1. Please take 30 seconds to register your free account to remove most ads, post topics, make friends, earn reward points at our store, and more!  

What to play when playing in a particular key

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Dan2784, Oct 3, 2013.

  1. Dan2784


    Sep 6, 2013
    Please post a link if this has been answered elsewhere.

    How do I know what to scales to play if all I know is the key of the song and not the specific chord progressions for that song?

    Say I know a song is in Em, but I don't know if it is a i - VI - VII, or a i - iv - VII, etc. Can I just play the Em Pentatonic scale over the whole of the song?
  2. Bassist4Eris

    Bassist4Eris Frat-Pack Sympathizer

    No, that generally will not work. You really need to know the progression.
  3. About the pentatonic - If I get lost I've been known to use a tonic pentatonic, however, like has been said it would not be my first choice.

    Its not the scales you want, its the chord tones or notes of the active chord. And I know you do not know how the chord progress is laid out in this song -- so what to do. (In my answer I'm going to move to a major key to keep it simple).

    Song called out to be Kiss Ole Kate, in G. I've never heard Kiss Ole Kate so I am going to have to assume some stuff.
    1) I know the song is to be played in the key of G.
    2) I'll use the chords made from the notes of the G scale. G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim.
    3) I'll stick to the major I-IV-V-I foremat and not mess with the minor chords -- right now.
    4) I'll assume the song will start with the I chord and then move to the IV chord by the end of the first line in the verse. The IV chord will continue into the second line in the verse and near the end of the second line the V chord will become active and then the I chord will end the second line. The 3rd and 4th line of the verse will follow this same format. I'm assuming; I do not expect this to be exact and I'll listen and adjust as needed. Why am I assuming the song will be laid out like this? I'm also assuming Kiss Ole Kate will be a simple song and a lot of simple songs use this chord placement. Plus the I-IV-V chords will contain every note in the tonic scale, so sooner or later those three chords will harmonize any melody made from I's scale. Pretty good odds you can be close enough using those three chords. Will not take long for your ears to let you know if you assumed correctly.
    5) I'll watch the lead guitar's fretting hand and change chords when he does. Or listen for when I assume a chord change is needed.
    6) Since I'm jamming with no sheet music I have to rely upon my ear - and this is the first time I've done this song - so yes I'll not be exact. If the song is beyond me, and I can not make out what are the correct chords, I'll revert to a pedal tonic root, lock in with the kick drum, smile, and fade into the background -- or just sit out the rest of the song. Better to be silent than to mess up the other guys. Random notes seldom work. ​

    I found this a couple of days ago. It pretty well hitch hikes on what I've said above.
    Concentrate on the major chords - you know there are some minor chords in the song but are not sure which ones. Ignore them or sub a V. If playing in a major key the major chords are your structure chords, minor chords will be your color and flavor chords. First things first; get the structure going - the movement the chords take from (I) rest to tension (IV) to climax (V) and then back to rest (I). Once you have that in place then bring in the minor chords with their color and flavor. Structure first, color next.

    OK what chord tone notes. If jamming I'd rely upon roots notes on beat 1 and 3. Keep it simple.

    If playing by myself I'd hunt up some chord charts and then work on having more chord tones in my bass line.

    Good luck.
  4. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    You need more than scales, see scales as your alphabet, see the notes as the letters, see those notes make chords, see those chords as words, see timing, feeling, accents, syncopation etc are your punctuation that ties it all together into a story, the story is what you tell in your playing.

    This may give you an idea of what you can do with such information,

  5. BassChuck

    BassChuck Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    Good example of how theory can help you learn how to get around in music.
  6. The indication of a key can be pretty vague. Songs can modulate away from the starting key several times within one section and even if the root notes of all the chords in a progression are diatonic, the chord qualities can be from outside of the key. Secondary Dominant chords are a perfect example:

    This chord progression is VERY C Major:
    C - Am7 - Dm7 - G7
    This chord progression is still in C Major but the two m7 chords are now dom 7ths:
    C - A7 - D7 - G7
    These chords give a different flavour to the progression and a stronger pull to the subsequent chords because of the V-I quality. The notes C# and F# (3rds in A7 and D7) are very NON C major but the overall progression is still in C.

    This is a very basic example of how you need to be aware of what's going on in the chords before you decide whether or not to play one scale over them.

    Playing one scale over a bunch of chords can be used for effect like when we play one riff through a changing progression allowing the chords to take on a different colour. This is similar to using a pedal note through a progression resulting in a bunch of inversions (slash chords). eg. C/G - Am/G - Dm/G - G7

  7. jmverdugo


    Oct 11, 2012
    Katy TX
    Normally you must have the chord progression of the song, you can't just hit notes willy nilly, even if you hit notes that are on the same scale. To make it sound good, I mean normal good, you need to hit at least one of the notes that are part of the chord, so if you don't know the chords, how do you know what notes you can play?
  8. jsbarber


    Jun 7, 2005
    San Diego
    I recall a performance I went to a few years ago. It was an anniversary party for Paul Reed Smith at the NAMM in Anaheim. A wide range of endorsing guitarists from all over the world showed up to play, including Santana, Al Dimeola... Apparently the guitarists were supposed to send song titles and recordings so the rest of the band could learn the tunes, but not all did. The drummer was Greg Grainger (played with Whitney Houston in her hay-days, and has been the drummer for Acoustic Alchemy for the past 10 years.) The bassist was Gary Grainger (killer bassist, played with Scofield and Chambers and now plays US tours with Acoustic Alchemy). I distinctly remember one guitarist who came on stage. Obviously Gary hadn't received a recording and didn't know the tune. He just stood there and watched and listened to the guitarist play through a verse or verse/chorus, and then he jumped in. From the instant he started playing you couldn't tell he had never played the tune before. But he didn't play until he knew the chord progression...


  9. Lownote38


    Aug 8, 2013
    Nashville, TN
    The bottom line is that you need to know the chords in order to play the song regardless of the key. Knowing the key is just one piece of the puzzle, and not enough to know what to play as the chords change. Also, as stated above, many songs change key, or throw in notes/chords outside of the given key. The blues is a good example. A blues (not jazz blues) in F doesn't have a specific key signature as each chord I-IV-V (a simple blues) are all dominant chords which use a mixolydian mode for each chord. That would change the key signature from a bass playing standpoint for each chord. For every rule in music, there's a style or song that breaks that rule.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.