observe that doing the opposite, that is, putting a capo on rather than removing it in order to reach additional keys doesn’t work so well. Adding a capo on the 1st fret of a standard-tuned guitar makes it easy to play in the uncommon keys of Ab, Eb, Bb, plus F (no easy C major chord, though). A capo on the 2nd fret makes it relatively easy to play in the keys of A, E, B, and F#. To get easy chords in the very common key of C, you need to put the capo on the 3rd fret, by which point the guitar is beginning to sound rather tinny.

So, to switch from the most common G key to the second most common C without having to use barre chords, it’s either go down by two frets by removing the capo from an F6-tuned guitar, or go up three frets by putting a capo on a G6 (standard) tuned guitar. Try both, and see which one you like better. It can open a whole new repertoire that before you didn’t dare to tackle for fear of the barre chords. According to the graph, you’ll be able to use easy chord shapes for more than half of the songs on Spotify, with the other half accessible by moving the capo up or down one fret.

The trick works on the ukulele as well. If you tune all strings down by two half-steps, your uke will be tuned in open Bb6, which will make it easy to do songs in Bb, F, C, and G. Put a capo on the second fret if you want to accompany songs in D and A, plus C and G with the standard chord shapes.

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