Change the Key- On Songwriting

351KEN   (From and article posted on


I was watching American Idol and was taken by one performance. I turned to my wife and said, ‘With all the professionals there could someone have suggested having her sing that in another key?” As soon as I said it I jumped up, went to my computer, and pulled up,  a world wide music community website. Connected to Facebook where musicians all over the world can post up their songs and performances. In a few minutes I counted a dozen singers that would have made a better recording if they had lowered or raised the key they were singing in. You, like me, have seen enough performers to recognize when a singer is straining to reach a note, or singing so low that you can hardly make out the words for the lack of force in their voices. The difference is that I, or any other trained/experienced singer, would know that a different key would  be better. The untrained ear just rejects the performance as just being bad and that is a shame. The song of that singer/songwriter may be wonderful, but it is dismissed, out of hand, for the bad performance. The sadder thing is that those would-be fans remember you,as well as  the song, as forgettable.

As a longtime songwriter and performer it is such an automatic exercise that I wasn’t as conscious of the discipline as I should be. When I write any song now days I have to send it off to my publishing company. If I am writing a song to sell I’ll write in a piano friendly key, usually in Bb. I know a lot of tunes are pitched from a piano, that key a holdover from earlier days where all music was transposed for piano, sheet music still is. When I’m writing a song that I intend to sing I write, and demo, in the key that best suits the song. ( providing I can sing in that key -). Guitar music is friendly  in G, D, or C -  for Country and Folk.  E, and fretted A, or F for Rock and Blues (Blues with piano often Bb or Ab). I still remember an interview with Michael McDonald concerning his joining Doobie Brothers. In it he said the toughest thing with his joining the group was to get the Doobies to accept that it would be best if they played in Bb, rather than major chords G D,C,E,A, or F) – a shock to any Rocker's sensibilities.  You may ask why, as I am sure the Doobies did. The answer is they wanted the baritone Michael to sing, he sang in Bb, and it was easier for him to play and sing in a key he was used to. That the band agreed was amazing and I'm sure they are not at all regretful.

 Is what I just wrote a rule? No.  Individual artists play in the key they best sing in, but if you hire musicians for recording it’s good to know, as well as being more economical. Now having said that if you are a new, or pre-CD  singer /songwriter you probably write in one key because either you learned that way, or it is comfortable for you. ( I didn’t say 'good' comfortable.) You probably don’t care how your voice sounds, but care very much about melody (as you hear it in your head) and lyrics. Make no mistake in my tone here – it is a huge accomplishment to write a song. Coming up with a fresh melody and stringing words together into a cohesive story, using prose is astounding. I for one give all the nods to the muse when something wonderful comes out of me. As I have written elsewhere, I have written a thousand songs, or more, and have  a couple hundred that I think are good, a couple dozen I think are really good, a few I (with no false modesty) think are brilliant – but, and I stress this for those that think they are the next Paul and John – the world makes that choice (one of my songs that I think is just okay may sell and be a hit and the one I love may be passed over everytime) – don't be that attached to your work just keep writing and let your fans tell you the ones they like.  I have heard it said that all the songs are out there allrteady written, floating around waiting for a gifted person with the musical skills and verbal expertise to snatch it and bring its beauty to the world. If that is true then we songwriters have an awesome responsibility. Here is my point. You have sat down and crafted a song and now you are going to sing it at a gig, or go into the studio to put it down and whether it be a demo, or a cut for a CD it should be the best representation of your work it can be.

So here is what I do. I offer it as a suggestion. When you write a song use your regular process whatever that may be, then record the song at home. You can use your IPhone (not the best),  you can buy a Zoom recorder, or some other quality, but not expensive, recording device, you can buy a M-Audio interface and some microphones and down load a recorder from and record your song in the voice you wrote it in, then record it a step up (Written in G step up to A) or a step down (Written in G step down to F). Listen to all three and see which one has your voice sound the best. Please note that even if you consider yourself  a terrible singer changing the key will often make it more listenable whether you have a great voice or not. I offer this as an exercise not as a rule – you can try any key you like I just find with the folks I have coached a step up or a step down can make all the difference.

I’m open to hearing any of you all’s methods and processes in your  songwriting.

Till next time – best to you all!

