I've been playing electric guitar for over a decade and have been serious into classical guitar and jazz for the last two years. I am currently studying music composition at a university and was more or less self taught. I did not have any professional training or lessons until two years ago when I started studying music with people who have been playing their instruments for over thirty years and have PhDs. I have probably learned more about the guitar and music in the last two years than the first eight years teaching guitar myself.
Why am I telling you this? Because, a little theory or knowledge about music can make a HUGE different in how you play music and think about it. There are so many great guitarist who have little or no classical music training who are amazing musicians. There are virtuosic players that exist that cannot read standard music notation or have no idea what the technical names for the chords they are playing, and that is perfectly fine. But, if someone who could do anything on there instrument and understood how pitches relate to each other, they could take out all the guess out of making music and treat it more like a science.
Are you struggling with improving over chords? Or knowing what chords sound good together or what notes work in harmonies and what notes sound too dissonant or undesired? Well than you stumbled across the right article! Hopefully beginners and advanced players can learn something new or maybe this can help clarify a few things. Anywho, enough with all the chit-chat... let's get started!
Pitches in a nutshellSo I am assuming that everyone reading knows what pitches are. I am also assuming that everyone reading knows how to tune a guitar to standard tuning. EADGBE are the notes or pitches the guitar makes in standard tuning, when the fretting hand is not touching the fretboard. In western music, there are twelve distinct pitches that cycle up and down in octaves. Octaves are named so because in western music, diatonic musical scales and keys have seven different pitches and the first pitch repeats after the 7th pitch but in a different register. For example, the low open E string sounds two octaves lower than the high open E string.
The twelve different pitches are:
- C (Rarely B#)
- C# or Db
- D# or Eb
- E (Rarely Fb)
- F (Rarely E#)
- F# or Gb
- G# or Ab
- A# or Bb
- B (Rarely Cb)
DiatonicWhat does this word mean? It means all the notes or pitches pertaining to a particular scale or key signature. In western tonal music, a diatonic key or scale has seven different pitches it and each pitch is represented with a different letter from the alphabet (A-G). Letter names cannot be repeated in a diatonic key. For example, in the key of C major (the most basic of all keys to talk about in regards to music theory), the notes are: C D E F G A B and then back to C. Notice that I didn't say something like C D Fb F G A B or C D E E# G A B or something similar. Yes, E# and F and Fb and E are different enharmonic spellings of each other (I mentioned that earlier), but you don't use these names because not every letter we have available would be used in our key. All letters must be used. Another example, in the key of G major, we would have G A B C D E F#, not G A B C D E Gb because then the letter F would not be accounted for. Why is the G major scale G A B C D E F# and not just G A B C D E F? We will get to that in a second.
So now that we know that there are twelve pitches, and that we can use seven of them and every letter must be accounted for, lets talk about keys. Keys can be either Major or minor and are determined by the main/root/tonic note that is played and the number of accidentals used. Accidentals is another word for sharps or flats. Keys can be constructed using one of two formulas. The same two formulas can be used to make the major and natural minor scales. Let's start with our first formula!
1. The Major Key/Scales
- Using C as Starting point: C D E F G A B C
- Using frets on a guitar: 0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12
- Using steps: Tonic, Whole-step, Whole-step, Half-step, Whole-step, Whole-step, Whole-step, Half-step
- 1st interval: Tonic (Root)
- 2nd interval: Supertonic (Super means above tonic)
- 3rd interval: Mediant
- 4th interval: Subdominant (Because it is a fifth or dominate below the tonic)
- 5th interval: Dominant
- 6th interval: Submediant (Because it is a third or mediant below the tonic)
- 7th interval: Leading Tone/Subtonic (Leads to the tonic and is one below the tonic)
So if we are in the key of E major, our scale is E F# G# A B C# D# E. Notice that there are four sharps in our string of notes, therefore in our key signature we will have four sharps or four accidentals. If you start with the first sharps that occurs, the F#, use that as the new tonic and go up to the fifth. That note is the C#, which is sharp. If you treat that as the new tonic and go up a fifth, you land on G#. If you do the same thing again you land on D#. The reason why I am telling you this is because in tonal music, the accidentals used in keys moves in fifths when we talk about sharps and in fourths (or down in fifths) when we talk about flats. Any key signature with a sharp will have at least an F#, so we always start on F# when counting our accidentals. If you are uncertain about what notes are in a particular key but you know the number of sharps, you're in luck! Let's say you need to play five sharps but you have no idea what to play, start on F# and go up in fifths five times. You should come up with F# C# G# D# A#, which means that your key has the folioing notes in it: B C# D# E F# G# A# B and you're playing in B Major.
