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Snatching that key out of thin air.


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I started out with the usual natural scale chords(Am-C-Dm-E-Em-F-G)

I only learned the other stuff because I had to.


Playing by ear was almost entirely new to me.

Formal classical training on the violin was about the third of many instriuments.

The training on Baritone was nothing new except for learning to play the bass clef.

That would be the first instrument I would improvise on.


By the time I switched to guitar, I was spending my time with an older crowd.

These young adults, especially the girls were so much more interesting.

These guys could play by ear.

I thought at the time, if they can do it, I can do it.


I started with the natural scale without any reference material.

Knowing your basic scale on violin helped when it came to figuring it all out.

I learned the first 3(E-G)-5(G-A)-8(B-D)10-(D-D)12-15th(E-G), a step at a time.


I didn't became aware of anything else until I placed a capo at the 5th fret,

which made me aware of the relationship between chords and scales;

0/12th fret = natural scale, Am, C

2d = Bm, D

4th = C#m, E

5th = Dm, F

7th = Em, G

9th = F#m, A

Do the following;

I'm only going to mess with the Aeolan.







Ok, mess around with these notes and see how a major chord melody will place you in C.

Do it again, except end your melody with an A note that drops to an Ab, you'll see that Am fits.


Now, once you can do that, you can look at the prior diagram that shows scales where they start and the chords that fit them.


Back to the story.

Playing and singing to Rainbow, Rundgren, Journey, Skorpions, Queen, etc,...

made me aware of other keys and how to mess around with them.

It wouldn't be untill I joined a local church that I would be under the gun.


Your layman isn't too aware of how you have to be at the top of your game

every time someone grabs a mike.

My most exasperating vocalist was one who was rythymically challenged.

She was about 4'10", 80 lbs, at least 70, and with an attitude.

She was birdlike in her barely-contained energy and as soon as she would

grab a mike, she would introduce the song, always with the following caveat;

"lets see if these guys can catch me"

I never said it, but in my mind I always thought, "lets see if she can sing"

Bad church musician, bad.


The training is pretty decent as far as developing your ear and trying to visualize

where is this guy going.

Its not that common, but a lot of people have a way of remembering melodies

that may be major but get remembered as minor, leaving you clueless unless you've heard

it in its original form.

Remember, real-time, as in not ever enough time to go through a piece before

they switch on the PA.


Most guitarists don't play lead.

That leaves most of these as visualizing a bass line.

The lead guitarist has more options.

I almost never have had to go with plan b.

Prove this one;

Listen to the vocals to Smoke on the Water, listen for the bass, and then see if it isn't based on Cm.

Listen to the vocals on Carry on wayward son, listen for the bass, and see if it doesn't fall into Bm

" "Woman from Tokyo" "E.

See if it works out for you.



I find it easier to slide with B downward from the 12th fret as it gives me enough

wiggle room to go in either direction.

That and noticing that you only have two places where the scale deviates from

whole steps.




You can see that it is both E-F, and C-D.


It means that you can slide a couple of whole steps until you can visualize the

melody going either minor or major.

With enough experience, you can nail it within 3 seconds.


The only time it doesn't work is when you have a tense singer that starts and then

drops a half-step before the rest of the band can follow him.

Garbage in, garbaje out, you have to be able to figure out what the singer is going through.

It happened to me once, I set the key at F and as soon as I opened my mouth, my throat muscles tightened and I bottomed out.

Without missing a beat, I switched to G and made it happen.


Ok, if the singer can't drive the tempo, you have to do it for him.

If the singer starts to bottom out, you can shift two frets forward.

If the singer's voice starts to crack, shift gears downward two frets.


I can usually snag a song in less than three seconds.

Once, I had an extremely awkward situation.

This girl had been singing since she was small.

Not the best voice or attitude, but busy, which is good enough for me.

I had a falling-out with her dad.

She turned from best friend into worst enemy overnight.


She also had to depend on CD tracks to make her gigs happen.

One day, her dependable technology died in the middle of a song.

In less than 2 seconds, I had it and she kept going without missing a beat.

As much as she hated me, she ended up thanking me afterwards.


That'a as good as one can get even without rehearsing.

I'm pretty sure you guys can do even better.

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We just dumped a keyboard player that couldn't figure crap out on the fly.


As a bar gigger, I may be called upon for all kinds of crap. It's nice with some 35+ years experiance to be able to pull off Jerry Jeff Walker, Van Halen, or Les Paul at the drop of a hat.


If you can't grab a key in a second or two, you probably don't have much of a future in the biz.


No offense.



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In the last few years I have played more lead and I have learned how to key grab. I think you need 3 things. First a decent ear for tone, secondly typical progression of what ever type of music your playing and lastly practice. Lots of practice.

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