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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: How do you know what key you sing in

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buskyboy - Posted - 12/19/2008:  23:25:58

This is either a very stupid question or not i do care I am going to ask anyway.

I have been learning to play for about 6 months. Now here is the thing. I know know its important to play in the key of the singer hence learning a tune in different keys. I can play for instance (all be it badly)Jjesse James in G or D. The question is how do you know the key of your own voice? do I sing in D or G or C.

I ask as I have no idea.

Cheers Patrick

Just getting the beat

Edited by - Banjoman on 04/25/2009 09:24:27

Gareth Banjoland - Posted - 12/19/2008:  23:56:43

Hey Pat, I'm no great singer but I'd suggest trying in each key and whatever feels the best and easiest just go with that, recording yourself singing will give you an outside ear view of how it sounds, disturbing as it is to hear your own voice, it is certainly a good thing to do. I feel like the keys I can get good volume in are the best for me, don't be afraid to belt it out!!
You can use capo as well if G or D is just a bit low and you want to go up to A or E.
Hope this is of some use.
cheers matey



escapee - Posted - 12/20/2008:  01:16:37

Your key is the one that is comfortable over the whole range in a song. It may vary from song to song and a capo can be a singer's best friend. Gareth made an excellent point about volume. Hitting the note doesn't count if nobody can hear you. Good luck.

The spirit is frailling,but the flesh is weak.

wrentree - Posted - 12/20/2008:  04:39:54

When you choose your key to sing in you want as little strain on your voice as possible too. If you have to strain your voice, you are singing in the wrong key or the song is not for you. JMHO.


beegee - Posted - 12/20/2008:  04:55:53

It varies with the range of the song and your vocal range. It also changes from time-to-time, especially as you get older. I used sing a lot of stuff in G and A and now I'm doing more E & F. You also have head register and chest register. Too many country, folk, bluegrass and old-time musicians tend to sing in keys too high and tend to sing through the nose and use the jaw muscles and throat muscles to try to control pitch and volume, which can confuse your choice of key. Another problem is that they tend to try to sing in the same key as_______________did it, or in the only key in which they can play(that's why the capo was invented).

To figure out which key you sing in, try a song. If the lowest notes of the true melody make you growl, or the highest notes of the true melody make you squauk and howl, or if your throat gets tight and crampy, or you get raspy and have sore throat, you are in the wrong key.Another clue that you are in the worng key is that the people listening start wincing and rolling their eyes.

"It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing."

tom clunie - Posted - 12/20/2008:  08:33:35

That is a very GOOD question! It took me years! to figure out that "G" is the worst key for my voice in that it is pitched where I can sing only a few notes of that scale. Most folks (me!) have a range of only about and octave and a half to two octaves. Some folks can go FIVE octaves but are pretty rare creatures. Using a guitar or piano, I find my range goes from a low "A" note through an octave to about an "E" high note. If I try to sing "The Red River Valley" in "G" tuning it is a strain in that I am at the very upper limit of my range. Yet if I drop down an octave with my voice I cannot hit the low notes. This might also be true for a lot of other people too as that "high and lonesome sound" probably comes from people straining to make the key of "G", the most common tuning for a banjo, fit their voice range.

Songs in the key of say "C: will commonly have its lowest note be "C" or also very commonly go down several steps to "G" as would be the case with Red River Valley. So as a five stringer, you have to figure out whether your lowest note for a song will be on the fourth or third string. Since my lowest comfortable note is "A", I would have to put the capo on the 7th fret to get to the key of "D" (dADF#A) if I wanted to sing Red River Valley and still keep in the "G" fingering pattern. But at the 7th fret your banjo may be losing a lot of its longer string tone, sounding a little dead or muted. What I have done is put Aquila nylgut strings - minstrel gage - on a Ramsey standard and tune it down from "G" to the key of "E" (eBG#B). I could drop it one more step down to the key of "D" (dADF#A) but the banjo loses a lot of its tone from too floppy/lose strings. So hitting that low "B" note on the fourth string is easy and then I can go up to the first string, fifth fret to get that high "E" not which is the end of my upper range.

Remember where I said that some songs in "G" pattern tuning only go down as low as the third string? Well if I put a capo on the second fret while it is in "G" tuning, I am suddenly in "A" tuning (aEAC#E) and I can go from the third string ("A") all the way up the first string to the twelth fret ("E"). "The Leaving of Liverpool" might be a song I would do that with.

Some folks like to tune their banjo to open "C" (gCGCE) but agin if the fourth string low note is "C" but the song's low note is "G" it doesn't work. Yet it would work just fine for "The leaving of Liverpool" which is another way of getting from here to there with a banjo.

So I have a Ramsey tuned to open "E" and a Tradesman to "G" or double "D" (gCGCE capoed to the second fret) for jamming/fiddle tunes.These are some of my thoughts and I hope it is helpful, and lets see what other folks have to say. Good luck in banjology! TC

raybob - Posted - 12/20/2008:  08:35:10

I think the capo is a good idea. Try starting off with a song you know in a key that's a little low for you. Sing a couple lines then move the capo up a fret or two and try it again. You should find a place where you are singing in "full voice". It will vary with the song you're singing, but when you find it you'll know it. Try to have some friends around so they can give you their opinions as the capo moves up. It's kind of hard to describe, but the term "full voice" was used when I did it and I think it says it all. Have fun.