Ken Lehnig


Listen and Buy my newest CD here:

Ken Lehnig and the Burning Sage Band

New CD from Ken Lehnig and the Burning Sage Band


bsb_coverThis project has been a long time in the making. We have have recorded two CD projects  both unreleased because I became ill and wasn't able to tour or promote the projects. (You can go to I Tunes and listen to the singles we did release form those projects here's the link ) That illness put me in a wheel chair for almost 4 years. I did recover and the boys wanted to do one last project and put it out in the world. The first two albums were produced by me and my brother Rick Lehnig, this one was deftly produced by Eric DeLand, Cory Wilkinsd and sound engineer Jeff Sers. Rick and I took a back seat to see how younger performers would produce what I write. I think it is a remarkable album for its directness. It's clean and moves  right along from from rock and roll, americana ballads, pop, a taste of R&B and blues. And what was true for us is what a greatb kick we all had making the CD.  We worked for a couple of years to get this done and it is beautifully produced. My guess this may well be the last project for The Burning Sage band – everyone has moved along to new projects. But one never knows!!!

So please enjoy!!

As for me the old writer guy who never goes without a project – I am working on a solo project with a working title of 'The American Music Show' – Coming Soon

The Burning Sage Band is Rick Lehnig – lead guitar. Eric Deland – bass and back vocals, Bob Poulin on drums, and Cory Wilkins on keys and back vocals.

Link to listen and buy:

Ken Lehnig and the Burning Sage Bands' "Keep the Sun From Going Down'



Available most everywhere!


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Also please check out my scary, weird, and fun  E- Books available everywhere.

The Best To All Of You

I suggest, as number one, in all our lists of New Year's resolutions.

I will be be tolerant, understanding, and show respect for my fellow humans.

Happy New Year my talented and worthy friends.


Christmas was a calm and lovely affair this year. As a man of faith I know of Advent but for some reason I found myself interested in the twelve days of Christmas and its truest meaning. The song is certainly known as a popular Christmas song and stands as a template for the study,

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:

A partridge in a pear tree - A mother partridge will feign injury to draw away a predator from a nestling. The symbol relates to Jesus' willingness to protect Jerusalem if they would accept him.

Two Turtle Doves - represents the old and new testament of the Bible.

Three French Hens - Faith, Hope, and Love

For Calling Birds - The four books of the Bible Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The original lyric was 'Collie' birds; 'calling' was a misspelling. Collie birds are Blackbirds and were considered good eating,

Five Gold Rings - the five books of the Torah or the Pentateuch.

Six Geese a-laying - Represents the six days of creation – from Genesis.

Seven Swans a-swimming - Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation. Giving, leading, and compassion.

Eight Maids a-milking - the Beatitudes; Blessed are the poor of spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.

Nine Ladies Dancing - Fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

Ten Lords a leaping - represents the Ten Commandments

Eleven Pipers Piping - Represents the eleven faithful Apostles.

Twelve Drummers Drumming - the twelve points of Doctrine of the Apostles Creed.

Epiphany - Jan. 6th Mardi Gras   


I wish for you all a wonderful healthy and prosperous New Year.




029The question was asked of me just recently “What was the strangest gig you have ever played?”  Now I know that this could turn into one of those old guy giving you some’ Back in my day!’ tale that just might boor you  to death. I have been performing and songwriting since the 60s and it was entirely a different world back then (not the re-packaged version of the psychedelic 60s history you are told) – more to the point the music business was completely different than the technology driven ambiguous thing it has become. In fact the coming tale’s very character, fairy tale like, is I think the charm and value of the tale I am about to impart.  I promise I will do my best to bring my writing skills to bear so that it will hold your attention or at least keep you from falling asleep.

It was in the early 70s and the best selling albums were movie themed soundtracks, there were hundreds of signed bands and most of these bands never even broke even. In spite of the harsh reality of the ‘free love-music-is-free-man‘ mentality, I still  believed I could be an artist who made money.  I believed I had my sh*t together and was in LA doing my best to get signed by a label and prove it.

hoollywood blvd. 1

So after forging myself in the fire of performance and carrying a hand full of demo tapes I headed to LA with an appointment to meet a Talent Manager who had decided to take me on. I was booked as a solo act in all the usual places and was received with luke-warm to outright appreciative applause, depending on the venue and the crowd (That never changes – thick skin is still needed today). I did have some A&R folks stop by here and there and a little buzz started. In those days the starting point to signing with a label was to get a showcase scheduled, with reps from the labels, and that was what I was expecting.

