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The Black Keys: Why Guitar Players need to play in flat keys.

by vaughn skow February 25, 2018 2 min read

Howdy fellow guitar buds!  Just a few days back I was having this conversation with a fellow Nashville Producer, engineer and player, and it hit me that this topic was blog-worthy!  Guitar players often gravitate toward the "guitar-friendly" keys of E, G, and A ... some would include C in this short list as well.  Folks, I would also call these the VANILLA keys, sure they're sweet ... but once you've tasted double-fudge chocolate, Rocky Road, Mint chip, and so on ... vanilla tastes downright bland.  Let's talk about some TASTY keys!

Chuck Berry on Guitar

For me personally the epiphany came via Chuck Berry.  When I first started playing in bar bands, old Chuck berry tunes like Johnny B. Goode were a staple, and most every band did them in guitar-friendly keys like A or maybe G.  But when I played along with Chuck's records I realized he NEVER played in "normal" keys, he usually played in B-flat (probably learned from his keyboard playing mentor Johnnie Johnson!  So ... right now, if you never have ... grab a guitar and play the opening lick to Johnny B. Goode in B-flat, then in A.  Ha!  A sounds downright BORING, doesn't it?  Now, I'm not a music theory major guy, and I can't tell you all the ins and outs of why, but man those "in-between" keys just sound cool.

Toni Iomi Early

And so it is that throughout the earliest days of rock-n-roll, the vast majority of records were cut in the keys most friendly to piano and horns ... not guitar!  But, let's travel forward in time to the 1970's and 80's, when SERIOUS rock guitar was being birthed from cauldrons in both the UK as well as the US.  Why did Tony Iomi of black Sabbath have a tone that sounded so much more menacing than any band prior ... why because he tuned down to E-flat!  Remember children E is a "vanilla" key ... E-flat is SPICY baby!

Early Eddie Vanhalen

Let's keep playing this game.  Any guitar player alive in 1978 remembers the first time he herd Van Halen's first album ... holy spicy-shit batman!  And yep, a guitar tuned down to E-flat!  Only for rock a little on the metal-ish side you think?  WRONG!  Why did SRV sound SOOO very unique compared to other Texas blues players?  Well, okay ... lots of reasons ... but one reason is that he played a guitar tuned to ... yep ... E-flat.  Anyone wanta argue that his tone wasn't "spicy"??  Didn't think so!

Early SRV

Okay, back to my point:  Think outside the box of guitar-friendly keys; embrace sharps-n-flats in anyway you can ... and add a little spice to your tone!

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