Many beginners guitarists find theory intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! In fact, understanding some basic guitar theory lessons can be incredibly helpful in making you a better player. When you understand both the what and how of something, that’s when you can excel at it.
Music Theory vs. Guitar Theory
Guitar theory is a specific subset of music theory that applies specifically to guitarists. While music theory can be quite complex, guitar theory focuses on the basics that every guitar player needs to know. In other words, it’s the kind of theory that you can actually use to improve your playing!
5 Guitar Theory Lessons
So what are some of the most important guitar theory concepts for beginners? Here are five that we think are essential:
1. How to Read Music
If you’re a complete beginner, then one of the most important guitar theory lessons is learning how to read music. This can be a bit of a challenge at first, but it’s definitely worth the effort. After all, being able to read music will make it much easier to learn new songs and pieces.
There are three main elements to reading music: the musical staff, notes and rests, key signatures, and time and rhythm.
The musical staff is the set of five horizontal lines that notation is written on. Notes are the symbols that represent the pitch of a sound and duration. Rests are pauses in the music that also have a duration. Key signatures indicate which notes will be sharp or flat for the rest of the song. Finally, time and rhythm show how long each note should be played for.
In order to read music, you need to know your notes. Notes are the basic elements of melody and harmony, and they’re what guitarists use to create their music.
In music, there are 12 different notes in an octave. These notes are represented by the letters A through G, with A being the first note. These notes are in alphabetical order, so after G comes A again. The 12 notes are made up of both natural and accidental notes.
Natural notes are the ones that correspond to the letters A through G. Accidental notes are the ones with sharps (shown as a “#” symbol) and flats (shown as a “♭” symbol). So, for example, the note between A and B can be either A# (pronounced “A sharp”) or B♭ (pronounced “B flat”).
- The musical alphabet consists of seven letters: A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
- 12 Notes: A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭
A semitone is the distance or gap between these 12 notes. It means that the notes are placed right next to each other. The distance between notes is called an interval measured in semitones or steps.
Except for BC and EF, which are only a semitone or half step apart, all other notes in the musical alphabet are whole steps apart (two semitones or one whole tone).
- Whole Step: A→B, C→D, D→E, F→G, G→A (with sharp or flat note in between)
- Half Step: B→C, E→F (no sharp or flat note in between)
3. Notes on the Fretboard
The next guitar theory lesson is learning where the notes are on the fretboard. It may look overwhelming at first, but all you have to do is identify the starting note for each string (the note of the open string). The easiest way to find notes on the fretboard is to start with open strings.
The guitar fretboard can be divided into two sections: the open strings and the frets. The open strings are the strings that are played without pressing down on a fret. The notes of the open strings are E, A, D, G, B, and E (from lowest to highest pitch). The frets are the metal bars that divide the guitar neck into different sections.
Open String Notes
- E, 6th string (low E, thickest)
- A, 5th string
- D, 4th string
- G, 3rd string
- B, 2nd string
- e, 1st string (high E, thinnest)
From there, you can work your way up the fretboard, finding the 12 notes in an octave.
There are 12 notes: the seven natural notes (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) and the five accidental notes (A#/B♭, C#/D♭, D#/E♭, F#/G♭ and G#/A♭). These notes repeat in octaves, meaning that the 12th note is the same as the first note, just higher in pitch.
As mentioned earlier, the notes are sorted alphabetically. This way, we can lay out all the notes on the fretboard with ease from open-string notes to its octave note.
12 Notes: A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭
- E → F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E
- A → A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A
- D → D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D
- G → G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G
- B → C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, B
- e → F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭, A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E
Remember, the key is the open-string notes, which are your starting point. From there, move up the fretboard alphabetically from the first to the 12th fret of each string.
Scales are a series of notes played in ascending or descending order. The most common scale is the major scale, which consists of seven notes. These seven notes are made up of a pattern of whole steps and half steps.
The major scale formula is W-W-H-W-W-W-H, which stands for whole step-whole step-half step-whole step-whole step-whole step-half step.
The major scale can start on any note, which means there are 12 different major scales. For example, the C major scale starts on C and consists of the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B.
A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, G♯/A♭
|Major Scale Interval||W||W||H||W||W||W||H|
|C Major Scale||C||→||D||→||E||→||F||→||G||→||A||→||B||→||C|
To make things easier, we can number the notes of the major scale. The first note is always 1, the second is 2, and so on. But what happens when we get to 8? We simply start the numbering over at 1, because 8 is the octave of 1.
Here’s an example using the C major scale:
- C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C (an octave)
- 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8 (1)
Chords are another important guitar theory concept. A chord is simply two or more notes played together. The most basic type of chord is a triad, which is made up of three notes.
- Major Chord Triad: 1, 3, 5
- C major chord triad: C, E, G
Although you’re pressing or strumming more than three notes when forming a chord on guitar, these are in reality merely three notes (triad) scattered across many sections of the fretboard.
There are also different types of chords, based on their scale degree or quality. Major and minor chords are the most common, but there are also augmented and diminished chords.
In a major scale,
- 1st, 4th, 5th notes are major chords
- 2nd, 3rd, and 6th notes are minors
- the 7th note is a diminished chord
You can begin to list family chords once you know the major scale formula, scale degree and quality.
In a C major family chords,
Minor chords are just a small modification of major chord triad or scale, as the name implies.
- Minor Chord Triad: 1, ♭3, 5
- C minor chord triad: C, E♭, G
A minor scale contains a flattened 3rd, 6th, and 7th note in comparison to a major scale.
Now that you have the list of family chords, you can now choose a progression that sounds good to you.
A chord progression is simply a series of chords played in a specific order. The most common chord progression is I-IV-V, which uses the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords of a major scale. In the key of C, this would be C-F-G.
By developing a greater understanding of guitar theory, you will be able to see chord charts from a new perspective. You’ll quickly identify patterns in the shapes of chords. You’ll also find learning barre chords considerably easier.
Barre chords can be movable, which means you can play the same chord in different positions on the fretboard. The fretboard can be unlocked by using two basic chords, E-shape and A-shape. If you want to learn how to play other chords on the guitar, you need to start with two basic chord shapes: E-shape and A-shape. Learning these basic patterns is easy and will help you greatly.
Understand and Play It Properly
Congratulations on making it this far! You should be feeling pretty good about your guitar theory skills. These five guitar theory lessons are just the tip of the iceberg, but they’ll give you a strong foundation for beginners to build upon.
It’s always wise to understand what you’re playing in order to play it better. Start with lesson one and work your way through the series. When you’re finished, you’ll be ready to tackle more complex concepts in guitar theory. Are you ready to get started?
Be patient with guitar theory – it’s a lot easier than it seems at first. And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun! Guitar should be enjoyable.