A Note About Keys In Jazz

(Get it? NOTE??? I’m here till Thursday)

Cliff’s Notes:  Do not use sharp keys beyond maybe 2 sharps (if that), use flat keys instead.

Generally, jazz instrumentalists do not like playing in “sharp keys” (key with key signatures that include sharps).  This is because, although we put a freaken man on the moon, we cannot invent a tenor saxophone that plays in the same key as everyone else.  (Sorry, we ALLEGEDLY put a man on the moon.  My Aunt Graciela is still not convinced).

Saxophone, trombones, trumpets, flugelhorns, etc all need charts in different keys than the rest of the band – more on that in another probable post.  But because some keys are very hard to play on these horns, bands tend to avoid them.  To the point where many jazz instrumentalists are bad at playing them and it will result in: 1) hate your guts for making them, 2) refuse to play them, or 3) make erros that make you sound bad.  #2 is probably the best option, so most people avoid suggesting these keys.

The concert keys that horn players hate (and therefore so does everyone else) are the keys with lots of sharps in them.  So it’s always a compromise between what sounds good on your voice and what you can get the band to play (while not messing up and still enjoying working with you).  If you sound amaze balls in B, you call either Bb or C.  DO NOT CALL B (or show up with a chart (jazz sheet music) in B). If you are killing it in E, you call Eb or F.  If you are tearing the shit up in G, you call (and this is a trick question) Ab or F (because Gb has 6 flats and people will hate your guts if you call it, even though they claim to love flats – I call BS!)  Run the tunes in these keys once or twice so you are used to them and make sure you don’t bring charts in any forbidden keys without running it by the instrumentalists first to see if they’ll do it for you.  Insisting on these keys would make you somewhat high maintenance, BTW.  There’s a lot of sexism in this industry and not to victim blame here but they’re gonna not take you seriously in a sexist kinda way and imply you’re not intelligent if you are female and pull this.  Men, they tend to write off as dickheads.


NOTE: If your band uses a guitarist who doesn’t work with a lot of horns, you may find yourself in a position where A/F#- or E/C#- would be acceptable.  It’s a Guitar Thing.  Ask your guitar and bass.

* a minus after a chord or scale letter mean “minour” in jazzish.  So A- = A minour


Desireable Keys

  • C/A-
  • F/D-
  • Bb/G-
  • Eb/C-
  • Ab/F-
  • Db/Bb- (to be safe, don’t call this key with no chart for players who aren’t First Call*

* First Call refers to your call list for gigs and concerts.  Who your first call is is the best player you know who isn’t a dickhead or drug addict and who owns clothes that are appropriate.  In other words, the top players in your city.  First Call is a real thing.


Less Desireable Keys

(in order of the amount they will piss your band off – from hardly at all to hating your guts):

  • G/E-
  • D/B-
  • A/F#-
  • E/C#-
  • B/G#-
  • Never call F#/D#-, C#/A#-.  If you wanna do songs in these keys use either the enharmonic key (sounds exactly the same but uses flat key signatures) or the nearest acceptable flat key (see section below)

Flat keys also sometime piss people off.  The flat keys that piss people off are Db (SOMETIMES, hardly ever though unless the instrumentalist is maybe not super experienced, Gb, Cb, Fb, etc).  It’s okay to call Db generally, but not those other keys.  I call a lot of Db cause it’s a beautiful key.  Sometimes with newer players or in smaller towns I don’t because it might be a dumpster fire during the bridge.


Enharmonic Flat Keys To Some EXTREEEEEMELY Problematic Sharp Keys

F#/D#- = Gb/Eb- (Call this key only if it’s just you and piano and you’re sleeping w the pianist :D)

C#/A#- = Db/Bb-

G#E#- = Ab/F-

D#/B#- = Eb/C-

A#/Fx ** = Bb/G-

Okay, writing this literally broke my brain.  Most people wouldn’t consider most of these last 5 keys anyway, but some classical crossover people or people with no experience in real world playing might, so I’m putting them in order to err on the side of caution.

**this symbol is short for “double sharp” meaning you move the pitch up TWO half steps.  If your key has a double sharp in the signature, you are far off the jazz path, Grasshopper.  Classical musicians can sometimes handle these keys if they KILL at it, but as a beginner, just understand that these keys are considered too intellectual to be useful and don’t see a lot of miles.