A Beginner's Guide To Music Theory For Guitar. Part 1 - Chords

In this basic lesson we explore intervals, scales, and triads, applying them to our chord structures and expanding on how each one determines the way we shape our chords.

1
Every day I meet more and more guitarists that have absolutely no theory in their arsenal. Now, don't get me wrong, I love being able to play fast and hard as much as the next guitarist, but the fundamentals that comprise musical theory are pivotal when you decide to take your playing to the next level. You intermediate players out there, don't walk away because of the article's title. In my experience some of the best guitarists I know don't know jack about theory. You don't have to be a musical scholar to understand these fairly basic concepts. In this brief article I'm going to focus on chords. I think it's safe to assume that the majority of people reading this will know basic open chords. Hell, I started learning guitar by getting down G, D, C, Am, all of that good stuff. But have you ever wondered why those shapes work? Did the creator of the guitar just start making random shaped until he heard that G? Was someone sitting on a piano playing chords next to him, just waiting for their phases to sound similar? Of course not, theory is responsible for the shapes you know and trust. Does a doctor pick up his scalpel in the emergency room without knowing the human body's anatomy? Just like that, you shouldn't be elusively playing with that pick until you understand these concepts. Let's start.

Intervals

You've heard of them. Maybe you've ignored them, maybe you've tried to pay attention and grew bored, and maybe you actually took the time to fully understand them. A lot of people get lost because a writer will delve deep into intervals from the get-go. I'm going to slow down and let all of the information seep into your brain. Firstly, what is an interval? To put it in my own basic words, it's the space in between two notes. That simple. It numbers from one to eight because there are eight notes in a basic diatonic scale. So hold up, let's check out a scale first. I know some guitarists who hate scales. I know even more fat people who hate scales (har har, get it?), but they're extremely important to progress. If you don't know the major scales form from any given note on the low E string, here it is, in A Major:
------------------------------------------------4--5----
------------------------------------------5--7----------
---------------------------------4--6--7----------------
------------------------4--6--7-------------------------
--------------4--5--7-----------------------------------
-------5--7---------------------------------------------
What makes it A Major? Just to keep it very basic and simple in this case, the starting note is an A. If you start the scale on the third fret, it will imitate this exact pattern, except everything will be down two frets and be in the key of G. Now, are you familiar with how to sing the scales? As you probably learned as a child, it's simply: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. These notes represented by simple words are known as solfege syllables. Now, you've probably noticed that the scale you're playing on the guitar sounds exactly the same. Good, if you're playing it right, it should. It's a major scale. Now, this is where numbers come into the equation. Each solfege syllable is represented by a number. The first Do would be a I, the Re would be a II, etc. etc. going all the way up the scale. Let me put it this way:
Do     Re       Mi     Fa    Sol     La    Ti    Do
I      II       III    IV    V       VI    VII   VIII
The jump from the first Do (I) to Re (II), would be known in basic intervallic terms as a second, since Re is the second of the scale. A jump from the first Do (I) to Sol (V) would be known as a fifth. Pretty basic, right? In the same terms, when you're talking about different members of a scale, you often refer to them in their numerical value. For example, if you're in the scale of A, and someone asks you to play the Sixth, you'd know to play La. Play your A major scale and see what note is the sixth one you hear. Is it an F#? Then F# is your sixth.