Now we can do the same thing with flats. Like how when we count sharps we start on F#, when we count bs we start on Bb. Unlike the sharps, we count up in fourths instead of fifths. So if we need to play in a key with three flats we count: Bb Eb Ab and we get the following major scale: Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb or Eb Major.
Hopefully this all makes sense. You may be wondering how do I know the names of these major scales and which note to start on, Well, when you have sharps, you take the last sharp you counted and you go up one pitch and start on the natural version of it. So a key with three sharps, the third sharp is a G#, so if I go the the next pitch A, our key is A Major. Pretty simple right? Well in flat keys we go to the previously counted flat and that is our major key, UNLESS you only have one flat. If you only have one flat in your key (Bb), then you are playing in F major and F is your tonic. But lets say your have five flats in your key. The fifth flat is Gb but we go back one to the fourth flat, which is Dd, so our key is Db major and our tonic is Dd. These principles can me applied to minor keys and other scales as well. Speaking of minor keys...
2. The Minor Key/Scales
- Using C as starting point: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
- Using frets on a guitar: 0 2 3 5 7 8 10 12
- Using steps: Tonic, Whole-step, Half-step, Whole-step, Whole-step, Half-step, Whole-step, Whole-step
Now, if you noticed earlier I wrote out the notes in the G major scale. Notice that they are the same pitches that are in the E minor scale, but the scales start on different notes. The E minor scale is the relative minor to G major and G major is the relative major to E minor. So if someone told me to play something with one sharp, I could play in either key or mix the two up. Later one I hope to discuss modes and hopefully this will make more sense. You can usually tell be how a piece of music feels to play either in major or minor. Major keys sound happy, joyful, triumphant, and powerful. Minor keys sound sad, intense, sinister, and dark. To find the relative minor in a major key, go either up to the sixth interval or down three intervals from the tonic and have that note be your new tonic in the minor scale. In a minor scale, you must either go up to the mediant or down six intervals and used that note as your tonic in the new relative major scale.
In tonal music, certain intervals have certain functions. One that greatly affects minor keys and scales is the seventh interval or the leading tone. In a major key, the seventh interval is only a semi-tone or one fret away from the next tonic note. However in a minor key, the seventh interval is a whole-tone or two frets away from the next tonic note. The function of the seventh is to lead into the tonic note after a cadence. I will talk about cadences later, but sevenths lead because they are only one fret away from the next tonic and feel unresolved until they get there. This makes us have to modify our minor scale to be able to play traditional tonal harmonies/chords. There are two other common minor scales used in tonal music besides the minor (also called the natural minor) scale
A. Harmonic Minor
- Using C as starting point: C D Eb F G Ab B C
- Using frets on a guitar: 0 2 3 5 7 8 11 12
- Using steps: Tonic, Whole-step, Half-step, Whole-step, Whole-step, Half-step, Three Semitones, Half-step
B. Melodic MinorThis one is a little tricky because it involves different notes depending if you are playing the scale upwards or downwards.
- Using C as starting point: C D Eb F G A B C Bb Ab G F Eb D C
- Using frets on a guitar: 0 2 3 5 7 9 11 12 10 8 7 5 3 2 0
- Using steps: Tonic, W-S, H-S, W-S, W-S. W-S, W-S, H-S then down W-S, W-S, H-S, W-S, W-S, H-S, W-S(Now this is the tonic you started on)
So we now know how to figure out what notes are in the major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales and how to count accidentals in key signatures. We also learned the names of the intervals and the leading tone is important for tonal harmony. We also discussed how there are two different types of keys, major and minor, and how they are related.
Well, I know that's a lot of information to take in at once. Hopefully with this article you can construct the four basic scales that were introduced and play them starting on any one of the twelve notes. You should also be able to calculate what accidentals are in what keys so you can figure out what notes are used in the scale you want to play in. This is only the beginning. In the next article I will discuss more about harmony, chords, and how they tie into everything I've introduced in this lesson. I hope that this makes sense and that t'll help you become a better musician. Please let me know if you're confused about anything at anytime. Cheers!