Intermediate Acoustic Guitar Course Week 5

Playing in flat keys + Last Request finger style!

Today we look at how to play in flat keys like Eb, Bb, Ab, Db and Gb.

We also look at a basic finger style version for Paolo Nutini’s ‘Last Request’.

Let’s get right to it.

Week 5 – Step 1 – 15-30 min

On the electric guitar, when playing in a band, it is not unusual that we play i Eb, Bb, Ab, Db and Gb.

This is because horn players and keyboard players find it easier to play in flat keys rather than sharp keys.

To do this you would play barred chords all over the neck using fractions of chords. At first this can be hard as most guitar players first learn “guitar songs” or songs written for the guitar, not the piano and saxophone.

Most “guitar songs” are in keys like G, A, E, C and D. You can use open strings for these keys so it makes sense.

You might now think, what about Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, those guys play a lot in Ebm, don’t they?

That’s correct, they do, but both Jimi and Stevie tuned their guitars down a semitone. This makes all the normal guitar keys lower so Em is now Ebm, G is now Gb, D is now Db and so on.

On the acoustic guitar you really want to be in the world of using open strings as one guitar arrangements need to sound as big as possible.

So how do we play in flat keys on the acoustic guitar, using open strings?

The answer is to use a capo.

Let’s take a common progressions and play it in a few odd keys.

The I – VI – II – V

This progression moves from I, which is the home chord, down to the relative minor, the VI.

From here we go up in 4ths as we move up a 4th to the II chord, up a 4th to the V chord and finally up a 4th again to the I chord.

In the key of C this is: C – Am – Dm – G

In the key of G this is: G – Em – Am – D

In the key of D this is: D – Bm – Em – A

In the key of A this is: A – F#m – Bm -E

As you can see, all those progressions produce pretty simple chords.

Let’s look at them in some more strange keys:

In the key of Db this is: Db – Bbm – Ebm – Ab

In the key of Gb this is: Gb – Ebm – Abm – Db

In the key of Eb this is: Eb – Cm – Fm – Bb

In the key of Ab this is: Ab – Fm – Bbm -Eb

That looks a lot more intimidating, right?

By placing a capo on the neck we can get back to those easy keys again. In general, a capo sounds best when placed between fret 2 and 7.

Fret 1 is hard to get in tune and anything higher than fret 7 and you start to sound like a mandolin.

Let’s find out where to place it to make those odd keys work.

In the key of Db: Db – Bbm – Ebm – Ab
Use a capo on fret 4 and play: A – F#m – Bm -E

In the key of Gb this is: Gb – Ebm – Abm – D
Use a capo on fret 4 and play: D – Bm – Em – A

In the key of Eb this is: Eb – Cm – Fm – Bb
Use a capo on fret 3 and play: C – Am – Dm – G

In the key of Ab this is: Ab – Fm – Bbm -Eb
Use a capo on fret 6 and play: D – Bm – Em – A

Key of F

The first key that becomes complicated is the key of F. Even though the key of F only has one flat, a Bb, that Bb is chord IV. Both chord I (the F) and chord IV (Bb) are not possible to play as open position chords.

Even worse, they are both found at fret 1 so extremely difficult to play as barred chords.

If we add a capo a bit up the fretboard and play an F it gets a lot easier. This is what happens in Spy Tunes version of Last Request. Only once in a while do we play the full F chord.

Before we get to that, let’s look at what options we have for this song which is played in the key of Ab.

Last Request Verse

Roman Numerals: | I | III | Vm | II |
Key of Ab: | Ab | Cm | Ebm | Bbm |

That would be a really awkward progression to play alone on one Acoustic Guitar!

Here’s what the progression would be in other keys:

Roman Numerals: | I | III | Vm | II |
Key of G: | G | Bm | Dm | Am | Capo fret 1

Roman Numerals: | I | III | Vm | II |
Key of D: | D | F#m | Am | Em | Capo fret 6

Roman Numerals: | I | III | Vm | II |
Key of C: | C | Em | Gm | Dm | Capo fret 8

Roman Numerals: | I | III | Vm | II |
Key of F: | F | Am | Cm | Gm | Capo fret 4

Play through all these and you might come to the same conclusion as we did:

  1. Capo fret 1 is hard to make the guitar stay in tune, it’s just too low on the neck
  2. Capo fret 6, the progression moves from a high sounding I chord to a low III, this is not right for the song
  3. Capo fret 8 is too high up the neck, not deep enough for a one guitar arrangement.
  4. Capo fret 4, this is the best compromise.

Week 5 – Step 2 – 15-30 min

After that pretty lengthy discussion we ended up with a capo on fret 4 and play as if in the key of F.

Here are all progressions:

Key of FVerse
| I | III | Vm | II |
| F | Am | Cm | Gm |

Pre Chorus/M8
| IV VI | II |
| Bb Dm | Gm |

| I III | VI | II | IV V |
| F Am | Dm | Gm | Bb C |

Apart from being in the slightly awkward key of F (Ab, capo on fret 3) we also have a modified chord to deal with in the Vm. This is a very unusual chord.

I can’t actually think of another song that has a Vm…

Here’s the basic picking pattern for the Intro/Verse:
Last Request Verse
The verse is picked using fingers in a very simple way, try this with a pick as well.

Here’s the basic picking/strumming pattern for the Pre Chorus:
Last Request Pre Chorus
The pre chorus use a different rhythm to the rest of the song. This part could also be played with a pick instead.

And here’s the basic picking/strumming pattern for the Chorus:
Last Request Chorus
The chorus use a picked bass line and a strummed chord. Unusually the chord is played before the bass line. Strum the top strings with either the index finger or the index and middle finger.

You could easily play the chorus and in fact the whole song with a pick.

Here’s the video lesson to play along with:


Today we looked at key signatures again. And again it sounded pretty complicated but remember, we actually only though about one simple progression: the I – VI – II – V.

So powerful are the roman numerals that once you start to see the patterns, it is so much easier than memorizing letter combinations.

Following this we played ‘Last Request’ in the very strange key of Ab. By placing a capo on fret 3 we could play as if in the key of F.

F and Bb (I and IV form the key of F) are difficult chords to fret even with a capo so in the video you saw hardly any full shapes of these chords.

In three days time we look at some more details in the arrangement of ‘Last Request’ as well as get a complete chart for it.

See you then!

Dan (your guitar guru)