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Transposing and Transcending

Hello Troubadourians! Last month I wrote about transposition but there are a few more things I want to talk about, specifically some of the idiosyncrasies of the guitar and how transposing can work for us and sometimes against us. On the guitar, the open position keys are C, A, G, E, and D.** They each take advantage of the open strings of the guitar and are somewhat overlapping in that C, E, and G are the basic positions while A and D are technically G and C one whole step higher (two frets), but because of the nature of standard guitar tuning they present as the open position for those keys. Understanding how these chord positions relate to each other, how they repeat and overlap, is essential to successfully transposing a song into a key that will work for you.

Repeating a question we asked last month: Why do we transpose? Usually, it is to find a key suitable for our vocal range. This can be as simple as applying a capo to raise/change the key, or it can be much more complex. If the original key for a song is too high for you to sing comfortably in your natural voice and too low—or too awkward—to sing an octave lower, you can sometimes find a suitable key through the use of a capo. For instance, assume that a song is in the key of G which doesn’t work for your vocal range as described above. Placing a capo on the second fret of your guitar will raise the key to A. If the original melody was too high—and likewise too low—in G, playing it in A might raise the pitch of the melody enough for you to comfortably sing it in your lower range and still sound correct. You also don’t have to relearn the chords. Obviously, if A isn’t quite there, moving the capo to the third fret puts you in Bb, while still fingering the chords in G. If that works for your voice, and you like the way the guitar sounds with the capo, you have successfully found the way to sing that song. Congratulations! But have you actually transposed the song? Technically, the key is indeed Bb, and if you were playing with a piano player they would be playing in Bb. But… you are still fingering the song in the key of G! So, while you have mechanically transposed the song by using the capo, you haven’t actually transposed the song as far as what you are playing. Let’s talk about that.

To have truly transposed a song you have to have fundamentally changed the way you play the song. My preference is always to play without a capo. This allows me to have the full range of the guitar available and I know what key I’m in at every position on the neck. This is important because when I’m playing a song using a capo, the open position chords don’t actually suggest the true key I’m in. In the above example, I’m playing G, C, D, etc., but when I go to take a solo or play a fill I have to think in Bb. That’s almost like having to transpose twice. If I’m used to the song it’s not such a big deal but if I’m unfamiliar with it, it becomes a mental exercise that can sometimes dampen my enthusiasm shall we say… I’d almost rather be playing directly in Bb. Almost…. In the past I’ve mentioned my dislike of non-guitar keys such as Bb, Eb, and F, and while I’m fully capable of playing in those keys, as I said last month, they aren’t a lot of fun for me. Still, keeping the entire fretboard consistent regarding the chord positions I’m using can be an advantage to playing the song correctly.

So, what do I do when I need to transpose a song? Once I’ve analyzed the chord progression and noted all of the guitar-y idiosyncrasies of the original version, such as specific chord positions and use of open strings that are germane to the composition, I’ll try to rearrange the chords into a different open position key that attempts to retain those things. I keep referencing “Mr. Bojangles,” as that song has some very specific—and cool—chord leading and passing tones that are essential to the composition. The other cool thing about that song is that once you learn it in a particular key (C is a good one to start with), and you can comfortably play all of the moving parts, you can then transpose the song into every open position key and retain all of those elements in the song. It might take some imagination and the moving of parts to different registers—like a walking bassline switched to an upper chord voice—but in retaining the part you retain a recognizable part of the song and remain truer to the original while placing it in a more comfortable key for the vocal.

This isn’t always possible for every song. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t work at all. One classic example is “Listen to the Music.” That song is in the key of E and is so defined by the chord positions of the original composition that it just doesn’t work well in any other key. The melody is also ridiculously high for many male singers and generally sounds lame if you try to sing it an octave lower. The closest option for most people is to drop the low E-string on the guitar a whole step to D and play in the key of D. In doing that you can almost make the key workable and retain the vibe of the original. Almost…. I really haven’t figured out a workable solution to this problem. One thing I have toyed with is having a second guitar that is tuned a half step or a whole step lower that standard—Eb standard or D standard—but that means setting up and carrying at least one extra guitar for one specific purpose. However, it might be worth it if you find that you play a lot of songs that sound better and are more comfortable to sing in a lowered tuning.

