Some years back, I was playing in a band where we would play the final 4 bars of the Budgie song “Breadfan” (famously covered by Metallica). As a goof, the other guitar player started playing the riff one fret higher (in Fm from the original Em). I quickly saw and heard this, and reacted appropriately with the correct harmony (or guitarmony as I like to call it). He then proceeded to move up the fretboard one fret at a time playing this, and the Breadfan Modulation exercise was born. What started as a goof turned into a good warmup for the band and got me thinking about applying this concept to other rock and metal songs.
I quickly realized that not only can rock songs be practiced this way, but that they should be! This is an uncommon thing to practice in rock, but it is very commonplace in styles like blues and particularly jazz.
Some years later (late 2015, I think), in my current band, we were working on an original song in G#m. The song fades out with a guitar, so just for fun, I quoted “Stairway to Heaven” on the fly, but in the key of G#. I had never actually played Stairway in G#, but I was able to improvise this because I knew the tune, and I practice this way all the time. It got a few good laughs.
So why does this matter? Practicing riffs, licks, scales, arpeggios, and yes, even full songs in different keys, or really, ALL keys improves your musicianship tenfold (or 12fold, since there are twelve pitches!). Once you get the hang of practicing things in every key, it becomes second nature. It is easy to adapt if the key of a song needs to be changed. The melody is too high? No problem, let’s change the key. Forgot your capo? No sweat! I eat the key of Eb for breakfast.
Here is the Breadfan Modulation Exercise. If you can, play this with another guitar player so that you can play the guitarmonies together. Note: “Divisi” means divided. Play either the higher or lower note in the 3rd measure of each key. You can play the harmony by yourself, but it doesn’t have the clarity that harmonizing with two guitar players does when played with distortion. It still sounds cool though. If you want to be thorough, practice it these three ways…
1. Play the lower melody (D and E in measure 3, etc)
2. Play the higher melody (F# and G in measure 3, etc)
3. Play the harmonies together by yourself. This is a bit tricky, but give it a try if you like.
What next? Try applying this concept to your favorite songs. Start with simple songs, and go from there. As you move the progression around, be sure to keep track of what key you are playing in. This is crucial if you want to start reaping benefits in the musicianship department.