Building Or Rebuilding A Good Foundation In Music Theory. Part 1

Beginners can start to learn about theory, and people who think they know theory but have some problems with the basics can fix that. This will also have a lot of guitar technique in it, chord voicings and whatnot.

Ultimate Guitar
Okay, I've never had formal guitar lessons or theory lessons...I've only learned from smart people on this site (don't worry, I know who to listen to and who not to) so I'm hoping that those people will review this lesson and catch any mistakes. I'm writing this lesson because a lot of people seem to mess up on the basics. I'm sorry that "For Beginners" was the best fitting category, if you aren't a beginner, don't be discouraged or embarrassed. A FEW KEY POINTS TO MAKE FIRST: --Theory does not equal better songwriting. Theory is the science of music. Theory does not equal music the same way science doesn't equal nature. If you're simply a punk rocker who wants to make music and is already decent at it, don't learn theory, fine, it won't hurt you're music...But if you want to know the chemistry of the notes so you can actually play around with that and create new compounds of sounds, theory is how to do that. --We use "Western"/"Tonal" theory. There is a history of music and a history of theory. Hundreds (I think?) of years ago, we used "modal" theory, which was very limiting and primitive, but somewhere along the way (was it Bach??) composers switched to "tonal" theory, which gave us more freedom. Some eventually began to use newer systems of theory ("post-tonal"), which were technically more "free" in terms of what is most accepted, but usually sounds incredibly "dissonant" (harsh, bad) to our ears. Then again, modern music would sound just as dissonant to ancient composers, so maybe post-tonal is the way of the future? Either way, you must learn tonal first, just as at the dawn of tonal theory, composers learned modal first. Somewhere along the line, tonal theory...Developed in Europe...Was spread through the East to most musicians, so probably more than 99% of the entire world's music right now is tonal. In this series of lessons, you WILL learn some modal theory and mode's application for tonal music (just because I know you guys feel special for knowing modal stuff and will wine and piss yourselves if you don't get information then you'll go off finding BAD information somewhere else...) but those will be in future, more advanced lessons, this one is for the basics. Also, if you want to learn other theory used in ancient civilizations...Well you probably can't anywhere. Maybe someday you can visit India and try to find a teacher in their classical music but it won't be easy, they play rock like the rest of us now. --Take it slow Title says it all. Guitarists have a horrible reputation for trying to learn too fast and screwing up the basics. Don't make that mistake. Without further adieu, here is the lesson! Part one--Notes, half steps, chromatic scale, and where they are on the guitar... Pluck one string of your guitar. That is a note. Put your finger behind one o the "frets" and pluck the string again. That is a different note. Probably. Now you know what notes are. Sorry, but I'm starting at the vvvveeerrryyy basics, I'll try to get through it quick and not bore people ahead of this just trying to fix their foundation... Do you know the names of the strings? Starting at the highest pitch string (the thin one at the bottom) and going to the lowest pitch on the top, they are E-B-G-D-A-E. You can remember that with "Easter Bunny Gets Drunk At Easter." We call the lowest pitch E string the "low E string" and the other the "high E string." A half step is the distance between one note and the next. Play the low E string, now play the 1st fret on the low E string. The distance between those 2 notes is a "half step." The chromatic scale tells us what all the notes are. Let's start on that A string. The first fret is "A sharp," which we type as "A#." Another name for this is "B flat," because it comes right before B, we type it as "Bb." So the number sign # means sharp, and the lower case b means flat. Notes follow the alphabet from A to G then repeat, with a #/b between each note EXCEPT between B and C and between E and F. If that's confusing, here's a list of the notes starting on A: A A# or Bb B C C# or Db D D# or Eb E F F# or Gb G G# or Ab Back to A. Why is C right after B, and F right after E? For now let's stick to the explanation...Just because. Between each of these notes is a "half step." So if you go from A to A#, you've gone up one half step. If you go from F# to G, you've gone up one half step. If you go from B to C, you've gone up one half step. If you go from F to E, you've gone down one half step. If you go from E to Eb, you've gone down one