What is Guitar Theory?
- Do you have a hard time learning songs, remembering their parts, and understanding their structure?
- Are you stuck in a rut when trying to compose your own music?
- Would you like to be able to spontaneously improvise and jam?
- When you learn something new on the guitar, do you sometimes find that you don’t quite know what to do with it?
- Have you noticed that many of the guitar instructional materials on the market feature lessons that teach you the “what” but not always the “why” and “how”?
If you’ve faced any of these problems, you’re not alone. Many guitar players struggle to truly master the guitar for years or even decades, but there’s a simple solution:
Once you understand how music works on the guitar – also known as guitar music theory – you’ll have the knowledge and know-how to make music work for you.
And you’ll have complete control over everything you play, whether you want to master a classic song or a complex solo that you love, or you want to compose or improvise your own unique music.
Generally speaking, music theory is the study of music, the elements of music, and the way music works.
It’s the way you analyze, classify, and compose music.
Music theory also relates to the way that you notate music and perform music, and the interrelationship between notation and playing. You could say that music theory is the mechanics of music, both written and played.
While music theory covers music in general, guitar theory is specific to the guitar.
Typically, guitar theory includes only the aspects of music that enable guitarists to:
- find their way around the fretboard
- play music
- compose and improvise
You won’t get far on guitar without learning chord shapes, scale patterns, chord progressions, note positions, and intervals. You won’t accomplish much if you don’t understand keys, modes, harmony, chord relationships, and scale applications. Without some understanding of rhythm and without developing technique, your playing may never take shape.
But don’t worry – we’re here to help you make sense of it all.
When you learn guitar theory, you equip yourself to play songs, compose your own music, and improvise.
Guitar Scale Theory
In music, a scale is a series of notes played in ascending and descending order.
Scale notes make patterns on the fretboard, which guitarists finger and pick position to position.
With scales, you can play melodies, riffs, solos, and bass lines. But to be successful with scales, you’ll need to do more than simply memorize their patterns, and this is where music theory, or in this case, scale theory, comes into play.
Have you ever seen a guitarist learn the basic chord changes in a piece of music, and then instantly begin to improvise using scales? Pretty cool, right?
You can do that too, once you know how scales relate to chords, and how to combine the two on-the-fly.
Different types of scales produce different types of sounds: from major to minor, from pop to blues. To become a versatile guitarist, you want to what’s appropriate in each situation.
Guitar Chord Theory
In music, a chord is a group of notes that ring together in harmony. One of the first things that beginning guitarists learn is how to finger a basic chord shape, and strum across a group of strings. Chords are usually at the base of every song, and they help establish the tonality of a piece of music.
(Tonality is whether something sounds dark or light, happy or sad.)
Chord theory is the study of how chords are built and how different chords relate to one another.
- knowing basic chord structure (roots, 3rds, and 5ths, or triads)
- the difference between major and minor
- the use of added chord tones and extensions (like sus4, add9, major 7th, and other types of chords that have more depth and color)
- the concept of voice leading (Voice leading means to play smooth transitions chord to chord.)
Guitarists also add variety to their playing by making use of fragmented chord shapes, chord inversions, and chord voicings. (Chord inversions and chord voicings refer to how you stack the notes of chords to produce different sounds.)
And it all stems from their knowledge of chord construction. This might all sound a bit difficult if you’re not used to these terms, but don’t worry – we’ll explain it all in easy-to-understand language as we go.
What’s most important to know now is this:
Although you can simply memorize chord fingerings to get started with playing guitar, getting to know chord theory is how you develop a working knowledge of music and become proficient as a player. One of the best ways to learn how chords are formed on the fretboard is to study the guitar-specific CAGED system (more about that later).
Chord theory also involves the study of chord progressions, which are the ways chords are put together to form a series of chord changes. As chords change, they determine the music’s movement and a song’s structure.
Composing a chord progression requires you to understand relationships between chords, and concepts involving the way chords lead to and pass from one another.
How is it that some guitar players seem to know what’s coming next in a song even when it’s their first time through it?
It’s because chord progressions typically follow predictable patterns with their movements based on familiar scale structures and simple number systems. You definitely want to know these structures and numbers!
You’ll get to know guitar chord progressions and playing-by-numbers by working with the chords produced by the major scale and its seven scale degrees.
By the way, studying guitar theory is best suited for players who are beyond the beginning stages of playing guitar. If you’re just getting started with guitar, then focus on learning the very basics by viewing the free lessons on my beginner guitar page.
If you want to see the kind of guitar training that can turn you into a pro player within weeks, instead of months or years like traditional methods, check out the Fretboard Theory video instruction:
Coming Up Next in Lesson #2: Scales
Coming up in Lesson #2, you take a deeper look at scales. You get to know the specific types of scale patterns used by the pros to play melodies, riffs, solos, and bass lines. You become familiar with the process to write your own catchy riffs, improvise melodies at will, and connect scale patterns to chords with ease.