So You Know All This Theory

Now what do you do with it? How do you apply the musical theory you've learned to the guitar? This article explains how to use theory to understand chords and the fretboard.

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Hi. Welcome to a lesson that will hopefully give you some great new ideas about how to really apply all that theory you've learned, and make the fretboard "click" so much more. You should have a good, fundamental understanding of keys, chords, and scales already, and be able to identify notes on the fretboard. A very important thing is to have a good grasp of intervals and scale shapes on the fretboard. Knowing intervals as they apply to guitar will open up your playing so much more. For example the interval of a perfect fifth (7 semitones), or a major third (4 semitones), or a minor third (3 semitones). And despite what some people say, learning scale shapes is very useful, as long as you know the theory behind them, and be able to use them musically. Picking any note on the fretboard, say the low open E, and playing the fifth with it (B) creates the common power chord, or fifth chord, which would be notated as E5. In this case, the notes of our E power chord are: E B. It doesn't matter where these two notes are played together on the fretboard, as long as they are played at the same time, they will sound an E5 chord. You can also arpeggiate the chord, and play the two notes separately. But the principle of notes sounding together applies to all chords. If you have a major chord, say C major C E G, ANYWHERE you play any combination of these three notes, you will be playing a C major chord. With that in mind, different combinations and ways to play a chord are referred to as voicings. Here is where it really gets interesting: Say you are playing in the key of C. On any 3 adjacent strings, you have 3 different possible "inversions" of every triad that you play. This means that on the G, B, E strings, you can play a C major three basic ways:
E|----3-(G)-
B|----5-(E)-
G|----5-(C)-
This is a regular C major. Note that the bass note is C, and the treble note is G, and all three notes are in the standard C major chord order: C E G.
E|----8-(C)-
B|----8-(G)-
G|----9-(E)-
Now this is a C major in first inversion. Note that the C has moved from being the bass note to being the treble note, and E (its third) has become the bass note. C E G -> E G C
E|----0-(E)-
B|----1-(C)-
G|----0-(G)-
And this is a C major in second inversion. The bass note is again moved to being the treble note, and G (its fifth) becomes the bass note. E G C -> G C E (note how the C is in the middle and is the least resonant note in this particular voicing) If you play these three inversions of C, you will probably realize they have a distinct sound from one another. Why? Well, the bass and treble notes are the most audible notes of a chord, and the middle note is less noticeable to the ear. So when you play a standard C E G, the two strongest notes are C and G, which together form a nice and stable C5 power chord. Now looking at the first inversion, the bass and treble notes are E C. This is the root, C, and its major third, E, which gives this chord a really "major" feel, because the two strongest notes together form a major third interval. Since a major third sounds different from a perfect fifth like in a standard C chord, it will give this voicing a different sound. Now for the second inversion. It almost doesn't even sound like a C major... Well it is, but by looking at the bass and treble notes: E G, and using all that theory that you know, you can see that they are a minor third apart, as in the chord E minor (E G B). In a C major in second inversion, the root, C is sandwiched in between two notes that together form a minor third, giving this voicing a kind of "sad" minor feel. Now this concept applies to any three adjacent strings, for any kind of chord, and in any key. Start playing and experiment with any chord, be it minor, major, diminished, or augmented, or anything, and play it in different places on the fretboard and note how they all sound. It's pretty overwhelming when you think about how many chord possibilities there are, even in one key.
C major on the A, D, G strings
G|----0-(G)----5-(C)----9--(E)-
D|----2-(E)----5-(G)----10-(C)-
A|----3-(C)----7-(E)----10-(G)-
Now you can even piece together these triads to form 5 or 6 string chords all over the fretboard. For example C major:
E|----8-(C)----0-(E)----
B|----5-(E)----1-(C)----
G|----5-(C)----0-(G)----
D|----5-(G)----2-(E)----
A|----7-(E)----3-(C)----
E|----8-(C)----3-(G)----
You can play these chords partially, as a whole, arpeggiate them, add in other notes or alter the quality of the chord (make it minor or diminished) or use them in whatever way you want to in order to get an interesting sound. So how does all of this help your playing? Well now you can be more mindful of your playing. It should be easier to figure out many different voicings of chords that you can use to make your playing more interesting. Eventually you will be able to improvise much better, and know what you're playing while you're playing it. Pick a key, like C major, and start improvising slowly, but really think about what chords and notes you're playing, and you will notice that eventually you will be able to navigate around the entire fretboard much easier. When you start getting bored of diatonic chords, throw in some chords from the parallel minor (C minor) or other keys and experiment! Hope that this made sense, and will help you improve your playing by being able to apply the theory you know to the guitar.