Last month I mentioned the idea that sometimes changing the key by using a capo just doesn’t sound right… That can also apply to transposing the key even without using a capo. You have to let your ear be your guide as much as you seek to accommodate your vocal range. At the risk of sounding too esoteric, every key has a specific tonality as does every chord form on the guitar. An open position A chord sounds as different from an open position G chord with a capo on the second fret, as does a barred A chord in the E position at the fifth fret. The stacking and restacking of the intervals of the notes in the chords—as well as how many are repeated or deleted—change the character of the sound of the chord. The melody of a song is often suggested by those chord intervals and when they are shifted, it can sometimes be difficult to find the melody vocally against the re-voiced chords, or it clashes with them and just doesn’t sound right… This is really a matter of taste though, as the initial unfamiliarity can lead to hearing the song in a completely different way which can lead you to your own unique interpretation that can be as equally valid as the original.

But let’s say that you’ve really explored all of your options with transposing in all of the open key positions and you still aren’t satisfied or can’t quite sing a song comfortably. Do you then consider using a capo? Sure. But how far off are you from that ideal key and chord position? Maybe you are a half step or whole step (one fret vs two frets) away and a capo looks like the best solution. Which do you choose? That depends on two things: your comfort with the vocal and what you want or need to play on the guitar. Let’s say you’ve transposed from the original key (it doesn’t matter what it was at this point) into the key of either A or Bb in the open G position. My advice, unless you really, really sound awesome singing in Bb, choose the lower key of A. As your voice tires during a gig, that half step can make all the difference. And if you are playing with a band or another guitarist, that choice frees them to play in open position A and will allow the two guitars, and any other instruments, to blend and complement each other rather than everyone sitting in the same position. You’ll thank me for that someday…

**The CAGED guitar system is a musical formula that can be used to understand the fret board where each letter in the CAGED guitar system represents a chord shape. What follows while borrowing some of that concept, doesn’t attempt to teach it. I do recommend that you look into the CAGED system if you what to improve your skills and knowledge.

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Mike Nesmith passed from this earth on December 10th of 2021. Nez was more than just my favorite Monkee, he was a huge influence on my playing, my taste in music, and my songwriting, as well as how I hear songs. I was seven years old when the Monkees first came on the TV, well before I had any idea what music was all about and three years before I would receive my first guitar. Just as many people had their “Aha” moment when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, watching the Monkees was mine. In a home where rock ‘n’ roll was considered to be “less than appropriate,” I’m still amazed that I was allowed to watch the show and buy their records. I was even allowed to dress like Mike, green wool cap and all. Letting my hair get longer took some convincing but was sort of okay (it’s a good thing I couldn’t grow those killer sideburns… still can’t). But aside from the style and the show, it was the music that drew me in and still does today. Whether it was a Nesmith composition like “Papa Gene’s Blues,” one that he sang like “Door into Summer,” or just a killer riff like “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Nez was the real deal. I was well into my musical journey before I realized just how much more than the Monkees Nez really was. I played guitar and sang lead in a Newgrass band in the early ’80s and while all of the other hip Bluegrass bands were reworking Beatles songs, we were playing Monkees songs, primarily Nesmith tunes. They are still a sizable portion of what I do today. When the Wild Truth was recording This Golden Era, Sven somehow got ahold of a Mike Nesmith model Gretsch 12-string guitar and I used it on two tracks for that record. That was a surreal experience. It was sort of like playing a holy grail from my childhood. I will be forever grateful for his influence on my music and my life. Fly well, Papa Nez…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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