Some guitarists think they don’t need to learn music theory either because they believe one of these myths or else because they’ve tried learning guitar theory the wrong way.
In this lesson, we’ll define what guitar theory is (so that you don’t spend time learning things that you don’t need) and explore three areas of music theory you will need to get fluent in to become a good guitar player and a complete musician.
What is guitar theory?
Music theory explains how music works. It is the study of what the great composers have tried and used before us and found to work.
While music theory is universal, guitar theory simply means every music theory concept that can be applied to the guitar.
For instance, while reading the notes on the bass clef, arranging music for the piano, or learning the instruments of the orchestra are interesting music theory topics, they’re not very useful for guitar players.
On the other hand, learning scales and arpeggios, how rhythm works and how chords are constructed are very important for guitar players who want to go places.
This lesson will give you an introduction to the three most basic elements of music theory guitar players need to know: Rhythm, melody, and harmony.
Other elements of music which we’ll not be discussing in this lesson on guitar theory include structure, texture, and timbre. The reason I’m leaving these out here is that they’re more relevant to songwriting and composition than playing the guitar.
Rhythm deals with time in music. There are three main elements of rhythm guitar theory that you need to understand to be able to play correctly in time when playing the guitar.
- Tempo: This refers to the overall speed of a piece of music (or parts of it, since the tempo can change at different parts of the song).
The tempo of a song is counted in beats per minute (bpm), the higher the bpm, the faster the song.
- Meter is a way of organizing each bar of music into a certain grouping of beats. This is defined by the time signature.
A time signature is made of an upper and a lower number, the most common being 4/4.
The lower number tells us the value of the beat. For instance if the lower number is 4, it means that we’re counting in quarter note beats (crotchets), if it is 2 we’re counting in half notes (minims) and if it’s 8 or 16 we’re counting in eight notes (quavers) or sixteenth notes (semiquavers), respectively.
The upper number tells us how many beats there are in each bar. For instance, in a 4/4 time signature, we have four quarter notes in each bar while in a 3/4 time signature we have three-quarter notes in each bar.
- Note duration: This determines for how long we hold each note or its equivalent silence (rest).
Each of these note durations is described by a symbol in music notation. In this lesson, I explain what these symbols are and how to use them when playing rhythms on the guitar.
A metronome is a tool that helps you check whether you’re actually playing the correct rhythm in time, or not.
Melody is the horizontal aspect of music, while harmony is the vertical aspect.
In the following example, the stave on the top shows you the melody – a series of notes that when played together make a memorable tune that is recognizable as a separate unit.
The stave at the bottom is the harmony, the chords backing the melody. (The music theory term is “harmonizing” a melody).
A melody is made of smaller elements of music namely the phrase and the motif. In this lesson, I show you how to develop a motif into a phrase, and then into a melody, on the guitar.
A scale is a series of notes played in an organized order. Guitarists use scales to derive the notes to create melodies in the form of guitar licks and solos.
Arpeggios are the tones of a chord played one by one. Though chords are an aspect of harmony, arpeggios are also used in the composition of melodies.
Note: These three main elements of guitar theory, as well as the others we’re not exploring in this lesson, overlap and intertwine all the time and should not be studied in isolation. It is through the combined use of these elements that music is understood and created.
As explained in the section on melody, harmony refers to the chords that back the melody.
In the above example they would be the chords C – Dm – G – C.
These chords are not backing the melody in some random fashion. Listen to how awful it sounds if I replace those chords with F#m – A – E – F#m.
Which chords you use when harmonizing a melody is the study of harmony.
There are two main elements of harmony you should get fluent in if you’re a beginner in guitar theory:
- Chord construction. Chords are formed from scales. For instance, the major chord is made of the first, third, and fifth notes of its respective major scale (C major = C, E and G, A major = A, C#, and E, etc.).
The number of guitar chords one can learn is almost infinite and some chords can get very complex in their structure. Depending on your goals, you may not need to learn how to construct all these chords.
The main chords that you will probably be using, (and thus it’s ideal to know the theory behind how they’re constructed), are major and minor chords, 7th chords, and suspended chords.
As well as power chords, especially if you’re into Rock, Punk, or Metal. Technically speaking power chords are not chords though but double stops, since a chord needs to have at least three different notes, while power chords have only two.
If you’re into Jazz or more complex genres of music, then you would also want to learn about more complex chords like extended, altered, and diminished chords.
- Chord progressions: This is the study two or more chords played in succession.
For instance in the first example in this lesson, where the melody is harmonized by the chords C, Dm, G, and C, the chord progression is an I – ii – V – I in the key of C.
Most songs use the same common chord progressions, such as I – IV – V, I – V – vi – IV, and ii – V – I chord progressions.
Other composers may create their own progressions – there are no hard and fast rules here. When something is commonly used in music theory it simply means that it’s proven to work, not that any deviation from it will necessary sound bad.
Conclusion: Where to start in learning guitar theory?
In this lesson, I gave you a basic snapshot of what a guitar player who wants to learn music theory should learn.
All these three elements can go into very advanced levels and how far you should go should depend on your musical goals.
What I suggest is to start with the first two elements – rhythm and melody, and when things start making sense, start exploring the subject of harmony.
Most importantly is that you apply every theory concept you learn to your guitar playing.
If you learn a new scale, try improvising a solo using it. If you learn a new chord progression, you can use it to write a song. So on and so forth.
This way, you will not only be learning music theory, but also internalizing it in a way that will be hard to forget, as well as putting it into practical use.
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