Using Your Guitar in the Key of C

Using Your Guitar in the Key of C

 Key of C

The key of C is unique in that it has no sharps or flats.  Shown above are three different configurations of the C-major scale drawn on the guitar fret board and a combination of all three scales shown in the right-most column.  You can use these scales to create improvised solos for use over a song played in the key of C major.  In our church, we don’t do much improvising except for the hymn of the day (the song preceding the sermon), for this particular song, we will often add one instrumental verse for congregational reflection during the instrumental break.

Here are the notes for the major scale as well as several other popular scales in the key of C:
Chromatic Scale:              C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C (not used much, except academically)
Major Scale:                      C       D      E F       G      A       B C (all musical styles)
Minor Scale:                      C       D  Eb   F       G Ab     Bb    C  (all styles in the minor key)
Blues Scale:                      C            Eb   F Gb G           Bb    C (blues, rhythm & blues)
Pentatonic Scale:             C       D      E          G       A          C (rock, Country & Western)

To use the scales, first, you need to practice playing through them.  Start with the scale in the left column (scale – I) and practice playing it ascending, then descending.  When playing this scale, keep your hand in one position, and follow the one finger per fret rule (first finger on the seventh fret, second finger on the eighth, etc.).  Scales II and III are a bit more difficult because they cover more than four frets so you will therefore have to slide your left hand accordingly to reach all the notes or stretch with your pinky.  Play through these until you have committed them to memory and until your movements are fluid.  After practicing all three scales, you can create your own solos using the right hand column which is a combination of all the scales.  Once you know this combination, you can move the same shapes up or down the neck to get the other major musical scales.

If you are trying to figure out the chords to a particular song by ear, and the song happens to be in the key of C, you can use the following formula to determine the typical chord shapes that might be used:
1major, 2minor, 3minor, 4major, 5major, 6 minor (usually minor seventh)

In the key of C, the typical chords will therefore be: C, Dm, Em, F, G and Am7.  This knowledge is also helpful when composing your own music, and the formula works for all keys; i.e. chords go numerically like this: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor.  The key of D would therefore use: D, Em, F#m, G, A, Bm7.

Next, consider adding some color to your mix and obtain that “thick” contemporary sound by modifying a few chords.  You can typically change any of the major chords to a “second” chord and get a great sound.  Here are the chord shapes in the key of C:
C2 – x3203x
F2 – 3×3211
F2 (no 3) – x33011
G2- 30023x

These above chords work especially well with an acoustic guitar, if you’re playing an electric guitar, consider dropping the third of the chord and letting it sustain throughout the measure.  Here are the so called “power” chords:
C2 (no 3) – x30033 or x35533 (bar your first finger across the third fret)
F5 (no 3) – 133xxx
G5 (no 3) – 3×0033 or 355xxx

Similarly, you can usually change all the minor chords to a minor seventh:
Dm7 – xx0211 or xx0565
Em7 – 020030 or 020000 or 022030
Am7- 002013 or x02010 or x02213

Also consider experimenting with different chord inversions and voicings.  Here’s an alternate fingering of the C chord that I sometimes use:
C – 030050  (the chord is made up of E,C,D,G,E, E so it’s technically a Csus2)

Here are the notes that make up the two inversions of the C major chord:
Root version of the chord:                     C E G  (xx10 9 8 x)
First Inversion:                                        E G C  (xxx 9 8 8)
Second Inversion:                                   G C E  (x 10 10 9 x x)

I am depicting them high up on the neck.  Picking through these notes will sound nice if you have two guitarists; one strumming the C chord while the other player picks these higher notes.  In this way, the guitarists won’t be invading the same frequency domain.

Also, suspended chords are great at the end of a musical measure as you transition from one chord to another.  Here are the three major suspended chord shapes used in the key of C:
Csus – x33010
Fsus – 133311 (bar the first fret with your first finger)
Gsus – 300013

Other chords that you might stumble across in this key are:
C/G – 332010 or 032013
Cmaj7 – 332000
C7 – 032310 or 335353 (first finger barred at the third fret)
C9 – 33233x (jazzy sound)
G7 – 320001 or 323003

Now, how to end your song!  Try strumming the fourth chord of the key that your song happens to be in.  If you are playing in the key of C, that means ending on an F chord, or better yet an F2 chord (see above), which is the F chord with an added G note.   You can even alternate back and forth between the 4 chord (F) to the 5 chord (G) for a little variation; you might also want to resolve back to the root chord as the last sound (C).

Here are some contemporary songs in the key of C to experiment with:

Best of the Best Songbook (BOB):
24  Blessed Assurance
33  Change My Heart Oh God
44  Emmanuel
45  Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?
170  No Other Name
233  We Bow Down

Let All the People Praise You (LAPPY):
38  Change My Heart Oh God
45  Clap Your Hand
59  Deep River
71  the First Song of Isaiah
114  His Eye is on the Sparrow
124  How Majestic is Your Name
154  It is Well with My Soul
168  Lamb of God
178  Let There be Light
188  Listen to My Prayer, O Lord
245  People Need the Lord
266  She Will Be Called Blessed
297  These Things Did Thomas Count

Copyright – “Using Your Guitar in the Key of C”, Steven Brown, June 2009, ©Kenaniah Music

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