Have you ever been told to learn a song in every key? It’s often talked about but rarely done. Few things can improve your knowledge of the fretboard more than working out all your favorite licks and tunes in as many keys as you can. For this article I’ve taken a simple melody version of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and arranged it in literally EVERY key!
I began in the traditional key of D followed by the common flatpicking position of C (often played with a capo at the second fret turning it back into the key of D). Next, I tackled some other common flatpicking keys like G, A, E, and F — and then ventured into the more elusive open positions like Bb, Eb, Ab, B, F#, and C#! Some musicians would wonder why I’m not simply going around the cycle of 4th’s or 5th’s. In this case, I’m thinking more like a folk musician in that I’m tackling the keys in the order I might actually use.
As a flatpicker I am always trying to truly master the guitar’s open positions. Using the open strings in each key is one of the things that makes flatpicking unique to other similar genres such as blues, jazz, and rock. Each key has its own unique moments as the open strings are different scale degrees in all the different keys. You will however begin to notice recurring patterns in many of the open shapes. I love how keys that might seem so odd at first like F and Bb end up having similar patterns. I promise that working through “Whiskey Before Breakfast” in every key will without a doubt change the way you see and use the open position.
Sometimes you may encounter licks and tunes that drift too high or too low to transpose into every key and octave. In these situations you will have to find a creative way of getting the licks to come out. In fact, doing a different version of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” in all the keys would be a whole other fun challenge. Perhaps material for a future LWM article.
Once you understand how to transpose your licks and tunes into other keys I encourage you to do this with as many tunes and licks as you can. It will soon become second nature to do this and your ear will improve greatly. It should go without saying that you should already know the I, IV, and V chords in every key as well as all your open position major scales. If you do not have all that memorized then this lesson will have you heading in the right direction.