What Key is a Guitar In Without a Capo?

Most musical instruments have a key. This means the pitches that are natural for that instrument. So, without diving too much into musical theory, this is the base set of notes that the instrument can produce.

For example, a harmonica will normally be in the key of C (technically C Major), so the notes it can produce are all on that scale. Not all instruments have a predetermined key, though. Guitars are one of them. So, what key is a guitar in without a capo?

A guitar isn’t in any key. A guitar can play music in all keys and notes. Yes. The standard tuning of a guitar will tune all of the open strings to a note found in the key of C, but this doesn’t mean the guitar is in the key of C.

You can still play notes/chords outside of C. Instruments with a fixed key cannot. For example, if you had a harmonica tuned to C, then it would only be limited to playing notes and chords found in C Major. This doesn’t happen with a guitar. 

We understand that this may seem a bit confusing, especially if you are new to playing the guitar. It may even be confusing to people that have been playing for a while. However, don’t worry.

We will dive deeper into why a guitar doesn’t have a key without a capo. We also want to look at how a capo impacts the notes that you can play. We will cover a small amount of music theory, but we promise that we will keep it light! 

What Key is a Guitar in Without a Capo?

As we said, a guitar doesn’t have a key without a capo. It doesn’t even have a key with a capo. On a guitar, every note and chord is accessible to you. Some may be harder to hit than others, but they are there.

All 24 keys. Although most songs made for guitar stick to one of five keys; C, A, G, E, or D. 

We will now throw a bit of music theory at you but, don’t worry, we will keep it light.

Why Your Guitar Tuning Isn’t The Guitar Key

Guitar players should know that the standard tuning for a guitar is EADGBE. Those into their music theory will know that each of these notes can be found in the C Major key.

So, technically, some people will say that a guitar without a capo is tuned to C Major. Although, in the strictest definition of the word ‘key’ this isn’t the case. 

Yes. If you played each of the notes open on a standard tuned guitar, you would be playing in the key of C Major.

However, it only takes putting your finger on the second fret on the E string, and you would be playing an F#/G♭, neither of which are in the C Major key as this key has no flats or sharp notes.

This is why we say a guitar tuning is not the same as a key. It doesn’t matter what your guitar is tuned to, you can still play any note or chord that you want.

Your finger positions and chord shapes may change a little, depending on the tuning. However, all music keys are still accessible to you.

This is a stark contrast to instruments that have a fixed key (notably, the harmonica). If you have a harmonica tuned to the C Major key, then you can only play notes in that key.

No fancy blowing into the harmonica will ever change the notes that you play, and thus you can’t change the key.

What is a Key?

If you are a new guitar player, then we suggest you watch this YouTube video on the CAGED system. It is something that you will need to get familiar with if you are playing guitar a lot.

It will factor into almost every song that you play. It may even give you more of an idea about how to perform some of the chords we will detail shortly. 

So, what is a key in music? A key is a group of chords (7) that sound fantastic when played alongside one another. So, if a song was written in the key of C, then it would only use chords from the key of C.

The notes that go into making those chords will also sound great when played over the top of the chord progression. You don’t really need to know why they sound good together here. That would involve taking a massive dive into music theory. Just know that they sound good.

As we said, there are 24 different music keys (12 major, and 12 minor). As a guitarist, you only really need to know five of them. These are C, A, G, E, and D. Between these keys, there are just 19 different chords.

For most songs, you only need to learn 14 of them. This is because the diminished chords (VII chords on our list below) are rarely used. 

These are the most common keys to play on a guitar. The first box is the base chord and the name of the key. The six chords that follow make up the other chords in that key.

All the notes that make up these chords are also part of that key. 

I (major)ii (minor)iii (minor)IV (major)V (major)VI (minor)VII (diminished)

Chances are, you probably know how to play most of these chords. If you don’t, it should be easy to look up. Remember, you don’t really need to learn how to play diminished chords.

Once you nail all the chords in this chart, you can play music in five different keys, and this should cover about 90% of all music you would ever need to learn. If you learned the notes and the related scales for a key, then you should have no issues noodling over a backing track too. 

So, see what we mean? Without a capo, your guitar has no key. You can play all the notes in every one of the keys we listed (plus the other 19 we didn’t cover). The same applies even if you have a capo, which leads us neatly onto the next section. 

How Does a Capo Change The Key of the Guitar?

This is where things get confusing. This is because while having a capo won’t change the key of the guitar, it does change the key of the chords that you are playing. 

As you know, when a capo is clamped to the guitar, it will raise the pitch of the strings. How much it raises the pitch will depend on where it is clamped. Each fret will add a half step to the note.

So, if you put a capo on the first fret, all the notes from the open strings would be pushed up by a half step e.g. E would become F, and D would become D#/Eb. If you added the capo to the second fret, then everything would be pushed up by a full step.

That E would become F#/Gb and the D would become E. This is why it is important to learn your notes and where they are on the guitar.

The reason why we add capos to our guitars is so that we can play notes in keys that would normally be incredibly difficult to do in an open tuning. Learning how to do barre chords can only get you so far.

A capo will allow you to play your basic chord shapes further up the fretboard. It is essentially changing the ‘key’ of those shapes.

The same ‘rules’ as before apply. Each fret adds a one-half step. So, if you put the capo on the second fret and used the A chord shape, it would sound like a B. If you placed that capo on the fourth fret, it would become a C# instead.

There are plenty of charts online that should show you how the key of a chord changes based on the position of the capo, although once you learn musical notes, you don’t really need them. 

Again, the capo is not changing the key of the guitar. The guitar can still play all keys. You are just changing the key of the chords that you are playing. Yes. It is confusing, but the distinction is important to make.

Knowing how the capo can shift the key can make it considerably easier for you to jam with musicians that are playing instruments in a fixed key. It will also make it easier for you to play or sing along to certain songs. 

Final Thoughts

While standard tuning of a guitar will result in all open strings being tuned to notes found in C Major, this doesn’t mean that a guitar is in the key of C.

This is because no matter what the strings are turned to, you can still play all notes and chords on a guitar. Some things may be a little bit harder to play without a capo, though.

If you add a capo, it still doesn’t change the overall key of the guitar (as the guitar can still play in all keys), but just the key of the chord that you are playing.

This allows you to easily play songs in a different key without changing the basic chord shapes.


What Notes Are In C Major?

The notes C D E F G A B are in C Major. There are no flats or sharps in this key. All of the notes in the standard tuning of a guitar can be found in C Major, so it can be argued that a guitar is in the key of C, even if this is not technically true. 

How Do You Transpose a Song to D from C Using a Capo?

You would place the capo on the second fret. This will allow you to play your C chord shapes but in the key of D. 

Does a Guitar Have a Key?

No. A guitar does not have a fixed key. Standard tuning is in the key of C, but a guitar can play all keys, just like a piano. 


Howard Matthews
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