Not all songs are written out or recorded in a key that suits your voice/instrument. Lots of Beatles songs, for instance, seem to be in the key of Eb, which is a horrible key to play on the guitar or ukulele; the chord formations need you to stretch and distort your left hand beyond what I consider reasonable.
One easy solution is to use a capo (see Folk Guitar Basics) to raise the pitch a little bit - as you go up the neck you'll raise the pitch by one semitone per fret. So if you play D chords with a capo on the first fret, you'll actually be playing in Eb, one half tone up from D... but you can play all the chords for the key of D. This is handy if you want to sing in the key of Eb (often a good key for male voices) or if you want to sing along with the Beatles, for instance (if their recording is in Eb).
Using a capo is only good for up to 4-5 frets on a guitar, and it's not so practical for a ukulele, which has a short neck to start with.
Sometimes you might want to drop the pitch down a bit, or change to a different key altogether. This isn't hard to do if you're just playing chords- you can simply transpose all the chords to your preferred key. As long as the new chords are ALL exactly the same interval (number of semitones up or down) away from the original chords, it will sound fine.
You can transpose a simple song as you play... say you're playing a song which has the chords Eb and Bb7 but you want to play it a bit lower/with easier chords, so you want to play in the key of D. You'll just have to remember to count back one semitone for each chord, so Eb goes back to D, and Bb7 will be A7. remember that a 7th chord will still be a seventh in the new key, a minor (m) chord will still be a minor, etc.
For more complex songs, you'll probably want to write in the new chords. You can work out the chords
by using a Note/Key line like this:
- A - A#/Bb - B - C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab - A ......
-note that the line keeps going (you could put the letters on a strip of paper and bend it around into a circle to make it easier)... so as long as you keep counting the same number of spaces in the same direction, you'll get the right chord letter...
or you could use a tool like my Transposing Wheel (see below for free download).
Note that there is no 'extra' flat/sharp note (the black notes on a keyboard or piano) between B and C and between E and F; there is only one semitone interval between these pairs. Also note that a note like A# (A sharp) can also be called Bb (B flat), as it's the same thing. Chords with A#/Bb are more commonly just known as Bb chords (as in Bb7 etc).
Another easy way to change the chords to a different key is to use a free online Key Changer (see below). You will need your song to be available on your computer, so you can copy and paste it into the changer.
Here is a simple tool to help you change the key of a song, so that you can
- sing in a key that suits your voice (higher or lower), or
- play easier chords for guitar (music isn't always written for guitar, so the chords may be really awkward to play).
All you need is a copy of the song with the lyrics and the chords- there are dozens of sites on the internet which have these- and your Chord Transposing Wheel.
Click on the picture below to open the PDF file with the wheel to print and assemble, plus instructions for how to assemble and use your wheel.
If you have songs on your computer (or if you can find them online)
a) with the chords inset [in brackets], or
b) in a font such as courier* with the chords written above the words,
you can copy and paste into a free online key changer such as here - just choose your new key and the chords will be magically changed. Brilliant!
*Note- The online key changer works with fonts like courier because all the letters are spaced evenly, so the chords don't get moved as the text expands. It also works with chords inset in brackets, regardless of font.
On my song sheets, I use Verdana or Arial as it's easy to read, so that means my songs won't work in the changer - but if you need to change the key, you can use the chord transposing wheel or use a capo to raise the pitch a bit.