Understanding Major Keys Quickly and Easily

This lesson is a quick tutorial on understanding and applying major keys. It is essential for every musician of every level to know what is covered in this lesson.

The material found in this lesson will form the backbone of all of our scale studies here at GuitarLessons365, so it would be a good idea to download the PDF and learn it.

The method used here to get you comfortable with keys is very simple and quick. However, the idea is not to try and figure out keys as quick as you can with this method. Take your time in learning and saying all of your major scales.

When it comes to actually applying this material in a real life situation, you won't be using any method because hopefully by that time you will just know your keys automatically.

So this tutorial is really just a way to get these keys in your head so you can begin to become so familiar with them that eventually you won't have to think about it anymore.

THAT is when you will truly have your keys nailed, and it only comes from a methodical study of the keys over a short period of time.

No video for this lesson, since its all bookwork.. WooHoo!!!

So Good Luck and let me know if you have any questions!!

Understand Keys PDF

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  1. Kristoffer Sundström on May 15, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    I Think i finally figured out how to find out which ones that are sharps. Big deal for me haha 🙂 Im not gonna get too excited i still have a long way to go! 🙂

  2. Mattias on May 16, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    In fact, the circle of 4th and 5th is inhereted in your guitars tuning. We have two strange beasts – C and F, therefore we have to press the first fret of the second and first string to get them. This is how it works.
    2nd string open (B)
    6th string to 3rd string open (E,A,D,G)
    First fret strings 2 and 1 (C,F )
    This gives you The circle of 4th. Do it backwards, start with The first fret F on the first string and you get The circle of 5th.

  3. Giacomo Bergonzi on May 16, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Wow, you surprised me here (yeah, even more than you did with all the rest of the awesome stuff on the website)… I learned how to understand keys in less than 45 minutes!!! At start I didn’t want to get into music theory on your website only because I tought it would have been easier to study that stuff in my mother tongue, but I decided to give it a try eventually, and well, I have to say that so far it’s been far easier than I expected. Your method is brilliant and I really want to thank you for what you did and you keep doing… those Orion lessons are just GREAT by the way!

  4. Paul Eastwood on February 4, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    I understand the merry go round concept but unsure why it says E# and B# is the pattern form!

    • Carl Brown on February 5, 2016 at 9:49 pm

      Because those are notes that you will find it a couple major scales. You will find E# in the key of F# Major, and both E# and B# in the key of C# major.

  5. Terry Westlund on March 5, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Is F# major & Gb major really the same scale or am I doing something seriously wrong? Mahalo

  6. Patricia Russell on May 3, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    Hi Carl: at this point I need to learn my scales (and notes on the fretboard). Do you have a scales exercise I can do everyday? – Patricia

    • Carl Brown on May 8, 2016 at 1:52 pm

      Hey Patricia, the improv courses would help you with learning both the notes on the fretboard and the scale forms you would need.

      Have you checked those out?


  7. Custom.08 on July 15, 2016 at 9:41 am

    HI Carl
    First of all thank you for the great lessons. Although I have been playing for a while I didn’t understand the theory behind what i was playing. It is now like drinking out of a fire hose for me but I have already seen an improvement in my playing. In addition to practicing my scales etc with the hopes of being able to improvise solos, I am trying to practice learning more songs by ear rather than depending on tab . Is there a particular app that you recommend for slowing down the more difficult parts. I use a mac.
    Thank you

    • Carl Brown on July 18, 2016 at 11:15 am

      Hey Tom, great to hear from you!

      I personally use software called “Transcribe” made by a company named Seventh String. Just google it, they are easy to find. It is inexpensive and they have versions for PC or Mac. 🙂

  8. Jeff Walker` on August 5, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    You know Carl, I have 2 copies of the PDF printed out. One is at home and one here at work. I have sat and read both pages over and over and over again and I was starting to get frustrated because I could not figure out the second step in finding sharp keys. When I was looking at the key of E I was thinking how do you get F#C#G#D# when in the first step you just go back one letter which is D#. Where did the F#C#and G# come from? I was sitting here and it was like a light finally came on. look knucklehead, you find your sharp key then walk up the entire order of sharps until you reach your initial note. That is how you get all of your sharps. I don’t know why it took me so long. I guess at the age of 47 and trying to learn to play and understand theory it takes longer. Keep up the lessons. I’m learning at ton of information, slower than I would like but still learning.

