There are plenty of jokes about guitarists being afraid of learning even basic, beginner music theory. Today we are going to walk you through how to get started, the easy way.
Beginner Music Theory: Be Not Afraid!
If you have played guitar for any amount of time, you have probably seen the memes about music theory and stubborn guitar players. They are usually poking fun at us, and our refusal to even learn basic, beginner music theory. But this didn’t just start with meme culture. In the years before the internet, guitarists were still the butt of the joke when it came to actually learning about music in an academic way. You often heard things like:
“What’s the last thing the guitarist learned on his deathbed?” Not sure, but it wasn’t music theory.
This has a lot of truth to it though, but it isn’t because guitar players are lazy. We spend hours learning songs and riffs, to eventually start making up our own riffs. Guitar is still a complex instrument, and you can’t just fake your way to being competent. But the reason we often skip beginner music theory is because we are mostly self taught. We don’t all go to the conservatory to learn music to play in a band. This is a unique position for an instrumentalist, but it seems to be the norm with guitar.
You probably won’t find many violinists playing for an orchestra that are self taught, because they go to school to learn their instrument. Guitar is unique because it can be as simple, or as complex as you want to make it. Some guitar players are happy just knowing a few chords and playing songs at home. Others do eventually attend school to learn more about guitar. But most of us learn what we want as guitarists, since there is no qualifications for starting a rock band.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with just learning what you want to learn. Learning guitar should always be a fun activity, even when you are trying something new. Life is stressful enough without stressing yourself out with your hobbies. Some people learn the basics, and enjoy themselves just fine. Some players find themselves at an intermediate point, knowing some of the notes, but never really progressing from there. There is nothing wrong with this approach either. In fact, 90% of guitarists sit at the intermediate level and they are usually happy with their skills.
But then there are those of us that want to take our musical education a little further than that. We want to get over the “intermediate slump” and start making our own compositions. I often say that there is a big difference between a “guitarist” and a “musician”. The factors that dictate the different definitions are all about music education. Musicians think differently, and see more of the whole picture by using things like music theory. Someone like Hans Zimmer is a guitar player at heart, but he composes full movie scores as a musician.
Today we are going to talk about beginner music theory, and why you should learn it as a guitarist. We are also going to dive into some examples, showing how it may not be as intimidating as you think it is! Music theory by itself isn’t going to change the way you play. But it will help you connect the dots as to why some songs work, and others don’t. There is a lifetime of knowledge in music theory, so don’t be afraid if you get a little lost along the way. You could live 150 years, and still never know everything about the guitar.
Before we start, there is a huge misunderstanding when it comes to guitarists and theory. Some guitarists think that knowing theory will harm their creativity in some way. I can tell you first hand, that it will not make you a “robotic” or rigid player. If anything, I break more rules now that I understand the fundamentals. Learning theory is not going to put a damper on your creativity, and it will not make your playing “sterile”. Look at it like this: Knowing how the dinosaur models were created in the Jurassic Park movies doesn’t ruin the fun of the film. It actually makes you appreciate the experience even more, right?
So let’s dive into the basics, and get started on your journey!
Beginner Music Theory: Why Should I Learn It?
At first glance, music theory may look like some kind of complex puzzle. People often look at it as some kind of mystical practice that is daunting at best, and just plain impossible to learn. It seems so mysterious, and older guitarists that grew up learning by ear may disregard it because they learned how music works without theory. In the past, it seemed like a boring subject that guitarists can just gloss over. But people like Rick Beato have reignited an interest in beginner music theory on the internet, especially for guitarists!
Have you ever felt like you were in a “slump”? As guitarists, this seems to happen all the time and forums all over the internet have questions about getting over the slump. This is where even beginner music theory can help you. The key to truly progressing on your instrument, is music theory. How deep you want to go, is totally your choice. But even the basics have the ability to maybe give you an “aha!” moment on guitar. Everything is connected, in an almost perfect way.
Understanding music theory can lead to all kinds of things, but mostly it will help you write better songs, and understand why you wrote it! I’m sure that if you’re a guitar player, you have probably written some cool riffs. Wouldn’t it be good to understand what makes them work so well? Or maybe you have a favorite song to play on guitar, and with music theory you can break down why that song is so much fun to play. Beginner music theory is like being a music detective, picking out clues to the bigger picture.
Another question that guitarists ask often is “How do I learn to improvise solos?”. There are a lot of elements that go into improvisation. The pros make it look easy sometimes, but there is a lot of knowledge that goes into improv. You have to know scales, modes, keys, and the way that you put all of those things together is theory. Music can be a big puzzle of confusion, or it can be a simple formula. You decide which one its going to be, through learning theory.
