The ability to play fluently in all 12 keys is essential for every improviser. Initially, it may seem like you rarely play in certain keys or even that it’s just not necessary to play in every key. So why bother with twelve keys, right? If you look carefully, however, many common standards that are in “easy” keys have ii-V’s in “hard keys” (F#, B, C#, etc.) hidden throughout the progressions.
For instance, you may think you aren’t going to play in B Major that often, but check out the bridge to Cherokee – a ii-V in B Major every time. If you’re fluent in all 12 keys this will be no problem, but if you’ve ignored unfamiliar keys, you’re going to be faking it in this spot like a lot of other people. Don’t accept mediocrity! And regardless, who knows when someone will call a tune in a different key or bring in an original that has six sharps in the key signature.
Becoming proficient in all 12 keys requires much more than simply knowing your major scales. As an improviser, you need to be able to develop ideas and navigate progressions in a split second, without thinking about fingerings or what the next note is going to be. This is a large undertaking that will take hours in the woodshed, but is necessary for any serious musician at some point in their development.
There are three steps to mastering any key. If you finally want to have freedom in all 12 keys, here’s how you’ll achieve it:
1. Practice technique in all 12 keys
The first step to mastering any key involves gaining technical proficiency and mental familiarity with every key. Not only do you have to have the ability to think in all 12 and visualize them instantly, you need to have the technique ingrained into your fingers.
Developing this technique will be the most beneficial aspect of your practice on the road to mastering every key, but it will also be the one that requires the most time and effort. If you incorporate these exercises into your daily routine, however, you’ll progress surprisingly fast.
For many people, simply running up and down your major scales at the beginning of a practice session is sufficient for “knowing” all 12 keys. For a serious improviser though, this isn’t going to cut it. Knowing your major, minor, diminished and whole tone scales is just the beginning.
The most efficient way to master this amount of information is to have a method. Start by checking out this article on how to practice scales for speed, which outlines how to quickly and thoroughly ingrain this scalar technique. As stated in the article, it is key to use a metronome and good sound/articulation in all of these exercises. Start with the keys that you are most unfamiliar with and spend ample time with one key (weeks or even months) so that you build a solid foundation.
After you’ve done this, work on playing these scales in different intervals and patterns of your choosing. Play these scales in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, arpeggiate 7th chords, etc. Remember to practice all of these ideas in the four directions. When you incorporate scale patterns, harmonic concepts, melodic devices, chromaticism, and rhythm the possibility for variation becomes infinite.
Some examples of these exercises are shown below:
C Major scale in 4ths (up/down direction):
F Major scale pattern (1235 off of each scale degree):
D Major scale pattern (1245 off of each scale degree – down/up direction):
The possibilities are endless and as you can quickly see, mastering technique requires a lifetime of work. You can always improve your articulation, sound, speed, etc. on these exercises and you can constantly come up with new variations and patterns on these concepts.
Establishing scalar technique in every key is huge step in the right direction, but despite what many people think, you work is not done here…you’re just getting started.
2. Learn language in all 12 keys
Once you’ve developed a solid foundation of technique in every key, it’s time to start using that technique musically. Keep in mind that just because you can play any scale in fourths or arpeggiate seventh chords in every key, doesn’t mean that you can create a great solo in all 12 keys. Scales simply don’t translate into melodic improvised music.
The key to improvising fluently in every key is to first have language that you’ve transcribed in one key. Throughout your study of this music, you need to develop language over the four basic types of chords you’ll encounter: Major, minor, V7, and half-diminished. The next crucial, but often overlooked step is to develop this language that you’ve transcribed in all 12 keys.
This process is outlined in detail in this article on the benefits of transcribing one solo. Avoid the temptation to just transcribe a line or solo in one key and keep it only in one key. By doing this your overall playing will be largely unaffected. With language in all 12 keys at your disposal, you’re well on your way to playing confidently in all keys.
3. Learn tunes in all 12 keys
The final part of developing mastery of every key is to play tunes that you’re familiar with in all twelve keys. While you don’t have to do this with every single tune you learn, the benefit of taking a few key tunes around the cycle will give you the ability to play tunes in any key. Now comes the time to put that technique and language you’ve been shedding to the test.
Start with a simple tune to take through all 12 keys. The blues is perfect for this because you have the basic chord types and progressions of any key (I, IV, iii, vi, ii, V7), all within the space of twelve bars. For and in-depth explanation of this concept, read this article on how to play the blues in all keys. Your goal should be to make every key as easy as it feels to play in the key of C. This is no small task, but if you put in the time, you’ll have ii-V’s, turnarounds and useful language developed for any key you come across.
After you’ve taken the blues through every key, the idea of playing a tune in other keys won’t be so overwhelming. Try doing the same with other common standards like All the Things You Are, Cherokee, Stella by Starlight, and rhythm changes. Taking any one of these tunes through all 12 keys will be extremely beneficial and give you the same set of skills.
Developing technique, language and the ability to play tunes in all 12 keys is a difficult task that takes years of work. However, every great improviser has mastered this skill at some point in their musical development. This is not a skill that other people can force you to do or one that is stressed in jazz education, but one that you must confront or sooner than later, it’ll catch up with you. Like most other skills, create a daily routine and with each passing day, you’ll be one step closer to you goal of freedom in all 12 keys.