Music Theory for Guitar Part 1

Music Theory is like love. You can live without it but when you have it everything seems so much
There’s a positive thought for you and why not?
Nearly all guitar players have at some point wanted to improve their theoretical knowledge.
But who hasn’t into looked a theory book and felt overwhelmed with all the complex terminology?

So what I would like to do over the next three posts is to share with you some of the ideas and concepts that I have used over the years that have helped both my students and myself learn and better understand how theory can be applied to the guitar and how to learn all the notes,scales and chords that we want to but in a way that highlights the similarities between them not the differences and so makes learning shapes easier.

So where do we start? I would say the best thing that you can do for yourself is to learn all the notes on the fretboard. If you can do this then you can begin to understand chords, scales and playing in different keys. In fact if you can do this then nearly everything begins to be understandable.

There are many methods for doing this but the one I recommend is the most simple. Download the PDF here: Octave Shapes  and print it out. It will show simple Octave shapes in sequence over the fretboard. All you need to do is begin to memorise these shapes starting from the sixth string and just aim to learn between three to four notes each week.

If you are consistent you will have the entire fretboard mastered within a few months!

There are other shapes that you can learn but by keeping it simple you will find that the process never really feels that intimidating or arduous and therefore the work gets done.

I’ve used it with my students and it works without fail.

Another potential problem for the guitarist who wants to improve is chord books. You need them to learn and of course they need to be as comprehensive as possible to fulfil their purpose but again information overload can happen.

So starting with chords lets try and get to the essentials.

Chords can be categorised in one of two ways either by their interval structure which describes precisely what they are or according to their function which describes how they are most often used.

Jazz Players tend to categorise all chords by their function, splitting them into Major, Minor or Dominant categories.

The reason they do this is because given the vast amount of chords that are and can be used in Jazz this is a way of having a large amount of knowledge at their fingertips that is highly practical both for composition and improvisation.

So why is that relevant to the person wanting to expand their chord knowledge?

Well lets take a simple chord progression in A Major. We will start with the I chord A Major followed the by the IV chord D Major and the ending on the V chord E dominant 7 before the whole cycle starts again.

Most beginners will know these chords and and the progression is really simple, but the movement from the I chord [Tonic] to the IV [Sub – Dominant] to the V [Dominant] and then resolving back to the I  chord again is a much used [that’s an understatement] and highly important device in composition.

Now any chord that has more than three different notes has what is called Extensions.So a common A Major can become an Major 7th  or 9th , 11th or 13th  or in the case of a Dominant chord it can sometimes have what is called Alterations where a note normally the 5th or 9th is flattened or sharpened to create extra tension so that the resolution to a more stable [consonant] chord is more aurally satisfying.

So a good way to look a seemingly complex set of chords would be strip them back to their basic theory

For Example:  G Major 13th  C Major 7th  and D9b5 is just G Major  C Major and D7 with added notes or different notes.


It really is important that you look past the name of a chord and begin to see how it is used.So that in any given chord position you have a lot of choice and understanding as to how you “Flavour” the chord.

Now some chords such as Suspended, Augmented and Diminished chords are not technically one of the three functional groups, however they are used [generally] as a Dominant type chord [ tension before release.] in progressions and I think that by using this system of classification you will really start to expand your chord vocabulary and see their purpose.

So to clarify  an A Major7th/9th/11th/13th/ and so on is just an A Major with add ons.If you can learn to think of chords this way then all of a sudden things can become a lot easier conceptually for you and you wont get put off learning all the shapes.

Start by fingering a basic chord and then see where you can make it a 7th then a 9th and so on but see it as just one unit with a lot of options.Even if at the moment you have difficulty with playing some of the chords the important thing is learning to “see” them.

This system is based on function not strict theoretical accuracy but is a great way to learn a lot of chords quickly and most importantly usefully.

So give it a shot  and if it makes life easier then go for it!

In Part 2 we will look at an easy way to memorise scales.








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