half step. On the guitar, the place you find all the notes is called the "fretboard." Here's a video I found on how to tune a guitar, I included it here because the 5th frets (and the 4th on the G string) are a good refference point for learning the fretboard. You might want to skip to about 1:45 because the first part just talks about electric tuners. Beginner Guitar Tuning The first half of the video is valid though...Electric tuners help. So with this information, we can start learning all the notes of the "first position" of the guitar. Part 2--The notes on the first 5 frets... There isn't much to say here...You don't need to memorize these instantly, but the chart I'm about to show you will be a good reference point when you need the notes on the first 5 frets. Some of it is a bit off-centered because I tried to include both sharps and flats. Here it is: E-F-F#/Gb-G-G#/Ab-A B-C-C#/Db-D-D#/Eb-E G-G#/Ab-A-A#/Bb-B-C D-D#/Eb-E-F-F#/Gb-A-A#/Gb-G A-A#/Bb-B-C-C#/Db-D E-F-F#/Gb-G-G#/Ab-A Part 3--Whole steps, the major scale, playing the major scale in 1st position... A whole step is 2 half steps. So F to G is going up a whole step. C# to D# is going up a whole step. E to F# is going up a whole step. C to Bb is going down a whole step. D to C is going down a whole step. Scales are made of whole steps and half steps. Looking back at the chromatic scale, it was made completely of half steps. W=whole step and h=half step. The major scale is constructed W-W-h-W-W-W-h. So let's try it starting on C. C up a whole step is D. D up a whole step is E. E up a half step is F. F up a whole step is G. G up a whole step is A. A up a whole step is B. Finally, B up a half step is C again. If you play this on a guitar (or any instrument) the second C is one "octave" above the first. Notice that the "CMajor scale" has no sharps or flats. Let's do it again starting on G. G up a whole step is A. A up a whole step is B. B up a half step is C. C up a whole step is D. D up a whole step is E. E up a whole step is F#. F# up a half step is the octave G. Notice the "GMajor scale" has one sharp...F#. One more time starting on D. D up a whole step is E. E up a whole step is F#. F# up a half step is G. G up a whole step is A. A up a whole step is B. B up a whole step is C#. C# up a half step is D. The "GMajor scale" has 2 sharps, F# and C#. Try to figure out the rest yourself. Any major scale you create...Try to play all the notes in first position. Here is the tab for the Cmajor scale in first position. If you don't already know how to read tab, here is a video: How to Read Guitar Tabs Cmajor scale:
Here's the tab for the Gmajor scale in first position:
If you play these tabs from start to finish you are playing up the entire major scale. But, even just in first position, you can find the same note more than once...So here are the tabs again, giving you all the Cmajor scale notes you can find in first position, then all the Gmajor notes you can find...This time, don't play the notes in any order, just understand where they are.
Try to figure out the other major scales yourself. Part 4--Scale degrees, power chord dyads, major triads, minor triads, cowboy chords, and bar chords... In the major scale, each note is given a number 1-7. So in the Cmajor scale, C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6, and B is 7. In the Gmajor scale, G is 1, A is 2, B is 3, C is 4, D is 5, E is 6, and F# is 7. You can also go up an octave and rename C 8, D 9, ect...In chords, you'll sometimes see "9," referring to 2, "11" referring to 4, and "13" referring to 6. More on that in future lessons. A "chord" is 3 or more notes played at the same time. Some say its 2 or more notes. It doesn't really matter. Smart people who know a lot about theory sometimes do waste their time arguing with each other over whether its 3 or 2. Anyway, 2 notes played together are called "dyads," and 3 notes played together are called "triads." Look at the notes of the major scale and their numbers. If you play 1 and 5 together at the same time, you get what most guitarists call a "power chord," it is a kind of dyad that many argue does or does not count as a chord. Here's how to play a power chord:
That is an "F# power chord." We call it this because F# is the "1," or the "root." The other note, C#, is the "5." This pattern is "movable," which means no matter what fret you play it on, it is still a power chord. For example, a G power chord:
