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Hi all,

I have a friend who's coming to visit and is bringing her guitar. I want to write some tunes for us to play together (I am a pianist). She has indicated that C, A-, and G are good keys for her to work with. She plays light salsa/latin, and jazz. Looking for any tips about composing for guitar. Any other good keys? Any bad ones? Also, I tend to stray from the tonal center, should I stick more to key to keep it easier for her. Any tips appreciated -


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Hi Gav, well we guitarists like our open strings for most styles, they're easier to play and you get more sound from E, A, G and D just because of the way the instrument is tuned so any of those keys (go easy on the chromatics) for general usage works well for most players.

But you mention jazz so now we're in the deep end of the pool and jazz as you know likes lots of different keys. Anyone who plays jazz will have to deal with the horn keys, Bb, Eb and Ab for sure and any other key is fair game but really it depends on the ability of the player.

Guitarists tend to get familiar with chord charts but single line readers are more rare, something to think about.

You might ask what tunes your friend knows, likes and is familiar with and then analyze those for guidance.

Sounds like fun, please post if you get a chance!

Hi Ingo,

Excellent tips, very helpful, thanks so much! It's really just an informal house party, so I don't know if it will produce anything that fits in with posting here, but if it does, I will certainly do so!


Most accessible keys are C, G, D, E, A, Em, Am, Dm, but she can always use a capo, which allows you to play in the more usual piano keys of Eb, Ab, Bb, etc.


Hi John,

Thanks, that's useful information! I've seen capos before but never knew what to call them, now I do -


Hey Gav, forgot to mention, for scoring, guitar sounds one octave lower than written.

Thanks again Ingo! Great to tap into knowledgeable brains!

Capos are a neat tool. They have different ones now, partial capos, adjustable capos (they clamp different strings depending on how they are set), even digital capos (a floor pedal) that can change keys or tunings on the fly. No AI yet though, sorry.

I used to play with a guy who would slide his capo in the middle of a song and stay in tune, he was pretty good at it.

But like anything else capo use takes practice and you don't try one at the last minute unless you're really talented :)

Thanks Bob and Ingo, I have heard only a little of her music, but I think she has a good, simple style (she performs in a band). I'm going to probably write a spare chord progression with a little bit of melody here and there, but basically a jam in 3/4 or 4/4. Appreciate your suggestions!


Better have some Xmas tunes ready if this is a holiday party, you know you'll have requests!

Getting together a small concert of Jazz versions of X-mas tunes!

Are you writing mostly strummed chords, or plucked melodies?

For chords, the easiest ones are those with lots of open strings / no barring needed: C, G, D, A, E; Em, Am, Dm; C7, G7, D7, A7, E7, B7. There are various other suspended / otherwise modified chords possible by shifting the fingerings of these aforementioned chords up the frets and treating the open strings as suspended notes, but the same types of chords without open strings would be extremely hard.

Basic barred chords (i.e., where you use one finger to serve as a temporary capo -- can be difficult for beginners but should be no problem for experts, though be warned that the sonority may be reduced because during a performance, esp. during fast chord changes, it can be hard to stop the bar accurately and strongly enough for all strings to sound) include F, F#, G, Ab,...; Fm, F#m, Gm, ...; Bbm, Bm, Cm, ....; Bb, B, C#, Eb, ... . The Bb / Bbm series may be quite hard for average players to stop; they can be played without barring but then you only get 4 strings sounding, so the sonority is reduced. Beginners may not know to only strum the 4 high strings, so you may get stray notes from the open strings for these chords.

You may notice that the "easy" chords are mostly in the sharp keys, whereas the flat keys usually involve difficult barrings.  So stick to sharp keys as much as possible.  It's easier to change chords among the "easy" set; experts can do this almost instantaneously; but changing between barred chords, especially if they involve different fingerings behind the bar, tend to be a bit slower. Having said that, though, some guitar performances exploit the "sliding sound" caused by shifting a barred chord upwards (down the fretboard), so you could potentially do something interesting there.

Note also that there are barred equivalents of unbarred chords; sometimes it may be more expedient to use a barred variant of an unbarred chord if the surrounding chords are all barred around the same positions. Shifting the fingers up and down the extremes of the fretboard is quite slow and may introduce noticeable breaks in the sound.  Barred chords that are too high up (too far down the fretboard) become increasingly difficult to finger correctly, and you may get out-of-tune chords or some wrong notes, esp. during fast chord changes.

All of the above can be shifted up by n semitones if the guitarist has a capo handy. Note that adjusting capo positions mid-performance, while possible, requires downtime and will not work for guitar solos. The aforementioned difficult chords, etc., still all apply relative to the new "root" position; basically, the capo lets the guitarist tune the effective pitch of the open strings up by n semitones.  Some flat keys will become a lot easier with a capo if, after the change, most of the chords become unbarred.  Keep in mind, though, that the guitarist will expect you to write in transposed notation (i.e., "capo 1 G" instead of "Ab"). Don't write Ab, Bb, etc., and expect the guitarist to figure out which capo position is optimal, and definitely don't continue writing non-transposed Ab, Bb, etc., if you already indicated the capo position, because "capo 1 Ab" will sound as A, not Ab.

A useful thing to consult might be a chord chart; those would usually tell you which chords are easiest. While the chords I mentioned in the basic list are the ones pretty much all guitarists would know, there are various unusual chords that can be played unbarred, but may be less well known.

For example, Dm6 can be played with just 2 fingers, Dmaj7 with 1 or 3 fingers, etc.. Some chord sequences that involve 1-finger changes are quite popular -- e.g., switching between D, Dmaj7, and D7, or between G and G7.

There are other tricks like: A7 has two easily-accessible fingerings, and switching between them can sometimes be useful for introducing what sounds like a chord change without actually changing the chord.

Diminished 7th chords tend to be less sonorous because the standard fingerings only tune the upper 4 strings; their effect can be somewhat lost if the guitarist plays the (non-chord-tones) low open strings. But there is a lesser-known fingering for Gdim7 that lets you play all 6 strings, though it's somewhat awkward and may be a bit slow to switch to/from.

While most guitar chords are fingered without paying attention to chord inversion, a few chords can be strengthened by using the thumb as an extra stop for the lowest E string, and thus give you some leeway in differentiating between chord inversions. D, for example, is usually played on 5 strings with an open E string that, if strummed, somewhat muddles the sound; however it is possible to stop an F# with the thumb on that low E string and thus get a stronger sound.   Along the same lines, I usually play C with 4 fingers rather than the standard 3, the 4th finger stopping a G on the low E string so that you get a firmer sound from the 2nd inversion of C rather than the unstable 1st inversion sound the open E string would give you, or the weaker 5-string 1st inversion.   There is an alternate fingering for D that has a lot of open spacing at the top, useful when you want to simulate the open sound of a 1st inversion D chord. This may be irrelevant in a jazz context, though. :-D

In any case, these are rather specialized chord fingering tricks that the composer probably don't need to worry too much about.  Still, it's useful to know such things exist in case the music ever calls for it.

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