How to Transpose or Change the Key of a Chord Chart

What do you do if you find a chord chart of your favorite song, but it’s not in the right key?

The term transpose simply refers to changing the key of a song. You can transpose a piece to either a lower pitch or a higher pitch. So for example, you find a chord chart is in the key of A but you want to play it in the key of G. Surprisingly, this isn’t very difficult to do if you know a small bit of the theory behind it.

Let’s look at this.

Scales and Roman Numerals

Each song is generally based upon a scale. Most popular songs that you play on the guitar are based on the major scale. There are seven notes in a scale. So in the key of C major, you have the notes: C D E F G A B.

The chords of that song are then built off of each note of the scale, which would give you seven chords for that key. However, each of these chords will have a different sound. Based upon a major scale, some chords will be major, others minor, and one chord will be diminished.

We don’t have time to look into how each of these chords are built, but a major scale has this structure, which can be represented by roman numerals:

I   ii   iii   IV   V   vi   vii^o

The uppercase roman numerals represent major chords. The lowercase roman numerals represent minor chords. The lowercase roman numeral with the superscript circle represents a diminished chord.

So let’s take a C major scale and use the above roman numerals. In a C major scale, you will have the following chords:

C   Dm   Em   F   G   Am   Bdim

You can do this with any key.

So what’s this have to do with transposing?

When we identify the chords of a key by roman numerals, it makes it easier to transpose to another key. Here’s how this works. Again, let’s say we are in C major, and we have a chord progression like this:

C  F  Am  G

Let’s transpose this up to D major. First, we must identify each chord with a roman numeral.

C   F   Am   G
I   IV  vi   V

We want to take the progression that is in the key of C major (C – F – Am – G) and move that up to D major. Since we know the progression is I – IV – vi – V progression, all we have to do is figure out what that progression is in D major.

So let’s identify each chord in the key of D major with a roman numeral.

D  Em  F#m  G   A  Bm  C#dim
I  ii  iii  IV  V  vi  vii^o

As we can see, the “I” chord is “D”, the “IV” chord is “G”, the “vi” chord is “Bm”, and the “V” chord is “A.” So our transposed chord progression in the key of D major is D – G – Bm – A.

Key Change Chart

As you become more familiar with the chords in each key, the more transposing will become second nature. However, I’ve put together a chart that will help you transpose into any key using the method shown above.

Key     |  I   ii   iii   IV   V   vi   vii^o
C major |  C   Dm   Em    F    G   Am   Bdim
D major |  D   Em   F#m   G    A   Bm   C#dim
E major |  E   F#m  G#m   A    B   C#m  D#dim
F major |  F   Gm   Am    Bb   C   Dm   Edim
G major |  G   Am   Bm    C    D   Em   F#dim
A major |  A   Bm   C#m   D    E   F#m  G#dim
B major |  B   C#m  D#m   E    F#  G#m  A#dim

Do you have any tips or shortcuts for transposing a key?

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.

Comments

  1. Very cool article. Learning how to understand roman numerals, or just numerals, in relation to chords and scale tones is an invaluable resource for guitarists in any genre.

    Great stuff!
    MW

  2. acoustic dude

    this article is really rad!

  3. Thank you very much for sharing. Your information always proves to be useful. I think your post is suitable for everyne, who is interested in valuable resources. I will keep following your posts.

  4. Nich

    Thanks a lot man, I’ve been playing guitar for about 4 years and music for even longer and that finally gave me an idea of what a key actually is.

  5. Nich, that’s awesome. I’m glad this could be of some help to you!

  6. Ya know Brett… This is FANTASTIC! I think this is the easiest explanation I have ever read on key changes! I’m going to work with some of my intermediate students to see if this will help them. Great Job!

    P.S. I’m curious… Where did you receive your training?

    Take care! :o)

  7. Excellent explanation! Guitarists need to take theory more seriously so these kinds of things will make more sense.

  8. AprilSchief

    This is EXACTLY what I needed. booyah. thanks for not making me buy this or accidentally come across some half dressed lady in the process.

  9. Keith M Johnson

    Hi Brett..Just found your Guitar website..Cool..What else do you play? Ukulele site and now a Guitar site?

    I have a question..I just got a Guitalele by Yamaha with six strings tuned to ADGCEA and it is like having a capo on the 4th fret of a regular guitar. My question is this and I figured that you would know the answer. When I play a song and the songbook is for a guitar would I have to change the chords to another chord. Like if the first chord is a C chord would I need to change that to say a G chord? Or just use the chords that a guitar would use? I heard that if I wanted to jam with guitars I would need to change the chords due to the Guitalele being high..I can’t find to much about the Guitalele..Thanks..Keithmj

    • Hey Keith, I just played a Yamaha guitalele the other day at the music store. It’s a really cool instrument!

      You are right that if you want to jam with other guitar players you would need to transpose the chords. Since you are playing up 5 half steps on the guitalele, you would need to transpose down the chords 5 half steps. For example, if you wanted to play along with a guitar player who was playing in the key of G, you would need to transpose down to the key of C major.

      Another example, if you wanted to play with a guitarist who was playing in the key of C major, you would need to transpose the chords down to F major to play along on the guitalele.

  10. Keith M Johnson

    Sorry..It would be like a capo on the 5th Fret..Keith

  11. Del F

    After about 20 years of playing guitar and just learning chords and licks without any theory, this article is a revelation. It really is like a million-Watt Halogen bulb has been switched on in my mind. Thank you very much for this.

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