Mastering Your Fretboard & Transposing Lead Guitar

  • Written By 
  • Jordan Holt
  • Oct 1st, 2018

Church music is a unique environment for musicians. We are constantly required to play with various combinations of band members and worship leaders and cover other band’s songs. With this comes the challenge of playing in different keys. This typically happens when taking a song originally sung by a male worship leader and changing it for a female vocal range.

The plus side is that this forces musicians to grow in their skills and get out of their comfort zone. It’s no wonder that many professional musicians have started in the church. Hopefully with this blog, I can help make that uncomfortable challenge of transposing a little less uncomfortable and make you a more valuable musician. Let’s look at some practical steps, decisions, and examples of transposing.

Practical Steps and Decisions You May Have to Make

Tip: Learn Scales

This first and most basic advice I can offer anyone for transposing. If you can look at your fretboard and see where a part lies within actual scale patterns, not just fretboard numbers you are focusing on from tabs you are reading, transposing should come rather easy.

Most teachers tend to teach 5 basic patterns, which are available in thousands of resources online. If you do not know these, then this is your first place to start if you want to play lead guitar.

Tip: Learn The Notes You Are Playing

When I approach the fretboard I am not only just thinking in the realm of a scale pattern, but also subconsciously the specific notes in the scale I am playing. I think about whether the note is a 3, 5, 1, F#, E, etc. When you move a part around the neck it helps to know what notes the part is made out of.

An easy way to grow in this skill is flash cards. Yes, it is very school-like and is not very fun, but trust me when I say it helps. I have used an iPhone flashcard app to randomly display any of the 12 notes in our Western music. If it gives me a C# I then try to quickly play every C# on the neck below the 12th fret starting on the low E string, making my way up to the high E and then go back down again. Another day I will do it above the 12th fret. The goal I set for myself is to play the notes as quickly as possible so my mind does not have to think hard about identifying notes.

For learning Nashville Numbers, the most straightforward step would be to practice charting. Take your Sunday setlist and start making number charts for each song. It will most likely be frustrating at first, but after a bit you will be able to listen to any song and pick out what chords are being played by ear. This skill is invaluable and extremely useful in transposing. And for those of you with a Worship Online account, we have added those for you beneath each song!

Challenge: Open Strings and Fretboard Space

My guess for what types of parts people struggle with the most when transposing is either when they run out of room higher up on the fretboard or they are playing a part that relies on a lot of open strings. Let’s look at some examples:

Lion and The Lamb – An iconic guitar part at this point in the game that is higher up on the neck. A lot of people play the part at the 14th and 16th frets on the D, G and B strings. If you move the key from B to say…C#…the part becomes really tricky in that position.

At that point you have the option to play it an octave lower at the 4th and 6th frets on the same strings, which could sound good depending on what the other musicians are playing. The other option would be to go to the G B and high E strings and play it in a completely different pattern around the 13th/14th frets. You just have to try it and see what sounds best to you.

Ever Be – The main part is based on a D major chord on the D G and B strings with an open E. If you transposed this song from D to E, I would simply capo 2 for that open string. If you hypothetically went from D to A that makes things a bit more difficult. I would probably just forsake the open string and play the part the same way without it. Every transposing situation is unique. Tab software cannot make the best judgements, which is why we only offer tabs in the original key.

Challenge: Choosing the Right Octave

As I mentioned earlier in the Lion and the Lamb example, the octave you choose to play in is purely subjective. You have to figure out what sounds best. I believe every good musician is a good producer. Being a good producer is a matter of understanding context and having good taste. If the keyboardist, or other guitarist, you are playing with is playing the high octave, maybe it will sound best to play an octave lower. Sometimes it sounds good to double a part in the same range.

Challenge: Whether to Do the Song

That’s right, sometimes you may just have to do a different song if you do not want to do it around the original key, or maybe find a different leader. An example of this situation would be if you are heavily relying on tracks and you have to transpose the song 6 half steps and they begin to sound off to the point of being distracting. I have been here many times. Sometimes you can pull it off. Other times it just sounds plain terrible.

In the end, I wish I could give more concrete guidelines for transposing, but the reality is that there are not. This all goes to show that God needs a church full of empowered creative musicians more so than simply cover artists. This only comes through practice and learning theory concepts that usually are not as fun as playing with a new pedal. Pay attention to the parts you are learning on Worship Online. Do not just replicate the tabs and lessons you reference, but try to think about how and why those musicians ended up playing those parts the way they do.

Check out these resources below if you need more help in transposing! 



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