G is the root and D is the 5. Let's make the Gmajor scale again to make sure you understand the concept... The major scale formula of whole and half steps is WWhWWWh. To make the Gmajor scale, we start on G (which is 1), go up a whole step to A (which is 2), go up a whole step to B (which is 3), go up a half step to C (which is 4), go up a whole step to D (which is 5), go up a whole step to E (which is 6), go up a whole step to F# (which is 7), and up a half step to get back to G (1 or 8). So if we played 1 (in this case, G) together with 5 (in this case, D) we would get a power chord (in this case, the G power chord). Important tip...Don't ever get scale numbers mixed up with numbers on tab. Guitar tab is simply meant to tell you where to put your fingers on a guitar, it barely has anything to do with theory. The scale numbers are completely unrelated to tab. Now to play "major triads"...Better known as "major chords." These are made by playing 1, 3, and 5 together. Since we just made the Gmajor scale, let's stick to that. Look back up at how I did that and how the notes matched up with numbers. 1 is G. 3 is B. 5 is D. So if we played G, B, and D (1, 3, and 5) together, we'd have the Gmajor chord. Now let's make a minor triad (or "minor chord). This one is just a bit tricky...That 1-3-5 we used to make the major chord? Bring the "3" (which can be called a "major 3rd") down one half step (turn it into a "minor 3rd" or b3). Since we're doing so well with G, why leave it? We know from that last paragraph that G (1), B (3), and D (5), played together make the Gmajor chord. If we take the 3...B...and bring it down one half step...Bb...We get G (1), Bb (b3), and D (5). So G, Bb, and D played together are the Gminor chord. But what are some practical ways to play major and minor chords on the guitar? The most common are "cowboy chords" and "bar chords." If you played a Cmajor "cowboy chord" and a Cmajor "bar chord"...They're the same notes. The difference is the "voicing," or how the notes are arranged on your guitar. Learn Your Open G and D Major Guitar Chords! This is a video on a couple cowboy chords. You can learn the rest from anyone who knows anything about the guitar or from almost anywhere on the internet. A lot of people won't know what you mean when you say "cowboy chords," so you might want to ask someone about "basic open" chord instead...Just another name. You can also google "basic open chords." Here's a video on bar chords: How to play Barre Chords Now you may be wondering...Why are there more than 3 notes in these chords if they're "triads"? Take any one of those chords and look at each of the notes, and you'll find the same 3 repeated on different octaves. That's why. Part 5--Different triads... Diminished Take a minor triad (1-b3-5). Now remember how we took the 3 back one half step? We "flattened" it? Well we do the same to the 5. So the diminished chord is 1, b3, and b5. So a Cminor chord, C-Eb-G, turned into a Cdiminished chord is C-Eb-Gb. Augmented Take a major triad (1-3-5). This time, we SHARPEN the 5 (move it up one half step). So a Cmajor chord, C-E-G, turned into a Caugmented chord is C-E-G#. Suspended2 Okay, let's go back to the Cmajor scale. C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6, and B is 7. Make a power chord (1 and 5), C and G, Now, instead of adding a 3 of any sort, we add a 2. So we get C-D-G. Suspended4 Just like sus2, but we use a 4. Look up at the Cmajor scale and see that 4 is F, so Csus4 is C-F-G. I know I'm going fast now...But you can ask me for help or make threads asking for help, many people here including myself are definitely willing to clarify anything you aren't understanding. I won't include voicings for these triads because you can make them yourself (good practice), or find them on the internet easily. Part 6--What chords are in the major scale...? I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii0. Let me explain this. There are 7 notes in the major scale. These roman numerals each represent one of the notes. If the roman numeral is capitol (I, IV, or V) you can create a major chord from that note. If it is lower case (ii, iii, or vi) you can create a minor chord from that note. If it has a "0" after it, you can create a diminished chord from that. This is the shortcut, the long way is to check if each note in the chord fits in the scale. So if we're in the "key" of Cmajor (meaning, the piece of music "resolves" or feels "at home" at the Cmajor chord, therefore we will likely use the Cmajor scale for the piece of music), these are the chords in the scale: I-Cmajor ii-Dminor iii-Eminor IV-Fmajor V-Gmajor vi-Aminor vii0-Bdiminished So as practice to get a feel for this section of theory...Try writing a song with these chords. Once you learn more about theory, you learn how to "break" these rules and play any chords you want, and you should go ahead and do whatever you want when you write songs, but try a song using just these chords as practice. Also try giving your song melody (single notes, as apposed to harmony, chords [or notes sounded together]). How you may ask? Either A) use notes of the major scale that your chords fit into or B) to make it easier, use the major pentatonic scale! Part 7--Major pentatonic scale... This scale is used in countless excellent guitar solos. It is also great for beginners because its harder (almost impossible!) to hit an unpleasant note! Take your major scale numbers: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 Now get rid of 4 and 7. 