19 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    FreekBos
    Very good article!!! I never thought of it that way. Can't wait to try it out.
    jean_genie
    Bobsam3 wrote: Great article i found it very easy to follow, could you write a lesson on using a parallel minor key and modal interchange? To Cloudconnected: the writer wrote "And despite what some people say, learning scale shapes is very useful, as long as you know the theory behind them, and be able to use them musically." u do need to lern all de notes otherwise you wont know how to use them musically. Scale patterns are gret for muscle memory and learning to navigate, you cant break out of the set box if you dont know the notes!
    I believe that the author meant was that if you know WHY to play something, it will help you decide WHAT to practice, rather than spending untold hours on stuff you may never use. I know plenty of guys that worship Metallica and play scales like crazy to practice Hammett's solos ... but they're not nearly as entertaining to watch as the guys that don't know their scales well enough to fly through them, but know how to put certain notes where they belong in the context of the song. Hendrix is a perfect example. Carlos Santana was a much better, faster, cleaner scalar player, but Hendrix had a better understanding of inversions and tonality, and chose his notes differently. Not to rag on Santana - his stuff from the 60s and 70s is some of my favourite - but there's a reason why Hendrix was Hendrix, and Carlos had to break into the mainstream pop realm to stay relevant.
    RoseofPain13
    great article, but depending on how solid your theory is you can take this further by adding 7ths and 9ths to the chord voicings you use, which sound really lush
    MotMandre
    I like to think of music theory as a language. It gives me the ability to communicate with words, spoken and in writing, the properties of music, in an organized fashion, with my own brain and with other musicians. A first grader can talk and read "See Dick run" but would not be able to read "War and Peace." Likewise the greater your Music Theory vocabulary becomes the greater your ability to quantify music, digest it and reproduce it in a deliberate manner. Music Theory does not tell you what to play. It may seem to because the vanilla words (The, a, is, now, how, yes, no) are the ones you learn first.
    soccerlegend
    learned all of this is music theory a actually just a few weeks ago (1st and 2nd inversions) but this is good for anyone who isn't got a good idea what music theory is! Learning to play one instrument is hard. But any other after that is easy!
    Kear Bear
    Great article =] one technique i taught myself is learn 2 box shapes and single-string intervals on scales. then call out the names of the notes i'm playing as i do it =] helps you memorize the names of the notes and the space of the intervals as you play, especially doing the single-string.
    Colohue
    Very good. I'm very appreciative of the inversion examples that you gave, as it's something that I've been looking into myself.
    kratos697
    nice article man I completely agree with your last paragraph on learning different voicings and focusing on the theory of why your playing it. Learning different voicings helps you improvise and also some voicing patterns make it quicker instead of barring a whole fret.
    Bobsam3
    Great article i found it very easy to follow, could you write a lesson on using a parallel minor key and modal interchange? To Cloudconnected: the writer wrote "And despite what some people say, learning scale shapes is very useful, as long as you know the theory behind them, and be able to use them musically ." u do need to lern all de notes otherwise you wont know how to use them musically. Scale patterns are gret for muscle memory and learning to navigate, you cant break out of the set box if you dont know the notes!
    Smartin4851
    very cool way of explaining inversions for non-keyboard players!! keep up good work you should also write about mode theory
    aCloudConnected
    I love you for the "And despite what some people say, learning scale shapes is very useful, as long as you know the theory behind them, and be able to use them musically." +OVER 9000!!! I get mad when people are like "u need 2 lurn all teh n0tez in da scal3 cuz scael paturns r baaaaad."
    Briar30
    Hey great article! It's easy to understand, and those who wouldn't understand probably can figure it out from your lesson. I liked it.
    HomerSGR
    Great article, easy to understand and very useful. I read it through once and got it almost instantly, that doesn't happen very often.
    RobinTrower12
    Yes! Theory is extremely important, especially for improvising and composition. Great article