As you learn more songs on the guitar, you will begin to notice that even though each guitarist, songwriter, and song are completely different, many songs written on guitar fall into a select set of key signatures. Why is this?
The guitar as an instrument is fully capable of playing seamlessly through all 12 Key Signatures available in western music. However, some keys are inherently easier to play on the guitar than others. The top 6 easiest key signatures to play on the guitar are C, G, D, F, A, and E.
Now, keep in mind that each of those major keys also includes their relative minor counterpart, thus tallying the effective key signature selection to 12 keys… But we’ll keep it simple and go over why these keys are the premium set, especially if you’re playing an acoustic guitar or are a beginner/intermediate player.
Using the open strings is like having extra fingers.
The guitar has six strings, but you only have 5 fingers (4 not counting the thumb) on your fretting hand to press down the strings. So how do you play all six strings if you don’t have six fingers to fret them?
Well, you have two choices. You can either barre multiple strings with one or more fingers or use the open strings within your chord.
The most extreme example of using as many open strings as possible is simply playing all the strings open at once. Now, this doesn’t make a very pleasant sounding chord, but a musical chord none the less.
Playing all the open strings at once typically isn’t used as a sustained chord in a chord progression. More often, playing all the open strings together is used in between two more prominent chords as a passing chord. Typically the player will strike all the open chords for a split second (or one beat) while he moves his fingers from one chord to another.
You can create a more useable chord that uses almost all of the open strings by simply pressing down the 2nd fret of the A string (this makes the note B) and then play the remaining 5 open strings along with the fretted A string.
In doing so you would be playing these note from lowest to highest: E – B – D – G – B – E
And those notes played together make what is known as an Em7 (E minor 7th) chord.
Pretty cool huh? Press one fret and you have an actual useable chord.
Another very easy to-play-chord that uses notes found within 5 of our 6 “easy” guitar keys (excluding F) is the Asus2 chord.
This chord is achieved by fretting the 2nd fret of the D string (the note E) and the 2nd fret of the G string (the note A) and then playing the top 5 thinnest strings (all except for the low E string) all at once. This would ring out the notes from lowest to highest: A – E – A – B – E.
And bam! There you have an Asus2 chord.
This gives you another great sounding chord that fits within many keys signatures and is very easy to play.
* Note that I am assuming you are playing a guitar that is tuned in standard tuning as I present these examples.
If you approach playing the guitar with the mindset of simplicity, using as many open strings as possible will give your fretting hand freedom to embellish the chords and not cause as much fatigue. Typically the more strings you are attempting to fret, the more strength and effort is required from your fretting hand.
If you’re attempting to play/write songs that use the most chords containing open strings, which key signatures have the most?
The chart below displays all 12 different major key signatures and how many open string chords are contained within them.
- Note in this table that I am only including the Major, Minor, Major 7th, Minor 7th, and Dominant 7th chords that make up each key. This table would get much larger and more confusing if all chord variations and voicings were included. We’ll keep it simple.
|Major Key||# of Chords Using Open Strings||Chords|
|C||11||C, Cmaj7, Dm, Dm7, Em, Em7, Fmaj7, G, G7, Am, Am7|
|G||10||G , Gmaj7, Am, Am7, C, Cmaj7, D, D7, Em, Em7|
|D||8||D, Dmaj7, Em, Em7, G, Gmaj, A, A7|
|F||7||Fmaj7, Am, Am7, C, C7, Dm, Dm7|
|A||6||A, Amaj7, D, Dmaj7, E, E7|
|E||5||E, Emaj7, A, Amaj7, B7|
I have chosen to leave the 7th/diminished chord from each scale out of the chart as it is much less widely used in popular music and with beginning and intermediate guitarists.
Notice the top 6 keys on the chart. C, G, D, F, A, and E. This partially why I chose these chords as the top 6 easiest keys to play in on the guitar.
As you see above, if you choose key signatures from the top half of the chart, you will have many open position chords to work within many different keys on the guitar.
Try picking one of these keys and play around with some different chord progressions. You’ll begin to realize how many open string chords you use each time you play and how great they sound on the guitar.
Let’s quickly go over each key and talk about why it is favorable to use while writing and playing songs on the guitar.
*If you don’t understand why C Major and A Minor are listed together below, it’s because they are relative keys. Click here for an article that explains exactly what that means.
1. C Major/A Minor
Not surprisingly, the C Major scale provides you with many open position/easy to play chords and scales on the guitar. If you think about it, it’s pretty logical. Think about the way the guitar is tuned.
