Shortcut for Learning to Play in All Keys

Posted by Bradley Laird

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In both of these books (Mandolin Master Class & Mandolin Training Camp) I suggest that one of your goals should be to learn to play in all keys. So many of us started playing the mandolin in only two or three keys. To make the leap out into other keys can really enlarge your understanding of the instrument and your utility as a player. That said, I do realize that there are some keys that are just not going to come up much in the bluegrass world. So, let’s look at some priorities for practice.

I have been playing bluegrass a long time and I think only once or twice in all of these 3 decades have I ever played a song in the key of F#. The presence of banjo players almost assures that you won’t see that key very often. In the real world of bluegrass here are the keys that you will see, more or less in order of the frequency I have observed them being used:

G, A, D, C

Those keys seem to be the big four. (But, they are NOT the 4 keys which I suggest that you practice.) After those you will begin to see the appearance of:

B, Bb, E, and F

Tuning issues, open strings, and habit all go into the creation of this group of 8 keys that are most commonly used in bluegrass. Here are the missing 4 keys that are almost never encountered
in bluegrass:

Ab, Db, Eb, and F#

I am not saying you will never play those chords. You will. If you are playing a I-IV-V progression in the key of B you most certainly will play the F# chord as it is the V chord in that key. Faced with 12 major keys it can be overwhelming for the intermediate level mandolin player to tackle all of them at once. Both of my books include materials to help you in this direction but if a person had to start somewhere here is my basic prescription:

1. Learn the Major Scales for G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E and F. If you can do those, even for just one octave, you will have a much easier time playing tunes and improvising. Then, whittle that Major Scale down to the five-note Pentatonic Scale for each.

2. Practice scales, arpeggios, pentatonic scales and chords over a I-IV-V progression in the key of G, A, F and E. Why do I suggest these 4 keys? Above I stated that nearly all bluegrass music will be played in one of 8 keys. If you play the I, IV, and V chords of G, A, F, and E you will have played the I chord for all 8 of those keys!

Incidentally, my book Mandolin Training Camp includes MP3 practice tracks, using a simple I-IV-I-V-I progression IN ALL 12 MAJOR KEYS. And they only cruise along at a moderate speed of 80 beats per minute to give you more time to think, plan and try ideas. Included with Mandolin Master Class is another great track for test driving ideas. It is a track which cycles through ALL 12 major chords. Fun stuff!

Let me restate the principle of focusing your practice efforts on the keys of G, A, F and E. The I-IV-V chords for those four keys will have you playing over all of these chords:

F Bb C

Now if you compare those chords with the list of bluegrass keys (G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E and F) you will see that they are ALL PRESENT in just those 4 keys.

If you practice pentatonic scales for all 8 of those chords you can then improvise (by one method) in all 8 of those keys. That method is explained in Mandolin Master Class.


One benefits of this practice mentality is that you will find that much of what you learn to do in these 4 keys can be transposed into the other 4 keys fairly easily. You may have wondered why I didn’t suggest learning the key of D and the key of C. Well, if you learn to play in A on the 1st and 2nd strings you have just learned D too! Just move it down one string. So, the upper octave of A is just like D in the middle.

The same is true for the key of G and C. Play a G scale starting on the 5th fret of the 3rd string. Now play a C scale starting on the 5th fret of the 4th string. Same basic stuff. After you mess around with this awhile you will find that the fingerings for the key or E are just like the low octave of A and the high octave of B.

So, anyway, all of this aside, don’t put off learning to function in all the keys just because it is overwhelming at times. Start somewhere. Start with those 4 keys and when you begin to work on the other keys you will find a lot of similarities and discover that you already can play most of it.

In the second book (Mandolin Training Camp) there are pages and pages of exercises all written for a I-IV-V progression in the key of G. In learning these you are already learning some C and D material. In the book I suggest that you begin transposing the exercises into other keys. Why not add the 3 keys I offer here: A, F and E? That is a good starting point when you are beginning to get comfortable with
the key of G.

Note: If this discussion of “I-IV-V” and “keys” and so forth doesn’t make sense to you I suggest the first book “Mandolin Master Class” which makes all of this understandable. Or watch this video.



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