Chord Application

So how does this apply to chords (sometimes I subtly restate the title of the section in the form of a question, you'll have to deal with it)? Well, let's nail one more thing down in basic theory. The most basic chord in theory is a triad. Three notes, Do, Me, and Sol (or, as you now know, the First, Third, and Fifth of the key you're in). Diatonically, each time you play a note in the scale, the letter name goes up one letter. Hence, if you play a C scale, it would be: C D E F G A B C. So a C Triad would be C - E - G. It's the first, third, and fifth. This is where all of you rock guitarist get a bit of a scolding. Music theory states that in a triad, the root and the third must ALWAYS be present, exclusion is not an option. However, the fifth may be excluded if needed. The reasoning is that when a triad is simply the root (or Do, I), the fifth (or Sol, V), and the octave (2nd Do, VIII), the chord is incredibly hollow. Indeed, playing this sort of chord on an acoustic guitar truly does sound quite empty. However, I'd like you do find the Root, Fifth and Octave of, let's say, an A major scale (illustrated above), and play them all together. Recognize anything? That's right, it's a power chord. Although the Root, Fifth and Octave are incredibly hollow sounding, when combined with distortion the hollow sound is filled with noise and, let's face it, they get the point across well enough. Power chords are the scorn of music professors the world around, since they break a VERY basic rule of chordal theory: you never exclude the third. However, I'm a punk rock fan, so I really can't rail against them too much, can I? If you're looking to follow music theory, you're probably wondering how you can play the root, third and fifth together, since the third and fifth in a major scale appear on the same string, the A string. Well, you'd have to move the fifth to the next string up, the D string. You'd wind up with a chord that looked like this (in this case you're playing an A chord):
--------
--------
--------
----2----
----4----
----5----
In this case the pinky would be on the root, the ring finger would be on the third, and the index finger would be on the fifth. It takes a bit to get used to it, especially if you've thrived on power chords your entire life, and if you're playing with distortion, by all means don't bother. But if you don't quite have barre chords down yet and find yourself with an acoustic, try and adapt. The one other problem with the correct triad form on the guitar is that the lowest you can go while maintaining form is a G (since the D string can't go below a D, or 0, in standard tuning). Switching to power chords for these few notes is okay, but barre would really increase musicality quite a bit. Occasionally on tabs you will notice that there are numbers after chord names. A5? A7? Those numbers refer to the numbers in the corresponding scale (Do Re Mi), and typically move the octave to another note. An A5 is simply what we were talking about just a second ago, a power chord. A5 means that a fifth is cushioned between the root and octave. If you find something like an A9, this typically means that you've broken the mold of the triad, and will likely be playing four notes, because the number is above the octave. Since it's no longer a basic triad and you're adding the 9 rather than substituting it in for another note, the chord is written in tablature most commonly as A5add9 The '9' is simply Re, an octave above the first Re, which was a 2. To simulate again:
Do  Re    Mi   Fa   Sol  La   Ti    Do     Re  Mi  Fa  Sol  La   Ti   Do
I   II    III  IV   V    VI   VII   VIII   IX  X   XI  XII  X111 XIV  XV
So if you don't stop at the first octave (which, on the A major scale above is on the D string, 7th fret), and went on to play the scale up to the next octave, the note after that 7th fret D string would be your ninth. So an A5add9 chord would end up looking like this:
-----------
-----------
-----4-----
-----7-----
-----7-----
-----5-----
Funky fingering, I know. Index would play the ninth, which is the note on the G string. Middle finger plays the root, and then the ring and pinky would take the fifth and octave. I don't want to delve into these too deeply, because these numbers get more into theory than I feel I should be explaining. For example, an A7 can be either Amaj7 (meaning A Major 7, in which you'd play the seventh from the scale, also known as the leading tone) or it can be an Adom7 (meaning A Dominant 7, in which the note played is a half step below the seventh, and ceases to be the leading tone). This all has a lot to do with learning key signatures, which is something that a tool such as the circle of fifths can teach you a lot about. I plan to do a lesson on the circle at some point, but without that knowledge this lesson could become quite confusing. Look up the circle online and start studying it, it's really a great tool. For now, I leave the numbers following the letter names simple.