The guitar strings are tuned from lowest to highest:
E – A – D – G – B – E
The notes in the key of C Major are:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C (octave)
Notice any similarities?
|Guitar Tuning||E – A – D – G – B – E|
|C Major Scale||C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C (octave)|
Every note that a guitar string is tuned to falls naturally within the key of C Major. Oddly enough, no string on the guitar is actually tuned to the note C, but the tuning still provides a player using the key of C Major with the most open position chords of any key signature on the guitar.
Here are some common songs that are written and recorded in the key of C Major/A Minor:
- Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles)
- Losing My Religion (R.E.M.)
- Simple Man (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
- Hells Bells (AC/DC)
- Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
- No Woman No Cry (Bob Marley)
- Don’t Look Back In Anger (Oasis)
- Like A Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
- Stranglehold (Ted Nugent)
Have a little fun playing around with the open chords found within the key of C Major. You’ll find that you have many options and flexibility regarding the available chords and ways that you can embellish them.
2. G Major/E Minor
When I began writing this article, I had never actually counted up all the open chords found within each key signature on the guitar, but I had assumed that the key of G Major/E Minor was going to have the most.
I was off slightly with that assumption when I found that G Major has 10 and C Major has 11, but I wasn’t far off.
The reason I had made this assumption is because I have found that SO MANY songs are written in the key of G Major on the guitar.
Typically I play acoustic guitar, and when I first pick it to play for a session I always start to warm up by playing through chords and simple songs that use the key of G Major.
It seems as though the guitar was built for playing songs in G.
Just like in the key of C, every open string that the guitar is tuned to falls naturally within the key of G Major.
|Guitar Tuning||E – A – D – G – B – E|
|C Major Scale||G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G (octave)|
As with the key of C Major, the fact that the note from every open string lands within the G Major Scale allows the player to use these notes without having to fret them with a finger.
So the chord shapes are easy to play, sound great, and leave available fingers to add other embellishments. No doubt, when you first started playing the guitar, some of the very first chords you learned were chords found within G Major and C Major.
Any of these look familiar?
You’ve seen these before. These are some of the basic building blocks for learning to play the guitar. This is because they are easier to play than barre chords and are used throughout many songs.
Here are some examples of songs that use the key of G Major/E minor.
- Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
- Blackbird (The Beatles)
- Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns N’ Roses)
- Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
- Brown Eyed Girl (Van Morrison)
- Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash)
- Lyin Eyes (The Eagles)
- Back In Black (AC/DC)
- Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton)
- Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
Here is a link to an awesome website that you can search recordings by the key signature in which they are recorded in. If you search the key of G Major you will find many famous guitar songs from tons of different popular artists.
I would go as far as to say that G Major is the most popular key to write songs on the guitar.
Check out the G Major chords listed above. Challenge yourself to see how many songs you know that use only those chords.
3. D Major/B Minor
Now, on to the next great key signature on the guitar that provides us with many easy-to-play chords. D Major.
Right out of the gate, one noticeable difference from the previous two keys we talked about (C and G) is that the relative minor to D Major is B minor, and it is not typically played as an open position chord. It is commonly played in the 2nd fret rooted on the A string. Like so:
So in the key of D Major, you will need to step up your game and learn some barre chords to mix in with the open position chords.
But with that being said, the key of D Major still has 8 open position chords you can use in your playing to keep a song simple and sounding great.
In Rock, Blues, Pop, and Jazz music, a commonly used variation from the standard major scale is called the Mixolydian Mode.
Without going too deep into the details of music theory, I’ll explain briefly what the Mixolydian Mode is.
The Mixolydian Mode is the scale derived if you start and stop the scale from the 5th note of any major scale. We’ll use the G Major scale:
|G Major Scale (x 2)|
|G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A – B – C – D – E – F#|
The 5th note of the G Major scale is the note D. So we’ll start and stop on the note D using the notes from G Major to build the D Mixolydian Scale.
|D Mixolydian Scale|
|G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A – B – C – D – E – F#|
So the notes in the D Mixolydian Scale are:
D – E – F# – G – A – B – C – D
So what’s the difference between D Major and D Mixolydian? And why have I mentioned it?
|D Major Scale||D – E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D|
|D Mixolydian Scale||D – E – F# – G – A – B – C – D|
The difference between the scales is only one note. The C# note in D Major becomes the note C in D Mixolydian.
How does this help us for making the guitar easier to play? Well, this gives us an extra open position chord to play while using D as the root of our scale.
Essentially, when using the D Mixolydian scale, you are using D as the key center of the song but are using all of the chords found within the G Major scale. Remember, G Major is the most common key to play on the guitar.
Play around a bit using chords from D Major and D Mixolydian and see if you can find any familiar-sounding progressions or something new for yourself.
