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Learning lines and playing in all 12 keys

Perhaps one of the more demanding


challenges for developing jazz guitarists is becoming fluent at playing in all
12 keys. When I first began to study jazz guitar I realised within a very short
space of time that only practicing in the open-string guitar keys of E, A and G
was something that would limit me considerably working alongside other
musicians who were more commonly playing in the ‘flat keys’ such as Bb and
Ab.

Working on various scales and arpeggios was certainly a significant benefit in


becoming more fluent with these flat keys, however the one approach that
helped me the most was taking the interval formula of a line I liked and then
gradually transposing that to other keys. This approach is what I am going to
discuss in today’s lesson.

Start with a simple melodic line

The basic idea here for playing in all 12 keys is that you take a melodic line (or
pattern) from one key/scale or arpeggio and then transpose that to the other
remaining keys. Let’s begin with a very simple and commonplace four-note
line for a dominant 7th chord:
This line is a common pattern used by a lot of jazz players and it outlines the
3, 5, R and b7 of a dominant 7th chord.

The interval numbers are pretty easy to remember, but the more challenging
job is to transpose this line to the other keys. Let’s examine how we can do
that.

Transposing to other keys

I would first suggest writing out [or preferably memorising] the other keys
that you want to transpose to and in this example I am going employ a
familiar progression – the cycle of fifths. The keys will therefore move either
up in fourths or down in fifths to give you the following 12 keys in total:

C – F – Bb – Eb – Ab – Db – Gb – B – E – A – D – G

Our four note line can of course be fingered in a number of different fretboard
locations, however I have illustrated it starting around the fifth position to give
us a ‘middle of the fingerboard’ starting point.

The first task is to play the line several times in the


original key to implant the sound firmly in your ear – as this is essential in
really being able to hear (and eventually transpose) any line. You may wish to
do this later in different locations over the fingerboard, but for the moment
you can stay in one place and with one fingering. Having completed that, you
will now need to begin the first transposition which in this case is to
accommodate the F7 chord.

To do this I found a nearby fingering for the four notes of the original pattern
(now transposed) that would enable me to play it as an F7 line instead of the
original C7. You may notice here as well that I haven’t moved down by an
octave to play the first note of the newly transposed pattern, but instead
moved to the nearest available note. This will help to minimise your finger
movement and it also creates a smoother melodic flow.

I might have lowered the first note of the F7 transposition down by an octave
as I have mentioned above, but as I was leaving the C7 line from a Bb on the
top E string, it made melodic sense to just drop that note by a semitone to A
to make the whole pattern begin again from the fifth fret [top string] The
pattern is then begun again from this starting pitch.

To give you a good start on transposing


the lines, I have written out the first four key transpositions in the example
above, but your task will now be to locate and then play the remaining keys.
This might seem to be a challenging prospect, but as long as you can hear the
line clearly, the transposition process should be achievable with a bit of
concentrated effort.

Taking up the idea that I used to transpose from the first key to the second,
you’ll see that I remained with the approach of using a semitone movement
from the last note in each four note line to the first in the next [transposed]
line. This really helps make the line sound like it flows. Trusting your ears will
be crucial here too to avoid any errors in the transposed line.

Even if you aren’t completely familiar with all the notes


on the fretboard, this exercise should help you expand any melodic material
you are working on to improve fluency in other keys. As with all exercises like
this, take your time and work things up very slowly, perhaps even just two
keys at at time until you can play the whole exercise correctly at a comfortable
tempo.

To further expand on these exercises, try writing out other lines/patterns of


your own and transposing them as well. Eventually you will gain much greater
control over the fingerboard and be playing in all 12 keys with ease.

Happy Practicing

Pete