"We learn from history that we do not learn from history." --G. Santayana

gorf - Posted - 12/20/2008:  08:58:18

Great question, I've wondered this myself, just never knew how to ask it. Thanks...

oldwoodchuckb - Posted - 12/20/2008:  20:16:59

Sing a song you are comfortable with. Figure out what note you end the melody on, or what note is closest to your end note. That note is also the name of the song's key about 80% of the time.

If you want to stay easy to accompany try putting the majority of your songs into C or G - if you hang out with folkies. If you hang out with old time musicians try to do stuff in A and D.

Download your free copy of Rocket Science Banjo - the Advanced Method For Beginning to Intermediate Clawhammer Players, at:

Along with the full text in PDF you will also find the four current RSB videos and the "25 EZ Clawhammer tunes. - which are up to about 40 now.

Banjo Brad is still hosting "How To Mold A Mighty Pinky" and some other material at:
A site full of interesting banjo material

tom clunie - Posted - 12/20/2008:  21:04:36

Wood chuck is right about the preferred keys. The key of "E" that I touted is about the most unsocial of the keys in the deck - too many sharps etc. that most fiddlers and other instrumentalists don't regularly use, depending on their instrument. I would prefer to lower that "E" tuning to a "D" but the tone/playability just goes out the window, so I use it as my solo banjo. So if your voice fits one of the better keys that Woodchuck mentioned, gopher
it. Yo! TC

minstrelmike - Posted - 12/20/2008:  21:09:17

First off, there is no preferred "key" to sing in; there is only a preferred key for a particular song. For instance, Shortnin Bread in the key of D uses exactly the same notes as Swing Low does in the key of G. A singer who sings in that range naturally would sing one song in one key and the other song in a different key.

To me, the secret to finding your key is to sing without any accompaniment whatsoever. Choose a song you know the words and melody too but that you do not play on an instrument nor listen to regularly. If you listen to the song, you will want to sing it in the key you hear it in. Songs with long notes like Swing Low or Tom Dooley are good. King of the Road. Anything familiar, but that you haven't heard in a long time. Nursery rhymes are good.

Sing them in the shower, in the car, by yourself, but never with any accompaniment. Do this for a week or 6 weeks until you can get the song to resonate out of your lungs. Then sing it and compare the last note to a tuner or banjo string. That is your natural key for that song. Other songs will work in that key or in a key a fifth different. If it's in Eb or Bb, it is easier to move a single step to D or A instead of forcing yourself to play in C because that's how the tab goes.

By the way, throw away all the righthand garbage about fingerpicks or frailing and try strumming the banjo when you sing. This will clarify the backup sound and intensify the rhythm so when you put the picks back on, you'll be able to play the song the way you want to sing it, not force the cadence to match your picking patterns.

brokenstrings - Posted - 12/20/2008:  21:42:57

In my active guitar-playing days, I'd just sing a song and try out what key it was closest to on the guitar. At some point I learned to read music well enough that I could look at a folk song in standard notation and figure out what key I could best sing it in. (At that point I'd figured out that my range was roughly from C below middle C to G above middle C, no longer true.) Someone said above that the average person has a range of an octave and a half. True, and that's why people have so much trouble singing "The Star-Spangled Banner"--it ranges over an octave and a half, and that's not the same octave and a half for everybody. In fact, I've found that I can only sing that and "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) in C, and those are the ONLY songs I sing in C.


Frailaway, ladies, frailaway!

stringbeaner - Posted - 12/22/2008:  00:17:55

I think Beegee said it best especially for someone who does'nt know a lot about music: If you squeek on the high notes or growl on the low ones, you're in the wrong key. The capo helps a lot


crsb - Posted - 12/27/2008:  18:26:10

My guitar teacher had me sing as low and as high as I could comfortably sing, then he put it on a music staff. He showed me how to move the key up or down to fit my range. Then if you learn the major scale in G and C you can find the melody notes. Once you find the melody notes on your banjo sing along using just the melody notes matching your voice to the melody. If you know the keys G and C you can capo to fit your range with F being the hardest to get to because of the 5th string tuner. E is a good key for most male baritones hence the long neck banjo.

It''s not the destination, it''s the journey,


Cornflake - Posted - 12/27/2008:  21:37:06

For what it's worth: I sometimes work as a substitute elementary music teacher. If I want to find out what key the whole class might sing in I'll ask a kid or 2 to simply sing me the song a capella (I always get volunteers in elementary school). These kids are pretty uninhibited. As the kid sings a song I will find the key on my banjo--strumming the open G chord then moving up the neck using a barre position (G#, A, Bb, B, etc....) till I hear the chord fitting the song. If it's not the I chord, it'll be the IV or V. I figure the key of the class out from there.

Also, I have noticed with myself and with others that people tend to sing several keys down from the best key for them. This might especially be true in bluegrass, where HIGH is often (though not always) better. I always try to find the highest note in the song. If I can hit that note more or less comfortably, that'll be the key for me....Just a rule of thumb, not etched in stone.

It takes a village to tune a banjo

Harreec - Posted - 12/28/2008:  09:49:48

It was really easy for key all the time, just ask anyone who's heard me.


tramp - Posted - 04/25/2009:  07:26:05

Nice one Harry,I am with you,my singin is rubbish !! ask my wife ,kids,friends,anyone who has heard me.I keep singing along with stuff but I dont get any better!!

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