1-2-3-5-6 You have 5 notes left...That's why they call it pentatonic! For example, Cmajor scale... C(1)-D(2)-E(3)-F(4)-G(5)-A(6)-B(7) Now the pentatonic would be... C-D-E-G-A So if you're chords fit into the Cmajor scale, you can use the Cmajor pentatonic for some melody! Also, you could use a different major pentatonic scale over each major chord... So if you used Cmajor, Fmajor, and Gmajor chords (which all fit in the key of Cmajor), you could use Cmajor pentatonic, Fmajor pentatonic, and Gmajor pentatonic scales! Check the notes of each of these pentatonic scales...They all fit into the Cmajor scale! Here's a strange bit of music history...They created the major pentatonic scale before the major scale! How you might ask? Well, probably from the circle of 5ths! Part 8--Circle of 5ths... Remember our power chords, made of the 1st and 5th? Well let's start with C. Now let's take the 5th G. C power chord. Now that we've got the 5th and know its G, let's find G's 5th...D. D's 5th is A. A's 5th is E. Look at those notes...They're all the notes in the Cmajor pentatonic scale! If we went through the circle of 5ths more we'd find that E's 5th is B, B's 5th is F#, F#'s 5th is C#, C#'s 5th is G#, G#'s 5th is D#, D#'s 5th is A#, A#'s 5th is F, and F's 5th is C...Phew, quite a circle! Why is this useful? Well...You can't make the major scale very fluently yet can you? If we look at the Cmajor scale...No sharps or flats. Go to the 5th, G, and make its major scale. 1 sharp. G's 5th, D, has 2 sharps. Hhm, a pattern? More on this later, its 5:30 in the morning and I'm seeing the RX Bandits tomorrow. Next lesson: The 3 minor scales, their chords, and minor pentatonic. Also more on soloing and the circle of 5ths. Lesson after that: Nothin but rhythm! Lesson after that: Common chord progressions and how to tackle them. Then we'll get crazy after that! How'd I do?

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    thanks so much for the comments and ratings guys, part 2 is up now
    This makes "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory" look stupid! Nice!!
    i learned a lot of new stuff i was confused about before. Thanks, it eventually started going over my head and i couldnt finish though haha
    im an advanced guitarist and ive had very little music theory taught to me and im a shredder. ive never learned it because its usually confusing but u actually make alot of sense. thanks man u rock
    @rebl_rokr i hope you've figured out by now that you're wrong because there is no sharp or flat note between B and C or between E and F. @yoyoloto just google it, this is really supposed to be about music theory, not about how to play guitar (2 different things). @everyone, I'm starting a new series of lessons titled "pure theory." The first lesson is definitely pretty boring and not really applicable to songwriting or playing, it's just the basics so you'll understand what I talk about through the rest of the series. They are NOT guitar lessons, they say nothing about tunings or strings or technique or any of that, it's just the pure science of music.
    Can you add diagrams for the Cminor augmented, diminished and suspended chords please? I kinda got confused with that part
    I'm pretty sure the difference from E to F and B to C is actually a whole step... just sayin...
    thanks so much for the feedback! my lessons have moved to "" if you want to learn more, please sign up there to rate and comment!
    Well I'm re-reading this as I post this... making sure I fully grasp this part before I read the next one.. rest assured I will be reading the next one once I'm done with this.
    thanks! but unfortunately, there will not be a third one if you guys are willing to pay for lessons i'll be doing some on soon, if not message me and maybe i can help you find something...
    bar chords take most people forever, this is basically a checklist of what to work on, i suggest you go to some lessons and videos dedicated just to bar chords. they took me half a year. thanks for reading
    Man! You did a great job. I am truly a beginner with very little experience. I was intimidated about learning the notes on the guitar. I never realized it was going to be this simple. However, barre chords are going to take some practice. Thanks
    Cleared up so many things. Same thing with the the comment above me. Very, very, very helpful lesson!
    I just discovered this and I wanted to say that it is awesome. Thanks a lot for your effort!