Open Chords

I had begun by talking about open chords. Of course, as we know, open chords use a lot more than just three notes, but the application of solfege is very similar. For example, what's the triad of a C chord that we already explored above? C - E - G, right? Well, let's look at the open chord for C.
----0----
----1----
----0----
----2----
----3----
---------
Now, dissect it. The 3rd fret of the A string, which is the base for the chord, is of course a C, so we know that's the root. The 2nd fret of the D string is an E. Hey, wasn't there an E in that triad? The 0 on the G string is, of course, a G, the 1 on the B string is a C, and the 0 on the E string is an E. So a C open chord is really only three notes, C, E, and G, with two of them being doubled. Now, I'm going to be a bit of a Nazi here again and mention that, in strict music theory, the law states that the third of a chord, although it should always be present, should never be doubled in a basic I chord (other variations like I6 and V6 allow for it, but don't worry about that right now). In this case, the notes on the D and E string double the third. However, to just put my own theory in here, the timbre of the guitar is unique, and often does not warrant this rule. When doubling the third on, let's say, the master of all composition instruments (the piano), it's easy to tell why music theory buffs advise against it. More often than not, it takes a lot of focus away from the root of the chord and can sound quite odd within itself. However, this effect is not achieved on the guitar, and therefore I feel it's safe to play that open E along with the D string. Let's look at another open chord, G. What's the triad for G? Well, it's the first, third, and fifth of the scale. So, in this case, it's G - B - D. Now here's the chord:
----3----
----0----
----0----
----0----
----2----
----3----
Once again, dissect it. The 3rd fret of the E string is a G, so we know our root. The 2nd fret of the A string is a B, which is in the triad. The next three open strings are D, G, and B (which make up the triad), and the 3rd fret of the high E string is a G. Funny how much theory is in the basic chords you learned just through memorization and formation, huh? To put in another little observation, this is actually one of the chord where I prefer to not double the third, but rather double the fifth, using the B string, like this:
----3----
----3----
----0----
----0----
----2----
----3----
To me, this sounds much cleaner and clearer (the music professors are smiling), and I would recommend it over the above chord, which is the basic G learned by most beginners. Doubling the fifth or root is always preferred over doubling the third. This same principle applies to barre chords. I won't go into great detail since it would just cause redundancy of the concepts, but form barre chords, dissect them, and you'll see that the basic notes of the scale's triad are all present. Let me make a quick note. A lot of people after reading this may think that any triad is just three notes that go up by 2 letter values apiece (Like C - E - G or G - B - C). In a basic way, yes, this is what you do. However, since I would never want to mislead you, be aware that both C and G have no flats or sharps in their triad formation. If you play a C major scale and figure out what every note is, going up the guitar (this is a good strategy for learning notes on the guitar), you'll see that all of the notes in C Major are not sharp or flat. However, do the same for a G scale, and you'll notice that there's one sharp, an F#, which is the fourth in the scale. This goes back to the circle of fifths, which is why I recommend you check that out soon. For this lesson, don't worry about it. Just play a G scale and say every note you play, and think about it. You'll notice that the fourth note you play is an F#, which sounds right in the major scale. So, since the fourth isn't in the triad (a triad is the root, third, and fifth, remember), it doesn't affect the open chord. However, in certain triads the letter names are affected, due to sharps and flats. For instance, let's look back on our A scale. If you say every note in that scale, what are the third and fifths? The third (which is on the 4th fret A string) is a C#, and the fifth (7th fret A String) is an E. So the major triad for A is A - C# - E. Now, you'll notice that despite having a sharp, it still sounds the same (as far as jumps from note to note) as every other major scale. That's because the major scale is based on jumps in intervals. There's a whole step between the 1st and 2nd, the 2nd and 3rd, but then only a half step when the 3rd goes to the 4th. This is true in every major scale, which is why sharps and flats must be implemented, to keep the jumps appropriate to the scale. So, with that A chord, let's see it open:
----0----
----2----
----2----
----2----
----0----
---------
The 0 on the A string is an A (the root), the 2 on the D string is an E (the fifth), the 2 on the G string is once again the root, the 2 on the B string is that C# we need (the third), and finally the 0 on the E string is an E (as you can see, this chord follows the rule of never doubling the third). So how do you make sure you understand what notes the triad is comprised of? Simply enough, play through the chord's major scale and see what the third and fifth notes are. From there, you can make barres or open chords out of them. After a while you will want to learn the circle of fifths (if an article is needed please commentI believe there are already a few submitted for it), but in a basic sense this is the knowledge you need. One last little piece of knowledge to help you along. Have you ever seen a chord that appeared as D/A, or C/B? All this implies is an altered bass, also known as an inversion. The most common inversions are first inversions and second inversions, which use the third and fifth of the scale as the bass note, respectively. In the case of D/A, you're playing a D chord with the bass (or lowest) note being an A (the fifth of the scale) rather than the D. A common misconception is that the root is always in the bass, and this is not true. When the fifth is in the bass, as in D/A, it's called second inversion, and would look like this:
----2----
----3----
----2----
----0----
----0----
---------
Play a D chord with D as the bass, and then a few times with the fifth in the bass, as pictured above. You should notice the difference pretty quickly. In the case of C/B, the leading tone (B) is in the root of the C chord. All you would do is lower the C that's in the bass down one fret, like so:
Before              After
----0----           ----0----
----1----           ----1----
----0----           ----0----
----2----           ----2----
----3----           ----2----
---------           ---------
    C                  C/B
In other chords, like G, you may have to completely abandon one of the strings. A G/B chord would require you to not play the low E string, and rather start on the B on the A string. This knowledge is nice to have when you start encountering unconventional chord names in tablature, and will help you if you ever need to learn something quickly from paper. Well, there you have it. A pretty basic introduction to simple chords and what decides how they're formed. With this simple intervallic knowledge you can deduce how to produce odd chords you see occasionally in tablature and sheet music. Feedback is greatly appreciated, and if anyone has requests for certain lessons I would be glad to oblige if I have free time (college student here). Until then, happy playing, and I hope this knowledge furthers your understanding. - Michael