    • Dan Goodwin on December 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm

      I think it came from the Order of sharps. F C G D A E B. Key of e you go back one which is D that becomes a D#. So in the order of sharps you stop at D#. Giving you F# C# G# and D#. That’s what I got out of it.

  9. Dan Goodwin on December 1, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    How can you have a Cb Key when there is no Cb? I’m new to this but don;t understand that part. Just like you do not have a E# or B# Key. And you do not have a Fb Key. But there is a Cb? What am I missing.

    • Carl Brown on December 2, 2016 at 12:18 pm

      Dan that is because of enharmonics in music. There is a Cb note in music. The reason is because you simply cannot have two versions of the same letter in the same key (ie. B and Bb in the same key).

      For the key of Cb major you will find the note Bb is the 7th scale tone. Because of that, the 8th tone or octave can’t be called B since you have already used that letter name. So you have to call that note Cb instead. It may seem confusing at first, but you will quickly find that it is actually easier having to deal with just 7 letters for each key with none of them used twice.

      You will notice that the distance from the 7th tone of a major scale and the octave is always a half-step. This needs to be true for every major key.

      We don’t have the key of E# because the enharmonic of that, F, is already a half step from E so there was no need to use an E#.

      Hope this further explains thing a bit for ya.


  10. Tony Wilson on December 21, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Carl,

    I have a question regarding the order of sharps. How to the sharp keys work? In your PDF you have an F# and C# keys defined . Do they work the same way as with the natural keys?

    If so G,D A are not defined in your PDF. Also B# would be the same as C Major but that would quite different from B Major.

    If this has been answered I apologize

    Thanks in advance.


    • Carl Brown on December 23, 2016 at 9:25 am

      Hey Tony, I know that this can seem a bit confusing at first but hopefully I can explain.

      You will notice that the last note of every major key is only one half-step away from the keynote that starts the whole thing all over again. In music theory, we also have two sets of notes that have a half-step occur between them naturally. Those sets are B-C and E-F. You will see the key of F# because when we go through the order of sharps and get to the key where E# is the last sharp, then that will be a half-step below the note of F# since E-F is already a half-step. Same thing goes for the key of C# major.

      Essentially, everything is spelled this way so that there are no keys that use the same letter name twice. In other words, you can’t have an F and and F# in the same key. It has to be spelled E# and F# instead. It actually makes everything much easier in the long run.

      Not sure what you mean by G, D and A not being defined. But if you are wondering why there is no G# D# or A# keys, it is because they are a whole-step away from the previous notes (F to G, C to D, G to A). Because of that, the last note in each of those keys can be respectively, F# C# and G#.

      Try not to overthink it too much. Read the PDF again and you will find the logic of the system. 🙂

      • Tony Wilson on January 7, 2017 at 7:04 pm

        Hi Carl,

        I finally get this completely with your system. I was totally overthinking it. 🙁

        I did what you suggested and read you document again.

        Thanks again for you patience and explaining. I am sure I must of confused you with my question. LOL



  11. Tony Wilson on December 23, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    Hi Carl,

    Thanks for the explanation. I think it makes sense with the half step explanation, I did not notice it till you pointed it out . I also am using another system to figure out the sharps or flats in a key . The 3-4, 7-8 system where between these steps in the scale you can only have a half step between them. This help solidify why there are sharp or flats at these points in the keys.

    As for over thinking I do it all the time, I don’t take much stuff on faith unless I know why it works. It my downfall. 🙂

  12. christopher hawkins on January 18, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Carl these are great lessons my problem is developing a good practice routine i find myself jumping all over the place and accomplishing very little so my question is where and what to practice
    and in what order

    • Carl Brown on January 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

      Hey Chris, can you let me know a little bit about what style you enjoy playing and what some short and long term goals you my have? That will help me point you in the right direction. 🙂

      • christopher hawkins on January 20, 2017 at 3:08 pm

        Carl i like all types genres of music no metal i want to become a musician that can play all styles. my favorite is blues/rock not just solos. my understanding of chords are weak as well as my solos i used to play when i was 12 until 18 then took a 40 year layoff now i don’t know where my skills are i can play the minor pentatonic in all keys but i can’t understand how to make the major scale sound musical i’m not a total begginer but i don’t think i’m an intermediate player my skills are all over the place i know little of this and a little of that i’m willing to start from the beginning but i need some sort of practice schedule my goal is to be able to play what i hear in my head and what i hear on record i’ve tried lot of online coursed but none that take you from start to finish basically i’m lost and confused i saw you play and i knew that’s what i needed. short term goals are to know the chords in all keys and how and when to apply them learn to play solos in any key my ultimate goal is to be a professional musician i know thats asking a lot but i know you can help me.

