Guitar Keys and Positions

Guitar Keys and Positions

In tonal music, knowing the key of a piece is a great fingerboard organizer, telling the guitarist what chords to expect and which possible positions they may be played in.  Before studying guitar keys and positions, it may be helpful to review the articles, Scale Pattern Recognition, Playing in Higher Positions, or the Introduction in The Shearer Method Book III: Learning the Fingerboard.


In simplest terms, the key is a “family” of 7 different notes that, when played as a scale, will sound either major or minor—a major key or a minor key.  The strongest note in the family (like the parent), is called a tonic which names the key. For example, in the key of  D major, D is the tonic; in the key of  C major, C is the tonic, etc.

Guitar Keys and Positions

Also in the key “family” are 7 different chords.  The most important is the tonic chord and as the “parent,” names the key.  Thus, in the key of D major,  D major (D-F#-A) is the tonic chord .

Secondly important in the key’s chord family are the subdominant and domiant on the IV and V scale degrees.  In the key of D major, they are G major (G-B-D) and A major (A-C#-E).

Identifying the Key

The key signature is a group of sharps or flats at the beginning of each musical line which identifies the key of the piece or passage.  There are several ways to recognize the different key signatures, but without getting technical, the easiest may be to just memorize them.  Out of the 24 different major and minor keys, only about 10 guitar keys are used in traditional solo repertoire.

For a detailed study of guitar keys, scales and chords, see Guitar Harmony

Guitar Keys
Key Signature
Guitar Keys
Guitar Keys
Key Signature

Positions and keys

In each higher position, there are a limited number of keys (5 major and 5 minor).  The same key can be found in multiple positions. Some positions are less useable than others—particularly those with flat keys, or where open bass strings are less compatible with the key.

This gives each higher position a sort of key characteristic.  So while Positions III and VIII with their flat keys are almost unusable, Positions II, IV, VII, and IX are optimal.   Within the optimal positions, some keys work better than others.  For instance, D major is great in Pos II, E major in Pos IV, G major in Pos VII, etc.

Position Defined from Learning the Fingerboard

Sor, Op. 35, No. 17
Carcassi, Op. 59, Allegretto
Optimal Keys/Position
Optimal Keys
Optimal Keys
Pos II
D, A, G
B, E
Pos IV
E, A, D
Pos V
A, D
Pos VI
G, D
B, E
Pos IX
A, E, D

Associating Guitar keys to a position

The 10 different keys (5 major and 5 minor) can be mapped into each position by one of the 5 different scale forms.  Think of scale forms as note templates. Scale forms I, IV, and V span 5 frets with squeeze shifts, while forms  II & III span 4 frets in fixed position.  The rectangular finger number in each scale-form diagram represents the start/stop note which is the tonic of the key. For more on the Five Scale Forms , see Learning the Fingerboard.

The Major scale forms:

Scale Form III is a very common pattern found in solo repertoire.  It works well because:

  • It spans 4 frets, so notes of the key are contained within a comfortable L. H. reach.
  • In many guitar-key positions, open bass strings can support its tonic chord.
  •  It’s the only form where the tonic chord lays out across the fingerboard in 4 sets of three adjacent strings.
Scale Form 3

Scale form III—Key Chords

Key chords in D major are D major (tonic), G major (subdominant), and A major (dominant).  These may be realized with Scale form III/Pos II in adjacent three-string patterns:

Scale Form III—Tonic

The Tonic chord (I), D major, is well contained within the position and easily arpeggiates across the fingerboard.

Scale Form III—Dominant

The Dominant, or V chord, in the key D major is A major which requires a bar on strings ②, ③, & ④.

Scale Form III—Subdominant

The Subdominant, or IV chord, in the key D major is G major.  To play in scale form III, shift the L.H. up one fret to bar on strings ① & ②.

Applying Scale Form III in music

Arpeggiating the I, IV, & V chords in a progression clearly defines a given a key for each position.

D major
Position II

D major—Position II

E major
Position IV

E major—Position IV

Repertoire Examples

Most of the standard guitar repertoire is a mixture of different positions, open and higher.  All selections below, at some point, incorporate Scale form III to articulate the key’s higher register.  Look for its note template and any patterns of key chords.


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