21 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Phe4rTheGod
    Good, informative article, but it's all been said before on here...between Urban and ZeG, there's not much else to say... Quick question though: what is the name for the chord shape for the doubled fifth of the G major chord? Is it still called a G?
    Learn_2_Swim
    i like how you explain stuff... you should continue writing lessons for sure. Music Theory, even for hobbyists, is something you need to learn slowly and thoroughly, which you do very well.
    Jadee Jinxxx
    Thanks, it helped me. But, I will reluctantly admit, I didn't get the joke about the scales until five minutes later.
    XacrossXwatersX
    Great article. I'm just starting to make use of theory. Can't wait to get home and start messing around with some of this stuff. This was definitely a lot clearer, and more beginner friendly than a lot of the other theory articles here. Props to you for not babbling on about things us students can't understand.
    IROn 5L1nKY
    you should write it anyways revengedspite, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. If it were the way stodgy old teachers would have it, there would be no rock, so metal, no progressive, nothing!
    revengedspite
    Great article, its the first music theory article I've read on this website so I can't compare it to others - I only know a little bit of theory and my music teacher at school doesn't approve of some of the wierder stuff I write...
    Greenfinger182
    Phe4rTheGod wrote: Good, informative article, but it's all been said before on here...between Urban and ZeG, there's not much else to say... Quick question though: what is the name for the chord shape for the doubled fifth of the G major chord? Is it still called a G?
    Thank you, and yes. Simply doubling one of the three structural notes does not typically affect the name. G can be played on the guitar with either the third or fifth doubled, without a name change. As a matter of fact, for the first few months I learned guitar I was convinced that the doubled fifth G was the 'correct' G, just because the first song I used had used that as it's regular G chord. It's really just personal preference. I'd always opt for doubled fifth over doubled third.
    Philly080
    e-bowie wrote: A Beginner's Guide To Music Theory For Guitar. Part 1 - Chords The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter II: 5 Technique - Right Hand Style Hmm....
    ...And?
    gizmodious
    natesta100 wrote: what are some more scales i can work on? i know that first scale up there but i would like to have a couple more to mess around with.
    If you want to kill two bird with one stone go online and find out the intervals of the scale you want to learn and construct them yourselves. It will be confusing at first but it will become natural with practice. Remember: anytime you can practice two things at once its a win.
    pitbull510
    lol i do that- mess around w/ random chord shapes till i get somehing that sounds good. I also kno a little theory....
    e-bowie
    A Beginner's Guide To Music Theory For Guitar. Part 1 - Chords The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter II: 5 Technique - Right Hand Style Hmm....
    Greenfinger182
    Whoops, sorry...that coding doesn't work here, I completely forgot. Still, you can get the general idea. Go up the fret board using that tab, starting on the low E and going up to the high E.
    Greenfinger182
    The minor pentatonic is a very easy and very fun scale to 'mess around with.' This is it (in this case the A minor pentatonic...just move the root to change key): [code] -----5---8- -----5---8---- -----5---7---- - -----5---7----- -----5---7----- ----5---8----- [/code] Besides that, look up both natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor scales. All are very beneficial to know.
    natesta100
    what are some more scales i can work on? i know that first scale up there but i would like to have a couple more to mess around with.
    ashers67
    Greenfinger182 wrote: Phe4rTheGod wrote: Good, informative article, but it's all been said before on here...between Urban and ZeG, there's not much else to say... Quick question though: what is the name for the chord shape for the doubled fifth of the G major chord? Is it still called a G? Thank you, and yes. Simply doubling one of the three structural notes does not typically affect the name. G can be played on the guitar with either the third or fifth doubled, without a name change. As a matter of fact, for the first few months I learned guitar I was convinced that the doubled fifth G was the 'correct' G, just because the first song I used had used that as it's regular G chord. It's really just personal preference. I'd always opt for doubled fifth over doubled third.
    I completely agree. Ever since I played Good Riddance (Time of your life) by Green Day which had that G chord in I've chosen to play it like that. I seem to remember the tab book of Green Day's International Superhits calling that G a G12 which makes sense I guess, but I can also see no reason why it would desperately need to be called that
    billpatel
    Nice article, it made chords a hell of a lot more clearer. Keep on writing.