        • Carl Brown on January 21, 2017 at 10:40 am

          Ok Christopher, seems like you have a lot you want o accomplish.

          First off, feel free to go through two or three of the premium guitar courses at the same time so you can develop multiple areas at the same time. The courses are taught sequentially so you can just start from the beginning and go through each chapter.

          I suggest starting with a few different courses. One is the guitar chord course. That will teach you systematically how to play every essential chord voicing across the entire fretboard. After you have 5 or 6 chapters completed with that, it would be a good idea to check out these two lessons below in order to learn how to create chord progressions with the chords that you are learning. That will show you how the foundations of music work.


          In additional to those lessons, I suggest checking out both blues guitar courses. The blues guitar mastery course contains both lead and rhythm styles. The improvisation course is dedicated to just lead guitar improvisation in the blues style. That course is not complete yet, but the first level is up.

          That should give you a good place to start. Not sure how your technique is, but if you feel you need a good daily technical practice routine, I suggest checking out the alternate picking mastery for guitar course. That will develop a lot of coordination between both hands.

          However long you have to practice, I suggest breaking it up into the areas listed above and working the same amount of time on each area everyday. That will help you become a very well rounded player if you can stick with it. 🙂

  13. christopher hawkins on January 21, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Thank you Carl i’ll get started right away

  14. John Buckley on March 5, 2017 at 9:38 am

    Hi Carl, Currently I am registered as a free user. I am considering upgrading to Premium but I had a quick question. I have started my journey on your site in the Music Theory section as I think this is the most logical place to start. I noticed the Theory lessons in the free section are different than the ones in the Premium section. My question is, if I learned the Theory lessons in both sections would that be an exhaustive and complete understanding of Music Theory? Or are there more topics that you haven’t added yet?
    Thanks, John

    • Carl Brown on March 5, 2017 at 12:39 pm

      Hey John, the theory lessons I release within the Premium section will usually be part of a complete course that will systemically cover all of the material so that would definitely give you a more complete understanding of theory.

      Anything covered in the free section will also be in the Premium section, usually as part of an applied guitar course.


  15. John Buckley on March 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    Hi Carl,
    I guess I don’t know what you mean when you say “usually”… I guess what I’m asking is…Is this a complete course on Music Theory?…would the content in the Premium section be an exhaustive and complete understanding of Music Theory for the guitar? Or are there more topics that you haven’t added yet? I know Music Theory is a big world!
    – John

    • Carl Brown on March 7, 2017 at 9:51 am

      Hey John, no there definitely isn’t an exhaustive study of theory in the Premium section yet. Just the essential theory needed to improvise or learn a specific style.

      You are correct that theory is a large subject with many different areas that it would be impossible to cover all of it.

      However, my musicianship course, which is in the very early stages but is going to be a major focus on the site this year, will go very in-depth into not only theory, but also how to teach your ear to hear the different theory concepts you are studying,.

      I think that theory study in pretty much every sense should go along with ear training, since music is a hearing art after all. For instance, studying how to spell every major scale is great, but not very useful unless you can also hear a major scale in your head.

      I hope to have chapter 4 of the theory/ear training course up in the next week or so. Then a new chapter every week or two after that until it is finished. It will be a very large course with lots of video instruction, ear training mp3’s etc.

  16. blues lover on March 6, 2017 at 6:57 am

    Carl, Is there any reason where my previous being taught the W W 1/2 W W W for a major key will not work? Thanks for the awesome lessons by the way.

    • Carl Brown on March 7, 2017 at 9:56 am

      That will work, I just feel that this system will get every major key into your heard much quicker.

      Can you spell all of your major keys quickly already? If so, great, you won’t need to learn it again. This is just another method to get that same knowledge into your head.

      However, if spelling every key out with the whole-step half-step formula still hasn’t produced the ability to instantly know every key without having to work through the formula, I think you should try this new method.

