Music Theory for Guitar

The process of learning to perform with a musical instrument almost always results in the performer playing what is in his hands not what is on the page. Notation is a guide to memory and theory is a means to communicate with other musicians. The dirty little secret of the music academy is that most important concepts can be taught directly without standard musical notation.

Playing by reading as opposed to playing by hearing requires an extra step. First you see the note, next you find it on the guitar, then you play it. It is both easier and much faster to hear a note and play it. That is how you learn to sing. When it comes to performance there is no time to look and think. To jam with a band you must have the grip and the strum in your hands. This takes a lot of repetition.

Music theory allows musicians to talk to one another about what they are doing. In order to learn new material easily you should learn diatonic scales and chords in two keys a fourth apart. Do and Fa are a fourth apart.

Diatonic scales. These are do re mi fa so la ti do. Many people can sing do re mi in any key. All they need is to hear do and their brain already knows how to find re mi fa etc. The key to being a musician is to be able to do this on any instrument. This is much easier on a guitar than it is on a keyboard. Notice that do re mi has no sharps or flats. Sharps and flats are the black keys on a keyboard and playing by ear is just a matter of not being sharp or flat so we don’t want to play those notes. We avoid them on a guitar with a simple rule.

mi-fa and ti-do have no sharp between them. Every other note is two frets away. Starting with Do we have Do, #, Re, #, Mi, Fa, #, So, #, La, # , Ti, Do. Each symbol represents one fret on the guitar. Notice the pattern of #(sharps) are like the black keys on a keyboard.

The wonderful thing about a guitar is that you can start on any string and any fret and the rule above will give you the rest of the scale. You only need to memorize a single finger pattern. 2 4 — 1 24 — 134 and with a little practice you can play scales in every key. We still have two problems. We want to name the notes we are playing so that we can talk to others about what we are doing and we need to learn some chord grips or shapes. This will be easier in some keys than in others.

We can apply what we just learned to create the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale tells us the name of every note in sequence low to high including the sharps and flats. The chromatic scale is the same on every instrument and has the notes A A# B C C# D D# E F G G# A. In the opposite direction you can express the scale A Ab G Gb F E Eb D Db C B Bb A. Sharp # is the next higher note. Flat b is the next lower note. Db is the same as E#.

Learn your instrument. Standard tuning on a guitar from low string to high is E A D G B E. Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie. Learn the chromatic scale just in case you need note names. This is simply the name of every note on the fret board. Memorize the following rule:

For every named note the next higher note is two frets higher except for B and E which have the next note on the next fret.

These are the notes on fret one thru twelve of the A string of your guitar but the pattern repeats so, as with the diatonic scale. Another way to say the rule above is, B C and E F have no sharp/flat between them every other note is two frets away. In fact this is just the first rule about Mi Fa and Ti Do but applied to the C scale. Once you learn the notes as Do re mi you should re-learn them as One, two, three, . . . , seven. then you can talk to the Jazz musician who goes on about flat thirds and sharp fifths.

You can use this information to set a capo or to move a shape such as a D chord down the neck. This rule works on every string and every stringed instrument and every tuning from open G to GADDAD. Practice the chromatic scale for a minute or so to warm up your left hand and say the notes. Start with the low E string. Soon you will know the whole fret board or at least the notes on the E and A strings.

Keyboard players think the C scale is special because it has no sharps and flats but since we don’t read music all major scales are alike to us. We don’t have white keys on our guitar but we can easily play do re mi in every key . We seldom need to name the notes we are playing usually getting by with knowing the number of the note. “It goes like this the Fourth, the Fifth . . .”

Hey I’m at the end of the page and I still don’t know how to play a song.

First learn to play the scales then.

Onward to keys chords and songs.