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Working Out the Chords to a Song

I guess many of us guitar players have been in a situation in which friends expect us to play a song immediately (I do not mean the simple I-IV-V progression!). So, please give advice or tricks for the following:

a) Working out the chords to a song.

b) If I know the chords of the song but don’t have a capo – how to play it quickly in a different key for example if I can play “Yesterday” in the key of C – how can I play it in F – without having a pen and paper!

Thank you so much in advance. Your help is really appreciated!


Working out the chords to a song by ear is a skill that takes some time to master.

There's no real short cut or trick for this, but I can suggest a process for training your ear to hear different chord movements and relationships that commonly occur in songs.

Start with diatonic progressions using the major scale as the foundation.

Most rock and pop songs use a formula derived from major scale harmony.

This formula is often referred to as a "chord scale", because we take a scale and build chords on each of its degrees.

The major scale is the most commonly used scale for building chord progressions.

Go through the chord progressions section to gain a deeper understanding of this chord scale system.

By analysing the major scale in this way, you'll naturally train your ear to hear and internalise some of the most common chord relationships used in songs.

I / IV / V (1 4 5) is just one of these.

I / V / vi / IV (1 5 6 4) is another one that has been done to death!

I recommend taking chord pairings from the scale to help with this ear training.

For example, play V-I (5-1, a common form of resolution in songs) in five different keys of your choice.

Emaj / Amaj

Fmaj / Bbmaj

Gmaj / Cmaj

G#maj / C#maj

Bmaj / Emaj

Tip: also try just playing the bass note for each chord - this will really help internalise these interval relationships upon which the chords are built.

For example, the root notes of the V-I chords would be the 5 and 1 notes from the major scale. If you devote time to learning the major scale intimately, you'll be able to see this 1-5 relationship all over the fretboard.

Keep choosing different chord pairings from the scale, such as I-iii (1-3)

Amaj / C#m

Bbmaj / Dm

Cmaj / Em

C#maj / Fm

Emaj / G#m

The next logical step is to add a 3rd chord to the pairs, again trying different combinations in several keys.

There are also minor key relationships. Start with the vi (6) chord of the major scale and pick out pairings and other combos in relation to that vi chord, in different keys.

An example would be IV-vi

Amaj / C#m

Bmaj / D#m

Cmaj / Em


The more you study and internalise different chord relationships within the scale, working out the chords to a song will become easier and, for simpler progressions, almost instant.

It'll also be easier to transpose progressions to different keys purely by ear.

But, aside from using a capo, there is also a simple visualisation method you can use, covered in the lesson on how to transpose guitar chords.

Hope this helps!

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