I went back to San Diego and waited for weeks for my manager to call. The frustration was mounting to the point that I had decided that I had better go back to doing construction work – something I did stay with all my working life as a Contractor. I did get the call one Thursday and was told I had an important gig on Saturday night in Beverly Hills at a posh club. I told him I wasn’t that posh – I was long haired and bearded:

“She asked me why, I’m just a hairy guy

I’m hairy noon and night, hair that’s a fright

I’m hairy high and low, ask me why, don’t know”

He said, “Clean up a bit, wear clean and pressed bell-bottoms, boots, a flower shirt and lighten up on the beads. I didn’t wear beads and the beard, in a spirit of cooperation, was reduced to chops. I pulled up in my ‘61 Econoline to the ‘40s like, fancy landscaped, sea rock faced club in a neighborhood that my kind was more often 'Rodney King-ed' and hauled off to the drunk tank with a bruise or two, stinging from slanderous comments about my manhood, and ( I swear) a planted bag of weed. This night I escaped that experience. I picked up my guitar case and entered through two eight foot oak doors, replete with stained glass, into a scene from a Bogart movie. The 1940’s motif was carried through with red leather booths, low light, oversized crystal chandeliers , dark walnut grand bar, covering the whole south wall, red lipsticked waitresses in black and white maid’s outfits with very short flaired skirts and  petticoats, black seam stocking lines down to red spike-heeled shoes, serving Manhattans, Rob Roys, Martinis, while giving a clear view of their décolletage (no doubt a tip giving incentive). The incredibly fit waiters all wore black tuxes and slicked back hair. The patrons were movie star- made-up women of indiscriminate age, with half revealed buxom, coiffed hair, wearing  evening gowns, diamonds, and furs. The men were all balding, or corn-rowed, paunch-ed, cigar smoking, Armani wearing,  with diamond pinky rings a-flash, and donning ten thousand dollar watches. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

My Manager pointed toward the raised stage and I moved my ‘out of place’ self through the club, with winks in my direction from both male and female,  and me glad-handing all the men as I went. On the stage was a small electric piano, a stand up bass, a mini-drum set with snare, tom, and high hat. – oh and one mike. A big guy in a tux stepped in front of me, smiled and put out his hand. He graciously told me the location of the green room. I made my way through the kitchen and the storage room, finding the afore mentioned green door, with a gold star on it ( I guess that was for me) that same door right next to the lidded garbage cans. The door suddenly opened and an afro wearing white guy, in a tux, threw his arm over my shoulder saying, “Come on in Kenny and meet the guys. We love your stuff.” I asked if he had gotten to one of my shows. He said no but that Phil, my manager, had played a tape to them. I sat down and was handed a can of coke and a turkey croissant. “So have you all memorized my music?” I said between bites. The bald headed guy said that it wasn’t necessary, because the boss believed that any artist worth their salt had to be able to convincingly deliver the epitome of popular contemporary music. Honestly, I was worriedly thinking; Paul Anka, The Four Seasons, Bobby Vinton, maybe Tom Jones,  none of whose songs did I play. The ridiculously tall and skinny guy with the impossibly big nose said,” We always do CCR on Saturday nights.”  I would have loved to have a picture of my face. So much for making assumptions and thinking God doesn’t do miracles anymore. I probably knew and sang most all Credence tunes – ‘cause I like them and I sang them pretty well. If I hadn’t it would have been a disaster. I never thought to ask if the boys had charts. We waited and chatted till the phone rang – it did – we were on. I pulled out my Yamaha twelve string, checked for 'close enough' tuning and followed my ‘band’ to the stage. The big bouncer guy in the tux put out his tree limb sized arm out, clothes-lining me. “Hey Kenny, wait here till your introduced.”

I couldn’t hear the intro other than a low drone. I was concerned at its length, thinking that I hadn’t done enough of real merit to warrant whatever was said. I walked up the stairs to the stage and endured far too much unwarranted applause.  Behind me the ‘band’ started Proud Mary; I lifted up my un-mic-ed guitar, leaned into the mic and sang. I and the band did an hour-and-a-half of CCR, repeating those tunes that  the club’s well heeled and surprisingly rowdy clients yelled out. When the set was done I schmoozed and took the compliments, business cards and phone numbers on  lipstick printed napkins  (I wasn’t sure about these), with promises of lunch dates,  well as back slaps and cheek smooches with my best ‘It’s all groovy!’  gracefulness.

I went home feeling a bit discombobulated.

The next morning I got a call from Phil and was told I had a meeting with a label. After his pitch all I could think to say is, “What the hell was that?”  He laughed as long and as loud as I have ever heard him. He then told me that my audience was, for the most part, underwriters to the music business. It was no wonder I couldn't put my mind around it  – it was not so much a weird audition as it was a business meeting with talking points: 1. Could I sing? 2. Did I have the look? 3. Was I personable? 4. Could I interpret CCR in a way that worked?(still don’t know about that.)

 What happened later on is another tale. Oh, did I mention that between a percentage of pour and a huge and stuffed tip jar I walked out with more money for a single gig than I have ever been paid – I guess I owe John Fogerty a couple bucks.

Ken Lehnig©2013

Verse from the musical ‘Hair’