What Key Is Guitar In (Standard Tuning)

What Key Is Guitar In? (Standard Tuning)

The answer to this question is, technically all of the strings on the guitar in standard tuning are in the key of C Major. The third mode of the C Major scale which is E Phrygian mode to be precise. However this information is a bit confusing because it doesn’t tell you anything in reality.

This is because the way the guitar is played determines what key you are in. The key you are playing in depends on the notes and chords you choose to play and not on the guitar itself. In standard tuning the open strings run from the 6th to the 1st as follows, E, A, D, G, B, E. It is possible to alter the tuning of all six strings to change the pitch and there are many variations of this including;

  • Open A Tuning
    The strings are tuned E, A, E, A, C#, E
  • Open B Tuning
    B, F#, B, F#, B, D or F#, B, D#, F#, B, D#
  • Open C tuning
    C, G, C, G, C, E
  • Open D Tuning
    D, A, D, F#, A, D or D, A, D, A, D, D
  • Drop D Tuning
    D, A, D, G, B, E
  • Dsus4 Tuning (DADGAD Tuning)
    D, A, D, G, A, D
  • Open E Tuning
    E, B, E, G#, B, E
  • Open F Tuning
    F, A. C, F, C, F (using light gauge strings) or C, F, C, F, A,C
  • Open G Tuning
    D, G, D, G, B, D also known as Spanish (or Chicago) tuning

There are many more alternate tunings than those above but that just gives you an idea of how many variations there are available.

What Is A Key In Music?

A key is a group of scales and chords that work well and sound right together. Notice it’s not just chords, it’s scales too. People often ask why keys are so important to the guitarist? It’s because you’ll never be able to understand how to compose a song, tune or solo if you don’t understand how keys work.

Say you write a song, you have the words and the chords, but you want to add a simple melody to bring it all together. Without understanding the keys how can you make it work? If you want to produce killer riffs, you’ll need to understand the theory of musical keys.

How To Work Out What Key A Song Is In

The easiest way to tell what key a song is in that works 99 times out of 100 is to look at the chord progression for the song. Take for example a song with the chord progression of E major, A major, B major and then E major. As the first and last chords in the progression are both E major, it’s a safe bet that the song is in the key of E major.

There are other ways to see what key the song is in, try playing a scale over that same chord progression. Take our E major chord grouping, imagine you suspected that it was in F major, if you were to play the F major scale over the top of those chords, it would sound off to say the least. The notes would clash, it would sound discordant and you’d know it wasn’t in the key of F major.

If you read music it’s easier still, just check the stave at the side of the piece of music. Assuming you don’t read music, go for one of the above.

Which Chords Are In A Guitar Key?

Playing The Guitar

There are always 3 major, 3 minor chords and one diminished chord in each key. Just for now ignore the diminished chord. Keeping it super simple just so you can get the idea, let’s use the standard guitar tuning key of C major.

The Key Of C Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
C1Major
2Minor
E3Minor
F4Major
G5Major
A6Minor
B7Diminished

Every note in the scale represents a chord. Every scale has the following chords in this order.

  • 1st Chord – Major
  • 2nd Chord – Minor
  • 3rd Chord – Minor
  • 4th Chord – Major
  • 5th Chord – Major
  • 6th Chord Minor
  • 7th Chord – Diminished

Or to put it another way, for every note in a scale, the 1st, 4th and 5th notes always represent major chords, the 2nd, 3rd and 6th notes always represent minor chords and the 7th is always a diminished chord.

The chords in the key of C major are C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B diminished.

Following are the notes, chords, and positions for a few more keys to help you understand keys better.

The Key Of G Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
G1Major
A2Minor
B3Minor
C4Major
D5Major
E6Minor
F#7Diminished

The Key Of A Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
A1Major
B2Minor
C#3Minor
D4Major
E5Major
F#6Minor
G#7Diminished

The Key Of E Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
E1Major
F#2Minor
G#3Minor
A4Major
B5Major
C#6Minor
D#7Diminished

The Key Of D Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
D1Major
E2Minor
F#3Minor
G4Major
A5Major
B6Minor
C#7Diminished

The Key Of B Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
B1Major
C#2Minor
D#3Minor
E4Major
F#5Major
G#6Minor
A#7Diminished

The Key Of F Major

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
F1Major
G2Minor
A3Minor
Bb4Major
C5Major
D6Minor
E7Diminished

You now have the tools to play in any major key, for minor chords the plan changes slightly as it runs;

  • 1st Chord Minor
  • 2nd Chord Diminished
  • 3rd Chord Major
  • 4th Chord Minor
  • 5th Chord Minor
  • 6th Chord Major
  • 7th Chord Major

Now our chart looks somewhat different

The Key Of A Minor

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
A1Minor
B2Diminished
C3Major
D4Minor
E5Minor
F6Major
G7Major

The Key Of E Minor

Notes In KeyNote NumberChords
E1Minor
F#2Diminished
G3Major
A4Minor
B5Minor
C6Major
D7Major

All of these scales and charts have been kept at seven notes. There are, however, some scales that have more than seven notes, but they’re for a future article. Master these for now and see just how much your guitar playing improves.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the guitar in the key of C?

The guitar is in the key of C, but it’s in the third mode of C which is E Phrygian mode.

Why is standard guitar tuning in E?

Standard tuning on the guitar is in E because it places the notes on the fretboard so they are easy to play.

How do you tune a guitar to standard tuning?

The strings are tuned on a standard guitar to E, A, D, G, B, E running from the thickest (low E) to the thinnest string (high E).

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