      Just to clarify, it is a method to memorize the notes. After that, you shouldn’t need to figure out anything anymore. You will want to get to the point to where you just know the notes without thinking about it. This is just a method to help you get there faster and with less confusion.


  17. James Bobb on January 11, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    Your system is the best. I’ve watched several videos, and while they are easy to understand, none have driven it home like yours! I’m almost to the point where I can write out every key without having to run through the formula.
    If it can sink in an old mans stubborn head like mine, it should be a cake walk for everybody.

  18. Colin Berry on January 22, 2018 at 5:59 am

    Hi Carl, just discovered your website and I have to say I’m very impressed. I was wondering if you were thinking of doing any Yes stuff for transcription, I love Steve Howe’s style. Also any Focus? Again Jan Ackerman has such a unique style that I really like. Would be great to see some of these songs transcribed though I do appreciate some of the songs are about 3 hours long :-). Keep up the excellent work


  19. Abhinav Sharma on April 18, 2018 at 11:23 am

    Hi Carl, why not memorize the sequence ABCDEFG and depending on the root use the major scale formula w w h w w w h ?
    whats the difference?

    • Carl Brown on April 19, 2018 at 10:28 am

      Spelling all the major scales using that formula will produce the same results. But from my experience, having a method that simply helps you memorize which notes to alter works better for most of my students.

  20. Nabil MAATAOUI on August 19, 2018 at 5:32 am

    Hi Carl,

    On 6th string of a guitar we have these notes E F F# G G# A A# B C etc….. from what I understand we don’t have E# and B# on the fretboard. but when I read the PDF of Understanding keys I saw that in C# major key we have E# and B#. I’m a little confused…

    • Carl Brown on August 20, 2018 at 7:47 am

      Yeah this can be confusing at first, but in the long run it will make sense and in fact, make music theory much less complicated.

      The reason we have an E# and B# in music is because a major key can not have two notes that use the same letter. Every major scale will have only one of each of the letters of the musical alphabet (ABCDEFG)

      Therefore, in the key of F# major, we are already using the letter F for the root note (F#). But, the last note in a major scale is supposed to be a half-step below the root note. However, E and F are already naturally a half-step apart, (E-F) so to have that E be a half-step below the F# you will need to raise it to an E# (E#-F#). That E# is technically played on the exact same fret as an F (1st fret) but we can’t call it an F since we are already using the letter F in the scale. That is why it is called an E#.

      Also, enharmonics (one note having two or more names) will happen all along the string. For instance, The G# will also be called an Ab when you are playing in a flat key. The F# will be called Gb when playing in a flat key and so forth. So the names of the notes themselves depend on what key you are playing in.

      I hope this explains it a bit more.

  21. Alex Huang on September 7, 2019 at 7:31 am

    Hello Carl,
    It is a pleasure to talk to you!! Your website is very helpful and inspiring, I wish you good luck in developing it!
    I have a question, since Bb major is the same as A#, then why do we have to get into the trouble of learning the order of flats? In other words, can’t an altered form of order of the sharps replace the order of the flats or vice versa? I am not trying to be lazy here, I actually find both your method and the “traditional formula” of “wwhwwwh” quite easy to understand.

    Best regards

    • Carl Brown on September 8, 2019 at 9:17 am

      Hey Alex, it all comes down to ease of spelling. If you were to spell the key of Bb major (Bb C D Eb F G A) as instead the key of A# major (A# B# Cx D# E# Fx Gx) you can see that A# is just not a viable option. Besides all the sharps, there are 3 double-sharps in there as well. So of course, the Bb major spelling of the same notes, with just two simple flats, is a much better way to organize that collection of notes. 🙂

      • Alex Huang on September 8, 2019 at 10:30 am

        Thank you very much for your prompt reply! Your explanation made it clear for me now. I appreciate a lot for people like you who make others’ life easier! I will probably see you in some other comment section again.

        Best regards

  22. Reidan Bat-og on December 27, 2019 at 11:12 am

    Hey Carl, I just want to thank you for this free lesson. Its really easier than I thought and I can now understand major keys thanks to you. I hope that your website have the best of luck because you really helped a newbie guitarist here. I’ll send the link of the site to my friends so that they can learn from here too.

    Mabuhay! Greetings from Philippines!!! 🙂

  23. Manash on June 27, 2022 at 10:42 pm

    I find the Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone method the easiest to find the keys in a major scale.

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