How To Apply Music Theory For The Guitar

The reason why many guitar players don’t think music theory is necessary comes from the belief in certain myths about music theory for the guitar.

While I don’t know the exact origins of these myths, my guess is that the root behind their existence is that guitar students and players rarely see music theory applied into practice.

Music theory is the same for every instrument – up to a certain extent.

The notes in music, and the way they form intervals, scales, chords and chord progressions, the rhythm and other musical concepts apply equally to any instrument.

However, traditional music theory books are not written with the guitar in mind, but the piano and instruments of the orchestra. 

Thus, while the building blocks of music are the same, the more you advance in traditional music theory, the more the focus will be on things relevant to composition and arrangement for these instruments and not the guitar.

It took me a long time to realize this.

While studying on my Grade 7 music theory exam, I realized that less than 20% of what I was learning was either relevant or applicable to my guitar playing, improvisation and composition.

I won’t say the other 80% was a waste of time. I’m a lover of music and it gave me an understanding of how many things work, as well as trained my mind to play around with notes and arrange them in a logical manner on the music stave.

However it wasn’t in line with my goals.

The purpose of todays lesson is to bridge this gap by using some of the music theory concepts explained in this lesson, this lesson and this lesson to create an 8 bar piece of guitar music.

If you don’t know how intervals, scales, chords and chord progressions work, it’s important to go through the linked lessons above before proceeding further.

If you don’t know where the notes on the guitar fretboard are it is important to figure them out to make the best use of this lesson.

You should also start memorizing them in order to be able to apply any music theory concept on the guitar easily in the future.  

Step 1: The elements

In this lesson we are going to use:

a) The A minor natural scale

While it is important to learn scales in different positions to cover the whole fretboard, for the purposes of this lesson we’re going to use the A minor natural scale in just one position, using a 3 note per string pattern.

These are all the notes we have available for the short piece of music we’re going to create.

b) Harmonizing the minor natural scale

When you harmonize a scale, you’re basically allocating a chord to each note of the scale. (If you want to understand the process, refer to the suggested links above).

The chords of the harmonized minor natural scale are:

1 – A minor

2 – B diminished

3 – C major

4 – D minor

5 – E minor

6 – F major

7 – G major

c) A chord progression using a combination of those chords.

For this piece of music I’m going to use the following chord progression. 

Chord progressions are usually written in Roman numerals with a lower case numeral allocated to minor chords and an upper case numeral to major chords)

i – iv – v – VI – i – iv – v – i

Which gives us these chords:

d) Arpeggio notes

Though this is no hard and fast rule, during the solo part of the piece of music, I will tend to emphasize on the arpeggio notes of each chord backing the melody.

For instance while I’m playing over the A minor chord, the notes A, C or E will tend to be the accented and/or long notes.

If I’m playing over the F major chord, F, A or C will be accented as such, so on and so forth.

The following are the arpeggio notes that find themselves in the particular scale pattern we are using, for each of the chords used in this progression.

Step 2: Putting these elements together to create music

If you don’t yet understand all the theory behind the concepts given above, you should learn each example given anyway because now we’re going to combine everything together to create an 8 bar piece of music.

The first step to turn the above musical elements into real music is to give a rhythm to the chord progression that will underlie the melody.

I’m using a very simple rhythm here so that it doesn’t sound too busy behind the notes of the solo it will be backing. 

The second step is to come up with a short guitar solo over these backing chords.

Things to note:

a) I’m only using notes from the A minor natural scale

b) Most of the time the notes of the arpeggio (or chord tones) are emphasized. For instance, bar 4 is made entirely of the arpeggio notes of the chord F (F, A, C) while bar 5 is made entirely of the arpeggio notes of the Am chord (A, C, E) save for the first note.

Conclusion: Apply every music theory concept you learn

Depending on your present knowledge of music theory and the guitar, you may, or may not, have understood every concept explained in this lesson.

If you didn’t you shouldn’t worry. You’ll definitely be learning these concepts in much more depth if you keep studying music theory for the guitar.

What you should notice is the process of application. You should replicate this every time you learn something new in your study of music theory.

Now, while you should do this to really learn both music theory and the guitar, this doesn’t mean that you have to follow these “rules” every time you compose music.

I did so here in order to explain the topic, but in reality these rules are creatively broken all the time by musicians and composers.

The goal is that they become so ingrained in you that you won’t even need to think of them when creating music.

You can use guitar fretboard exercises in this lesson as a place to start practicing and internalizing these different paths through the fretboard.

Because that’s what music theory really is. Paths and patterns used by great musicians before us that have been tried and tested to work.

And that’s why its rules can be broken at will when one knows what he’s doing.

Breaking these rules is nothing more than exploring paths that haven’t been explored before.

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