guitar music theory

Music Theory for Guitar


If your intermediate guitar students can construct all of the chords that can be built from the notes of a single major scale they will have begun to develop an understanding of how the vast majority of songs are written


If you can correctly identify the notes of a Major Scale you can then build a (major, minor or diminished) chord on each note of the scale

The chord quality (Major, minor or diminished) of the chord built on each degree of the scale is the same in all keys (the chord built on the first, fourth and fifth notes will always be Major chords while those with a root note on the second, third and sixth notes will always be minor)

By identifying the notes of the relevant major scale and then hanging the correct chord quality (major, minor or diminished) on each note you can easily work out "The Chords That Work" in any key

Click to download a student handout/worksheet (shown above) which demonstrates the chords that work in the key of A alongside a guitar teacher's guide to this (first) part of teaching music theory

Working on the material outlined above is an ideal way to introduce music theory to guitar students who can play but don't really know what they are doing (or indeed why they are doing it?)

"The relationship between music theory and guitarists has always been a tricky one"


Guitar players often have a "love hate" relationship with music theory and if you survey a hundred different guitarists (ranging from jazz purists who need to understand the role and function of every note that they play through to Punk players who eschew anything that manifests itself as "rules") you will get a hundred different answers as to the role and function of music theory with relation to playing the guitar

The reason for this diversity of attitude and opinion (you are unlikely to find the same range of feelings among trumpet players) is tied up with the role of the guitar in recent popular culture and the fact that (unlike many other musical instruments)it is perfectly possible to get a great noise out of a guitar without having a clue what you are actually doing

On this page I will make a case for the study of music theory to be undertaken at the right time in a guitar players career and also for the type of music theory to be studied We and our students want to know the information that is likely to be of use to us as guitar players in the type of situations in which we are likely to find ourselves rather than to concern ourselves at this stage with a broader musical (school music lesson type?) education in which the subject is generally covered in a way that is by necessity not slanted towards understanding music theory with reference to a particular instrument

I will also make the case that (unlike in the traditional study of music theory) we should (after becoming familiar with a single major scale) progress our students to the theory of how chords work as quickly as possible (after all, moving between chords is what our students have been mainly concerning themselves with up to this point in their progress)

By following this course we will help our students to understand what they already do before moving on to introduce new theoretical concepts

Music theory is not an end in itself The knowledge and application of it need to be appropriate to the stage that a guitar player is at in terms of his or her development In the early stages of becoming a guitar player (typically the period when a player is developing the ability to move between the easier open chords in time to music) a knowledge of music theory does not really have much of a role at all In terms of educational theory this stage is concerned totally with developing a facility within what is known as the "Phsychomotor Domain" which involves the aquisition of physical skills Put bluntly at this stage it does not confer any real benefit if the student understands the theory behind what they are doing It is more important just to do it

The problems with this approach to learning guitar comes after the initial stages Students, (self taught or otherwise) can become convinced that in order to make more progress on the guitar they need merely to keep on doing what they are already doing (learning chord sequences and songs "parrot fashion") and that by following this path they will continue to make reasonably rapid progress This is not the case What will happen is that although they will undoubtedly increase their repertoire they will become stuck in a rut

There are an awful lot of this type of guitar player about (perhaps they are the most common sort of guitarists) Somebody who enthusiastically learned the basics and practiced where to put their hands and to function (often very well) within a couple of scales but then the rate of progress slows down until they are just (competently) going over old ground and although they are enjoying themselves (and thats great) they are not really getting any better as musicians (and thats not)

Any Music Theory studied during guitar lessons needs to be useful to guitarists NOW!

The key to progress at this stage is to encourage them to take a step back in order to understand what they are already playing by rote and to help them to realise that by applying a little thought they will be able to understand how music (not just guitar) works It all starts with The Major Scale


teach  music theory on guitar with major scales

Understanding Major Scales is the most important element of music theory for guitarists

Understanding Major Scales is absolutely crucial for guitarists for two reasons The first is that the construction of all other scales is defined by their relationship to the notes of a major scale and the second is that the chords that can be constructed from the notes of any major scale provide the harmonic basis of the majority of music that we hear

Developing an understanding of major scales and how they work is the most important thing that a guitar student can do with regard to understanding music theory but the problem is that guitar players in the beginning/intermediate stages of playing often dont tend to have too much use for the major scale. They seem (quite understandably) to have a lot more time for the pentatonic minor scale that will allow them to noodle away playing stuff that sounds like (and is) Rock and Blues music

Our job as guitar teachers is not to try to turn them off the pentatonic minor scale but to show them that the pentatonic minor is contained within any Major Scale (starting from the sixth note and selecting five of the eight notes in a pre-ordained sequence)

When is a guitar student ready to start getting to grips with music theory?

The above statement is quite involved and if you ask a student who is ready to start a meaningful study of music theory (i.e. one who can move around the eight beginners chords in time to music, can maybe handle the F chord and is starting to get to grips with power chords and basic bars) if they would like to study how pentatonic minor scales are contained within Major Scales they will most likely nod politely while wondering what the dickens you are on about. They will maybe even start to get that familiar feeling from their least favourite lesson at school where someone stood at the front of the class and droned on about something that everyone else seemed to understand but which they found completely incomprehensible

This is not a feeling that you (or I) want to instill in a customer upon whose money we depend We want them to feel happy and motivated (our living depends on it) and rather than present them with complicated notions of a five note scale being contained within a seven note scale I tend to introduce my students to the concept of music theory in a different way I ask them a question to which there is only one (usually very enthusiastic) answer

Do you want to know how to write songs?


music theory and writing songs on guitar

A song is composed of a number of elements including the lyrical and melodic content but we are concerning ourselves as guitar teachers with perhaps the most basic question. How to come up with chord sequences that will "work"? The wonderful thing about introducing this concept at this stage is that it gives our students a practical reason to study music theory because the knowledge derived from that study will give them a "foolproof" sytem for writing chord sequences that will sound "right" without them floundering around the neck until they accidentally come up with something that conforms to the "rules" that they are as yet unaware of

"Meet the New Boss" (the brain takes over)

Now is a good time to mention to your student that up until this point their progress has been based upon developing skills and capabilities in their hands and fingers An almost purely physical skill based around becoming capable of pressing some wires down onto a long piece of wood with the fingers of one hand in time with rhythmical movement (strumming patterns) carried out by the other hand (arm) Thats all they have really been doing for the last few months The brain has been largely absent from proceedings and now it is time for the brain to step in and tell the hands what to do

The objectives of this period of study are to enable our students to properly identify the notes of any major scale and from there to assign the "correct" chord type (major, minor or diminished) to that root note This will allow them to work out (and eventually know) the diatonic chords that can be found in any key "Diatonic" chords are those chords which can be constructed from (only) the notes of any parent Major Scale

It is important to realise (and to stress to your student) that this material is not designed to be covered in a single session before you move onto something else but rather that it is the beginning of a process by which you transfer the control of the guitar from the hands (where it has been up to this point) to the brain Once a little way into this period of study it will be perfectly possible for your student to compose chord sequences that function at the first time of asking without there even being a guitar in the room as well as to understand the chord sequences and songs that they can already play they will develop the ability to look at a set of chords and identify the "key" that the progression is in and from there make decisions about chords that may be used alongside the chords identified and scales that can be used to construct melodies or solo lines Up until this point learning to play the guitar has (hopefully?) been absorbing and satisfying This new phase can be looked upon as the point at which learning to play the guitar gets "interesting" as it is not just about playing the guitar but about "understanding" it



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