How To Tell What Chords Are In A Key

Learn How To Tell What Chords Are In What Keys On The Guitar!

In this guitar lesson we are going to go over how to tell which guitar chords are in a given key. This can be really handy if you want to start learning songs by ear or even writing your own songs. In order to do this you need to know your key signatures. If you do not know how to find out the key signature of a given key, check out the lesson on How Key Signatures Work. We will be in the key of D major for this lesson.

Let’s start off by finding out which chords are in the key of D major. The D major scale is spelled 1D, 2E, 3F#, 4G, 5A, 6B, 7C#. In every major key there is a chord to go with each note of the major scale. Some of the chords are major, some are minor and one is diminished. There is a formula to find out which notes of the scale have major chords that go with them and which notes have minor chords that go with them. All you have to do is remember that the 1st 4th and 5th notes of the major scale have major chords to go with them and the 2nd 3rd and 6th notes of the major scale have minor chords that go with them. The 7th note of a major scale has what we call a diminished chord to go with it.

Here are the chords in the key of D major for an example.

1. D major

2. E minor

3. F# minor

4. G major

5. A major

6. B minor

7. C# diminished.

This formula always works for every major key. The hardest part of being able to know what chords are in certain keys is memorizing key signatures. Let’s write out the key of A just to solidify this concept for you. The A major scale is spelled 1A, 2B, 3C#, 4D, 5E, 6F#, 7G#. The 1st 4th and 5th of a major scale will be major chords, the 2nd 3rd and 6th will be minor chords, and the 7th will be diminished. With that in mind, here are the chords in the key of A major.

1. A major

2. B minor

3. C# minor

4. D major

5. E major

6. F# minor

7. G# diminished.

If you know what chords are in a certain key you will have a big advantage when you are trying to figure out or write a song. Of course there are other chords that will work that are not necessarily in the key that you are working in, but knowing which chords are in a key is a good place to start. Learning your key signatures takes quite a bit of effort for most musicians, but it is absolutely necessary if you want to be able to tell which chords are in a given key. There is no substitution for hard work and memorization.

This Lesson Has 19 Comments

  • Basu says:

    Nice write up and very helpful. Thank You for putting it together.

  • steve hardbarger says:

    been on your site about a week, wow !! thank you so much

  • Tyler Adams says:

    i still dont completely understand the concept of the keys

  • Anthony askew says:

    Come to this site often to grab some advise. Been playing about a year and a half. Very informative.

  • Yossi says:

    You’re an amazing person.

  • vikram says:

    excellent. may god bless you abundantly.

  • Anthony says:

    Awesome summary. Very easy to understand. Thanks.

  • Cole says:

    Hey thanks so much for putting something like this up. I have had trouble with this since i first started learning the guitar. Your site here has helped me a lot. I would say its 10x easier learning from this verses the site jamplay. Keep up the awesome work man.

  • erdogan says:

    thanks for the lesson.

  • Rick says:

    Nate, you’re the KING! I studied music in High School (I don’t even want to think about how long ago that was), but you have taught me a great deal about chords and keys that I never even thought about before. I ordered your course for beginner guitar. Figured it was the least I could do, even though you have so much information online that it will take me months to absorb it all. Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

  • michael says:

    very helpful, thanks so much. I new here but am learning as fast as my brain will allow.

  • Joseph says:

    is there a formula for finding the minor key signature

    • Orian says:

      Yes, there is. (I had the same question) In the case of (natural)Amin, we have this

      i Amin
      ii(dim) Bdim
      III CMajor
      iv Dmin
      v Emin
      VI FMaj
      VII GMaj

      (Better minds please correct me if I’m wrong)

      the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the major scale have minor chords to go with them and the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes of the minor scale have major chords that go with them. The 2nd is diminished. (as in Bdim in the key of Amin)

    • Orian says:


      the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the MINOR scale have minor chords to go with them and the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes of the minor scale have major chords that go with them. The 2nd is diminished. (as in Bdim in the key of Amin)

  • ankriti says:

    hi Nate,
    your data was great again but I think I REALLY need to clear some confusions its like m studying some foreign book when I don’t know the language used in it.For example what is the difference between a note and a chord?and what are scales???also r these rules applicable in acoustic guitars???Please reply asap.

  • ankriti says:

    do keys and strings mean the same thing????

  • Associate Pastor John Eugene Stowers Jr says:

    Hello Nate, I just stumbled across this tutorial here of yours and I find that you explain to us wonderfully.
    I have played guitar by myself people have shown me here and there and I never really had a lot of time to set side to really learn. My difficulty in learning I admit has been Lack Of Discipline and my limitation and financial deficiency. these grey areas always held me back. two out of three things have occurred. One I was drawn back into wanting to play again, I got tired of my Acoustic and bought myself an electric guitar.
    Second, I WANT TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY IT and Your services caught up through my desperate attempt to scream for help.

    Chords were very cramping and all I could accomplish was the basic triads – I believe that’s what they are called – and with I know the patterns of the pentatonic scales/ Blues scales in their base places, as learned in my scale charts teach. Over the years from working jobs such as furniture/moving types and my former work with Pepsi as a Merchandiser carrying the 2 liters grouped together for fast placement. I didn’t realize that my fingers got really strong. I just need to know how and where to move them for better playing ability. I can read “tablature” a bit I know what a hammer on/pull off is and style points. I need some practice patterns that will show me how to move up and down the guitar better.
    Sure I would like to learn songs and I get hung up on some of the advanced play.
    I have found that lead lines for me are easier to grasp. Do you have a lesson that shows the movement between scales and Chord Patterns. I have also lead lines The “National Anthem”, O Come “O Come Emmanuel”, “and even the “Superman Theme”<-I learned most of the beginning by ears lol so far so good. take advantage of scale patterns.
    Anyway I want you to know that your service you are freely offering to those like me I find a true Blessing and If I am able to support you sometime I aim to.
    Thank you for using your talent and not just keeping it all to help others That is a true Christ Like Manner.
    And Thank you for taking the time to read this novel I just wrote you lol.
    I pray a blessing over you and your endeavors family wise as well as business wise knowing that those in Christ will be blessed also as they bless in return.
    Gratefully Alive! ChristAlive! John Eugene Stowers Jr.

  • prashanth preetham says:

    Bro i got a doubt everything u covered is fine..
    what made me confuse u know..
    as u said.. D’s Notes are 1D, 2E, 3F#, 4G, 5A, 6B, 7C#.. why dint u used F key instead of F# .. and C instead of C#,,???
    please Replay..

    • ayo says:

      Because the rule of constructing a major scale says.. T T S T T T S.
      D – E (tone)
      E – F# (tone)
      F# – G (semitone)
      G – A (tone)
      A – B (tone)
      B – C# (tone)
      C# – D (semitone).
      You can only avoid # if u start from C.(search wikipedia for ‘major scale’ for more info)


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