So there is all the hype for you. If you still don’t want to learn beginner music theory, then you don’t have to. You can hit the back button right now. But your journey as a guitarist is going to be much harder as you progress. Those slumps are going to be harder to get out of, and muscle memory will only get you so far. The best way to get out of a rut, is understanding why you hit the rut in the first place. So let’s dive into the easy concepts, starting as basic as we can with beginner music theory.
Beginner Music Theory: Getting Started
The absolute basics of music theory are probably terms that you have heard before. They might even be things you are already familiar with, but you don’t quite know how they work together…yet. The fundamentals of theory might even be things that you intuitively know and understand, depending on how experienced you are. The fundamentals of theory are:
Melody is best described as a series of notes that sticks out singularly, from the rest of the music. When you listen to music, you might focus on other things like the chord progressions or drum beat. But the main thing that you probably pay attention to is the vocals or guitar solo. That’s because these are the easiest ways to convey melody in a song. The “hook” of a song is usually the chorus, or a repeating part of a song that is infectious. It is the part of the song that makes you remember it, and makes it unique.
The most important part to remember about the melody is that it is a single line of linear notes. When you start adding notes to a melody, it becomes harmony (which we will get to). Think about a song as a book, with the rhythm and chords being the binding and pages. The melody would be the words on the pages, the part that you are paying attention to the most.
There are a lot of ways to make a melody, and the easiest is with the human voice. The vocal melodies in a song is what makes you sing along, and remember the sections of a song on a base level. A good melody will keep the attention of the listener. But vocals aren’t the only way to make a good melody. Instruments can be used as the basis for the melody, and the guitar is one of the most widely used ways to convey a melody!
A good way to start learning how to make a great melody, is to start simple. I recommend playing three chords together, or even just two if you want. Pick chords that you know go together well, like G-D-C. If you can sing, then hum some notes over the chords. You could also loop the chords, or record them and try to form a melody over that by playing single notes on your guitar.
Melody is the most important part of beginner music theory, but its also the hardest the really master. Writing a great melody that will be remembered by people, is the hardest part of songwriting. Some people can just write a great melody, like Kurt Cobain. He wrote complicated, but memorable melodies without knowing beginner music theory. He just knew the right notes to hit, by instinct alone, because he had an ear for melody. Unfortunately most of us have to work at it!
Harmony is the just as important as the melody, but while melody is sometimes just intuitive…harmony can take some serious work. Beginner music theory can help you chose the right harmony. You do this with guitar all the time and probably don’t know it, since harmony can be in chords that you play. Even simple power chords have a form of harmony.
Harmony is best described as two or more different notes played at the same time. It can be the arrangement of just the individual notes, or in chords or chord structures. Building chords on guitar is done by adding harmonies to a root note. For example, in a power chord you have an octave and a 5th harmony that makes the chord sound big, hence the name. But all chords are formed by putting these numbered harmony notes with the root note.
Harmony is usually described by using Roman numerals to decipher the note’s relation to the root note. Using numbers makes everything very simple, telling you what harmonic organization a chord belongs to, and the chord organizations tell you what the function is. Like a common 12 bar blues music progression is a I IV V and the key is usually stated first. This tells us which chords we will play in the key. There are three different chord organizations in music:
- The Tonic
The Tonic is where a song’s root is, or where it feels the most “right”. We also call the Tonic the “keynote” because it will determine the key of the music. The Tonic serves as the basis for the melody and the harmony. If a song is in the key of A minor, then that would be the Tonic. It is the first note of a scale as well as being the first note/chord in a progression.
The Dominant chords are what make the chord progression feel “tense” or dramatic and are usually opposing to the Tonic. In blues music and rock music the Dominant is what makes a song have its signature sound. Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” is a I IV V blues pattern, ending with the Dominant chord. This is why the I IV V progression is so popular, because it takes from all three categories of harmony. let’s take a look at what I mean, by looking at the fretboard with the Tonic of C but replacing the notes with the harmony numbers:
The picture above shows you exactly how the harmony notes work in the key of C. The tonic (one) is C, and the perfect fourth is going to be F, the perfect fifth is the green G note. But any kind of progression can be built from this knowledge of scales. If I told you to write a I III V pattern with C as the Tonic, you could do it by knowing the scale pattern above. Pretty cool huh?
Predominant Chords are in the middle of the “Red House” blues progression, because these notes/chords act as a bridge between the Tonic and the Dominant. It fills in the gaps between the other two, so there is time for that tension buildup to the Dominant from the Tonic. You could always just play the Tonic and the Dominant, but then you limit the notes for the Melody. The Tonic and the Dominant are like your house, and your destination on Google maps. The Predominant chord is the journey between the two places! There can be more than one Predominant, but we will talk about that another time.
