Whenever I pick up my guitar and start noodling, the lines and changes take the form of the blues. It’s just what I’m hearing. The blues, and they will always hold a special place in my heart for being the first cool thing I learned to play on the guitar, AND improvise over, but I want to play other music and master other forms. I ask my friend Pete Montgomery how to do this, and his answer surprised me as it usually does. He said it’s cool that I have something like that to start practicing, but that I should try playing in different keys, like Eb for example? I do, but not all of them. Eb is one of those that I don’t usually play. My keys are F, Ab, G, Bb and E.
As an exercise, I decided to play the blues all the other unfamiliar keys: Eb, Db, Gb, B and D. One cheat I used was to start from the familiar keys, and “move it one fret up” or down. For example, instead of F, I’d go to F#. That would be a really train-wreck on most other instruments, but it’s easy on the guitar. Playing the I-IV-V is a breeze because those chords are because you can grab the same fingering for any key without moving your hand horizontally. The part that I had to learn in the unfamiliar keys was the turnaround. The nice thing about learning it is that it gets you out of your “home” position.
One rule I made for getting into the turnaround was calculating the distance between the I and the III. I still usually build chords on either the 6th or 5th string. When the root falls on the 6th string, obviously the turnaround starts as 3rd away on the 5ths string. When the root is on the 5th string, the turnaround is a minor 6th down. This is a bit trickier. Trickier still is when the turn around (which could require up to five frets to execute) falls below the nut, as in Ab or Db. You need to find chords in higher positions or build them on the 4th string in those keys.
The goal is to become more familiar with the fretboard, and related chord changes in general. Learning the blues in all keys also lets you hear what those keys sound like on your instrument, or in that particular room. We don’t use twelve keys just to make things complicated. We use them because they sound different. Playing in one key all the time would be almost as bad as just one note all the time. Now that I’m more familiar with turnaround and keys, I’m better equipped to learn other forms like rhythm changes (which is really one long turnaround…)