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Key To Success
By Danny McBride - 05/24/2002 - 01:14 AM EDT

Danny McBride © 2002

Do you play the guitar? Do you use it to write? Or do you use a keyboard? Do you have a few favorite keys that you always seem to end up in? Time to give something new a try.

I was listening recently to an exceptionally good local band here in L A when something struck me about their songs. No they didnít all sound alike, but there was a certain something that made them sort of run one into the other.

And then it dawned on me. The lead singer/guitarist was always in an open guitar key- -you know E, A, D, G & C and his songs took on that "guitar band" sound that is often death to guitar bands. E should occasionally have been F, and A should have been B-Flat, to give some real balance to the set.

E-Flat and A-Flat are GREAT rockíníroll keys, used frequently in the "Olden Days" but used less so now. That has a lot to do with piano and horn sections dominating in the "olden days" instead of guitars, but even the best earliest guitar bands used those keys - -and NO - -no capo. Chuck Berryís original version of Sweet Little Sixteen is in D-Flat- -yes- -D-Flat. Check out the piano solo. You canít do those glisses rolling up from white keys to black- -only by snapping off the black keys to white. Johnny B Goode is in B-Flat, and Roll Over Beethoven is in E-Flat. There are tons more examples, but you get the idea. One of the very things that gives these recordings their particular warm flavor is that they are guitar songs in horn keys, or piano keys, if you like. Compare it to Buck Owensí recording of Johnny B Goode in the key of A and youíll see what I mean. Do you remember Larry Williamsí Bony Moronie? It was in A-Flat- -not G or A. Why does it sound like it does? Because the sax section plays the identifying lick of the song using their lowest note, their B-Flat which sounds as concert A-Flat- -full, rich and powerful.

Okay, The Beatles used capos and The Stones still do, but McCartney wrote Yesterday in F on the guitar WITHOUT the benefit of a capo and when the strings play over those changes in THAT key itís magic. Plenty of other examples exist- -too many to cite- -but my point is- -yes- -what IS your point?- -that playing exclusively in "guitar" keys will make your repertoire sound sort of the same after a while.

But open chords are so much EASIER, you say.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but after a while they will create a sameness in your tunes that a little imagination could avoid.

So if you write a tune using open G and D chords, for example, see how it might sound in A-Flat, even if you do have to use a capo. If youíre on a keyboard, so much the better. You might be a "white keys only" kind of keyboard writer but try it anyway. Did you know that Irving Berlin only ever wrote in one key? He was a "black keys only" writer and wrote everything in G-Flat, or F-Sharp if you prefer. Others transposed his songs for him when they notated the tunes, because he didnít write music either, but he could compose. Later he had a special piano built that transposed for him. Many modern keyboard rigs have that now. You can play in C all night, and just keep hitting the "capo button". Being from the "old school", I would suggest that you actually learn to use these other keys for real. The possibilities are endless.

But this little word-to-the-wise column is not.

Now Iím all keyed up. I expect my next piano piece will be in some exotic key like B-Sharp. Of course, if I write my next opus on the guitar, I will probably choose F-Flat.

Go and write and may this help you find your key to success.


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