Updated: Dec 28, 2022
Why do guitarists hate flat keys?
Why do guitarists hate flat keys?
Guitarists, knowingly or not, hate flat keys because each flat in a key signature removes an open string as a note choice. This literally makes it harder to play since the musician must fret more notes.
Let's take the G chord vs. the A flat chord as an example. Using the six string first position version of G we have three closed notes and three open strings.
In the A flat chord, no matter how you swing it, there are zero open strings.
Here's a typical way that a guitarist would hold an A flat chord:
Here's a crazy way for a guitarist to play an A flat chord:
If you thought the A flat was difficult to play consider that we don't usually play flat chords inside of sharp keys. That means that if you're playing an A flat chord it's likely that you're also playing in a flat key with other flat chords that are equally difficult.
Even for experienced professional guitarists, playing chords like these for extended periods of time is taxing beyond reason.
There are three basic ways of fixing the flat key conundrum.
How can guitarists play in flat keys?
Transpose the song to a guitar friendly key!
Let's say that your song is in A flat. In this case you're most likely dealing with A flat, D flat, and E flat (which are the tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chords). If you lower each chord a half step then magically you're now in the key of G, right in the guitar's wheel house.
A flat becomes G.
D flat becomes C.
E flat becomes D.
In general you can transpose a song to any of these guitar friendly keys C, G, D, A, and E.
Okay, so its easier to play in those sharp keys, but do you get tired of hearing those same keys and the same old chord shapes over and over again? There are some ways that even inexperienced guitarists can begin playing in flat keys right away.
Use that capo that's been sitting in your case since you bought the guitar!
Do you still need those five and six note chords? If so, then your best option is most likely to use that capo that's been sitting in your case's neck pocket for the past six years. If the song you need to play is in A flat using the chords A flat, D flat, and E Flat, then put the capo on the first fret.
Magically, the G chord played above the capo becomes an A flat:
the C chord becomes a D flat,
and the D chord becomes am E flat!
If the song is in Bb, put your capo on the third fret, and again the G, C, and D shapes will have you covered!
Play smaller chord voicings!
Believe it or not, often the best sounding chords don't use all of the strings! Most of those basic beginner chords tend to use 5 or 6 strings and we struggle to make the notes come out! Beginner guitarists tend to develop a belief that all chords need to include five or six strings.
It's counter intuitive but in many situations, when you play fewer notes each note carries more weight.
Here are some smaller chord voicings that can be just as effective (if not more effective) than full 5 or 6 string chords.
The easiest place to start is with 3 string power chords. If you have the notes on the fifth and sixth strings memorized use the pictured shape below and put your first finger on the root of each chord.
That means, if you need to play a C chord, put your first finger on the fifth string third fret. The third finger will play the fourth string sixth fret. The fourth finger will play the third string sixth fret. Check out the diagram below.
For some songs this can be a perfect solution, especially if you're trying to make it rock.
A nice feature of power chords is that you don't need to worry about whether they are major or minor, since they are typically just perfect fifths. Occasionally, songs will use power chords built from other intervals.
Remember the fret your first finger plays will determine the name of the chord.
Get to know "shell voicings!"
"Shell voicings" are a great way to play more complicated chords while using fewer notes. Again, it is essential that you have your 5th and 6th strings memorized. Here is a G Major 7 chord voicing:
These chords are elegant. With three notes they indicate some of the most important notes in any chord, the root, third, and seventh degrees. Notice that while the first finger plays the 6th string it is also relaxing down and muting the fifth, second, and first strings.
Here's another shell voicing. It also contains the root, the third, and the seventh.
Use the following Free Ebook to learn a bunch of great shell voicings:
Replace your barre chords with closely grouped triads! WHAT THE $%^&&** DOES THAT MEAN????
I know this sounds super high level and insane but here's the trick:
Play those huge barre chords inside of a four or five fret span on the guitar neck. Then go back and play the same chords but only play the parts of the chords on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings.
Let's apply this concept to the key of A flat:
Here's the basic A flat E shaped barre chord:
Now let's remove the first, fifth, and sixth strings:
Here's a basic D Flat barre chord:
Again, let's remove the first, fifth, and sixth strings:
One more to go! Here's the five string E flat chord (this one can be particularly tricky):
These simple three note chord voicings are incredibly effective in a band setting.
They are high enough that they allow the guitarist to fit in without stepping on the bassist's toes.
Also, they're simple enough that in most situations they won't interfere with the melody.
Hopefully the above information will make it easier for you to navigate flat keys on the guitar!