Here are some examples of songs that use the key of D Major/B minor.
- Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)
- Summer Of 69′ (Bryan Adams)
- Thank You (Led Zeppelin)
- Highway To Hell (AC/DC)
- Daughters (John Mayer)
- Eight Days A Week (The Beatles)
- Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (The Police)
- American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
- Gimme Three Steps (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
- Green River (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
4. F Major/D Minor
F Major is the only key from our list that actually doesn’t use an open position chord for the root chord of the key. So instead, we can use the next best thing, which is a 4 note variation of the F Major Barre Chord, like this:
You may hear this shape referred to as “The F Shape.” Since this chord contains no open strings, it is a movable chord and can be used anywhere on the fretboard.
The key of F is also the only key listed in our easy-to-play keys that is on the left side of the Circle of Fifths.
This means that the accidental in the key of F Major is a flat (b) instead of a sharp (#), which all of the keys on the right side of the Circle of Fifths have.
Here are some examples of songs that use the key of F Major/D minor.
- Life Is A Highway (Rascal Flatts)
- Soul To Squeeze (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
- Come Together (The Beatles)
- Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac)
- Wheel In The Sky (Journey)
- Mr. Crowley (Ozzy Osbourne)
- Free Fallin (Tom Petty) *see note below*
- Sultans Of Swing (Dire Straits)
- The Man Who Sold The World (David Bowie)
- 6th Avenue Heartache (The Wallflowers)
*Free Fallin by Tom Petty uses a great trick for playing in the key of F. Simply place a capo on the 1st fret of the guitar and then play the chord shapes from the key of E Major.
5. A Major/F# Minor
A Major is another key that just feels like the guitar was made for it. In this key, we are now down to having just 6 open position chords, but they’re good ones.
The available open position chords are A, D, E (and their respective 7th chords), which are the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords from the A Major Scale.
The 1st, 4th, and 5th chords from any key signature are heavily used in many songs, leading us to have many song choices with great playability on the guitar.
Another great thing about the key of A on the guitar is that if you want to use more open position chords, you can simply place a capo on the 2nd fret. This is a very common capo placement because now you have access to all of the key of G open position chords shapes. Give it a try.
Here are some examples of songs that use the key of A Major/F# minor.
- Wonderwall (Oasis) *capo on 2nd fret
- Rock And Roll (Led Zeppelin)
- Tears In Heaven (Eric Clapton)
- All My Life (The Beatles)
- Alive (Pearl Jam)
- Crazy Train (Ozzy Osbourne)
- Wagonwheel (Darius Rucker) *capo on 2nd fret
- No Rain (Blind Melon)
- Chasing Cars (Snow Patrol)
- Is This Love (Bob Marley)
6. E Major/C# Minor
Now for our last but not least, easy-to-play key signature for the guitar. E Major.
First off, one thing to notice is that 2 of the guitar’s strings are actually tuned to an E note. This should give us some indication that playing in the key of E is on the guitar is a good choice.
E Major is one of my personal favorites, especially on the acoustic. With the two highest strings on the guitar being E (the root of the scale) and B (the 5th of E Major), we can use them to our advantage when playing and changing chords.
If you need some time between switching chords when playing in E, lightly strum the high E and B strings for one beat while your fingers move to the next chord.
Your chord transitions don’t have to be so precise, which can actually add a little flavor to the song. Another good trick is to add those two strings in combination with a chord that doesn’t usually contain those notes. This will make a chord variation that sounds like it belongs in the key of E.
For instance the Asus2 chord listed from above:
Notice how the high E and B strings are being played open in this chord. This chord will sound great if you use it in an E Major chord progression.
How about this chord:
Now, don’t be freaked out by the name of this chord. It’s a really easy chord to play once you get the hang of it. Try adding this chord to a progression while messing around in the key of E. You’ll find that it adds some awesome flavor to the progression.
Here are some examples of songs that use the key of E Major/C# minor.
- Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)
- With A Little Help From My Friends (The Beatles)
- Beast Of Burden (The Rolling Stones)
- Peaceful Easy Feeling (The Eagles)
- The Climb (Miley Cyrus)
- Interstate Love Song (Stone Temple Pilots)
- She’s Electric (Oasis)
- Change The World (Eric Clapton)
- Ramble On (Led Zeppelin)
- Santeria (Sublime)
Now, this list of reasons as to why these key signatures are “easier” to play on the guitar are not the ONLY reasons. Many may argue other reasons as to why a certain key is more natural on the guitar.
This article intended to bring forward some of the reasons why songwriters chose these key/chords in their compositions. I hope you enjoyed it and learned something new. Play on.