Transposing guitar chords

One of the issues that I have with playing some of the songs in Rise Up Singing on guitar is that I feel like the chords are often written for someone with a slightly higher voice than mine.

(My vocal range is mostly somewhere in the bass/baritone area; a voice teacher once told me that I should be singing tenor, but singing the high part of the tenor range feels awkward and forced to me.)

The songs that I’ve picked from RUS to try playing and singing are songs with chords that I know how to play on guitar. I can sing along while playing those chords, but some of the songs get into an upper area of my vocal range that I feel like I’m not as comfortable with and don’t sound as good in. (I’m talking through my hat here; I haven’t checked pitches. But that’s how it feels.)

I could just sing an octave lower, but I’m having a hard time getting that to sound right.

If I wanted to transpose the guitar chords up without changing the fingering, I could use a capo. But I want to transpose down. (I could transpose up with a capo and then sing an octave lower—but again, I’m finding that difficult.) And I’ve gotten used to thinking of transposition as something that’s too complicated to do manually. (All the keyboards I’ve owned have been able to transpose automatically.)

But a guitar-playing friend pointed out to me that you can transpose guitar chords “down” manually, by changing the chords that you play. Transposing a chord “down” doesn’t necessarily result in playing lower notes on the guitar (for example, the two lowest notes in the usual way of playing an E chord are lower than any of the notes in the usual way of playing a D chord, so transposing “down” from E to D results in higher notes), but the melody that you sing with those chords also gets transposed down. So transposing the chords downward has the effect that I want, of making the song’s range a better fit for my singing range.

(…I recognize that if you transpose guitar chords “down” 12 half-steps, you end up back with the original chords. So maybe it makes more sense to think of transposing guitar chords as moving them around the circle than as going up or down. But regardless, the effect is that I can change the chords in such a way that I can sing the melody lower.)

So I took one of the RUS songs and tried writing down a new set of chords that were a few steps lower than the original chords, but I made several mistakes. But eventually it occurred to me that I could look to see if there was an automatic guitar-chord transposition tool—

And lo! There is!

There are probably lots of them. But the one that I found and used is called Chordchanger.

On that page, I typed in the chords in the song I was working on:

C C F G / C C D G / C C F G / C Am F G C

and clicked the Down button a few times. It wasn’t looking promising—it was showing me lots of chords that I don’t know. But I clicked the Down button a couple more times, and then, five half-steps “down” from where I started, it showed me this:

G G C D / G G A D / G G C D / G Em C D G

And those are all guitar chords that I know! In fact, they’re easier for me to play than the original ones. (I’m still weak on the F chord, which appeared a few times in the original version.) And the melody transposed down by five half-steps feels like a significantly more comfortable range for me.

And it turns out that most (but not all) of the chords that I know have other chords that I know that are five half-steps down, so I can probably do this same transposition with most of the other songs that (a) have RUS chords that I know, but (b) feel like they’re in a higher singing range than I want them to be. (It’s also possible that some of the RUS songs that have chords that I don’t know will become playable if I transpose the chords. I haven’t tried that yet.)

All very pleasing.

…After I got all that working, I took some further steps: I found sheet music for the song in question, and entered it into the Lilypond sheet-music-engraving software, and told Lilypond to transpose the sheet music, which it did. I then added guitar chords in Lilypond—and was pleased to discover that Lilypond also transposes guitar chords. In fact, even if the sheet music and the guitar chords start out in different keys, Lilypond can transpose them both to the destination key that you specify.

So I might not need Chordchanger after all. But I think it’ll still be useful for quickly checking on chords without having to deal with Lilypond’s sometimes-complicated syntax.

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