Try this out right now by finding an easy song that you already know how to play on guitar. Use the Roman numerals of harmonic analysis to map out the song. You can also do it with a simple riff that you have written. Instead of writing out the chord names, use the Roman numerals, You can also just do this as a scale exercise, to remember the numbers and become familiar with them.
This is how Harmony works on a base level. It can seem a little daunting at first, but the more time you spend thinking about the numerals instead of the note names, it gets easier. Try to think of it when building chords as well. You don’t need to know what the chord is called yet, but try picking a Tonic, then adding harmony notes to it. This can really spice up basic chord structures. For an easy one, play a G power chord, but add the VII. That will be a great harmony, and it should sound nice!
But there is another way to find out a I IV V pattern, and it may be a little more…complicated. I wasn’t sure if I should add it in a beginner music theory section for guitarists, and if it seems like a bit much you can skip to the next section. But it may be helpful for learning how the notes are related, on a more specific scale.
Beginner Music Theory: The Circle of Fifths
Before we get to the Rhythm portion, we should take a quick look at a popular teaching tool for harmony. It may be one thing to look at scales and how they relate, but what about the keys themselves? How do they all fit together? How do you figure out what key a song is in, if you don’t know the tonic?
You have more than likely heard about the circle of fifths at some point whether in a lesson, or just in passing. The circle of fifths is a common principle in beginner music theory for guitarists. It is a way to visualize and organize the 12 keys of music in intervals of fifths. Each key has 7 notes that work well with it in a scale, up to the octave note of the Tonic.
Teachers will usually have you focus on the circle of fifths a lot, because it does make sense in the grand scale (pun) of everything. It will help you orientate yourself, no matter where you are on the fretboard. If you know the Tonic, you will never be lost while playing. This applies to jamming, or improv especially.
If you look at the very top of the picture, we start with C major. We start with C because it has no sharps or flats, and also because it is the middle of the keyboard on a piano. C is our neutral territory and it works well for most examples. The relative minor would be A in the case of C major. The key of A minor also has no sharps or flats. But those sharps and flats will start making their way into the scale, as we move around the wheel.
But if we move one block over, to G major, now we have a sharp in the scale. Each block will add a sharp to the major key notes. Once you get to C flat, we start adding flats to the scale, instead. So the key of G major has one sharp, which would be F# in the sequence. An easy way to remember the sharps as you move around the circle is Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle: F C G D A E B. When you start moving left, just reverse the saying for flats: Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles Father.
Looking at just the outer ring of the circle, you will see that each note next to the other, is a perfect fifth. going clockwise. For example, G is next to D, and when you put those together you get a G power chord. A power chord is called a “fifth” like we discussed earlier. This works all the way around the circle. But there is another way to look at this diagram, and it might make it even easier for you:
Going down the far left column, these key notes are all a perfect fifth apart, going DOWN. If you know your scales and modes, you will definitely see a pattern here. The relative minors are also perfect fifths as you move down the column. But going UP instead of down, you get perfect fourths. You also have the number of sharps and flats between each note in the final column.
Try this on your guitar, and you will see the relation between all of the notes, and the major scale. What this whole exercise really shows is the full symmetry of music. One way may be fifths, the other is fourths. It depends on if you are going up or down. Scales and modes show this really well, and a mode is just adding or removing notes from the circle of fifths to make a scale work in a different way.
The whole point of these diagrams is to show you how perfect fifths work, but also that flipped around, it can be perfect fourths. There is a certain equality in music, and just like learning all of the notes on the fretboard, the circle of fifths can help you close the gap on harmony. But it also has another use, that can be rather advanced.
When we talked about the I IV V pattern earlier, we talked about how the numbers make up note names in a chord progression. So take a tonic note from the circle of fifths. Why don’t we use G? Well we know that the perfect fifth (V) is going to be D right? So now D is our Dominant chord, the fifth. If we go backwards on the circle, we also find the fourth (IV) don’t we? The fourth is going to be C, our Predominate! So now we know how to organize a I IV V chord progression just by the chart, right?
The circle of fifths can be used for much more than just figuring out which notes go together. It can also be used to transpose the key of a song. But hopefully this makes a little bit of sense, when talking about the Tonic, Predominant, and Dominant chords! You can use the circle of fifths to always make a simple I IV V Blues progression, and hopefully this has unlocked the fretboard a little bit for you.
Rhythm: The Final Piece!
You can write the coolest harmony and chord structure, with an amazing melody…but Rhythm is what holds it all together! The thing about rhythm, is it can be as simple as 4/4 time…or you can get into heavy syncopation like Meshuggah in 4/4 time. There are polyrhythmic concepts too, that add different meters in a song. But at the core, it can be broken down a lot easier than that.
Rhythm is the way notes are divided up into beats and measures and repeat a certain number of times. Rhythm is often overlooked in beginner music theory, but it is just as important since it is the backbone of your chords and melody. But just defining Rhythm as something this simple, would be doing it a huge disservice. It is actually much harder to define.
As a human, we all have a different perception of rhythm, and that can complicate things. If you asked a metal drummer what rhythm means, they would say it was keeping the groove going at a steady pace. But if you ask a jazz guitarist, they may say its about playing on the backbeat of the song. But this makes everyone extremely unique, and we all approach rhythm differently. There really is no wrong way, and this is what makes it so hard to define. But it does have basic concepts:
- Measures/Time Signature
- Velocity: Strong And Weak
- Double, Half, and Triple Meters
We will break down Rhythm Theory in another article, since you really need to know how to read music first to understand how long notes are supposed to last, per section. Different note types mean different things on the treble clef, or bass clef. They may be half notes or whole notes…and this decides how long a note rings out, or how its played. Called a “beat”.
Measures and Time Signature is the “pulse” of the song, the underlying beat that everyone follows. This measure of time is usually actually just called a “measure”! It can also be called a bar. The measure’s speed is determined by the time signature, which is a number divided by another number. You have probably seen them before, and just not realized it. They look like this:
The most commonly used time signature is 4/4, and you hear it used a lot. This means that the count is 4, and there are 4 beats per measure. Of course this means nothing if you don’t have the tempo of the song. The tempo is how many beats per minute you have, letting you know how fast the song should be. But this is just the basic version of rhythm, and as we get deeper with these beginner music theory lessons, we will dive deeper into how to actually read music.
But at the core, since we all are unique as humans, we have a different interpretation of rhythm. This is why it is so detailed when music is written out. You know exactly how many beats are in a bar, and how many beats per minute the whole project is. The time signature can be complicated, since sometimes there is an odd number of beats over an even numbered bar. A good example of an odd meter, would be any waltz you have ever heard, since it is in 3/4 time. Check out a waltz and count along, you have 1-2-3 in every 4 count measure.
Strong and weak beats is very complex, but it can be easily explained since we have so many examples. The best is your basic “disco” beat. take a listen to the drums in a disco beat, and you will notice that the kick and snare are right on beat, on the 1 and 3. But listen in between, and you will hear the high hat in between every hit of the kick and snare. Listen to the clip below, and you will hear the “strong beats” of the kick and snare, with the “weak” beat being the high hat cymbal placement.
Half time, double time, and triple time meters also change things a good bit. This doesn’t change the time signature of the song, per se. This changes the amount of beats in a measure. This can get really complex, but half time is the easiest to explain since it basically doubles the meter. Every time you hear a breakdown in a rock/metal song… it is usually in half time, this gives the illusion of the song slowing down. But the BPM remains the same, with the amount of beats basically cut in half, changing the feel.
Rhythm can be just as complex or easy as the other pieces of music theory that we have discussed. In the future we will do a deeper dive into each part. But learning the basics is where everyone starts. We will take a look at different meters, and time signatures in another lesson. We will discuss how to read the rhythm, and how its possible to play a piece of music without even hearing it first!
Beginner Music Theory: What Next?
A lot of the beginner music theory concepts that we talked about today might be things that you are already familiar with. Maybe they are things that you just knew intuitively, because you have a great ear and you know how to make the concepts work. Some people pick up music theory naturally. I have had a lot of students tell me that they knew exactly what the theory suggests, they just didn’t have a name for it. This is where being a self taught guitarist might work in your favor.
While things like relative pitch, perfect pitch, and just plain intuition are all great skills on their own…music theory explains how it all works. The thing about music, is the more you learn about it, the smaller the spectrum of note choices seems. But at the same time, it is also endless and full of possibilities. Every chord progression may have already been written by someone, but that is just one component to music. The same chord progression may produce different melodies or harmonies and vary from person to person.
In the next article, we will talk about how to read music. This will put all of these concepts into action, and make things really connect. Hopefully you see that as a guitarist, music theory isn’t going to hurt your creativity. Its just a tool, and the only thing that can put a damper on your creativity is you. Understanding how music works, and training your ear is just another skill that you can add to your toolbox. It really is no different than choosing a guitar, or amp to help build your style and tone.
Do you want to learn more about theory? Stay tuned, as we dig deeper into concepts over the next year, covering all kinds of aspects of theory and lessons.
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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