One thing that used to confuse me when I started learning guitar was the relationship between the notes on the neck.
Looking at guitar notes on the fretboard, they seemed like a bunch of notes thrown there together with no relationship with each other.
I used to think, that good guitar players could pick notes at random and make them sound good.
I knew next to nothing on guitar theory, how chords are built from scales and how these guitar scales are themselves built from an even smaller element, the interval.
Thus, I had no clue how it was possible, for instance, to play a solo!
Over the years I’ve come to realize how far from the truth that is. Those notes aren’t thrown there are random, and the sooner you understand how they are related to each other, the sooner will start seeing the sense behind that order of the notes on your guitar neck.
In this lesson, I will show you the relationship between these four different things – guitar notes, intervals, scales and chords – and you’ll understand that when guitar players play, there is a logic behind the notes they’re choosing.
Now, not all guitar players are actually aware of this. There are many good guitar players who have never learned the theory behind guitar scales and chords and figure everything out by ear.
Yes, it can be done and you’ll meet many people who suggest you don’t need music theory for guitar.
But if you do know the basics of how guitar theory works, you will have an advantage over those who have to figure everything out by ear.
Guitar note theory
The total amount of different notes in music is just 12.
Of course, you see many more notes than 12 on the guitar neck, and the reasons for this are two:
- The same note can be repeated exactly in different places on the guitar fretboard.
For instance, if you play the following two notes, and your guitar is in tune, you will get the same sound – because they are actually the same note, A.
If you look just at the guitar tabs you’ll see that you’re playing the note in a different place on guitar, but if you look at the guitar notes on the staff above the tabs, you’ll see it’s exactly the same note.
2. The same note may be repeated in a different octave.
The following are the notes on the low E string:
If you count the number of notes above, you’ll notice there are 13.
The first 12 are all the different notes in music.
The last note though is the same as the first, both are the note E.
However, unlike the note A in the example above, these two E notes are not exactly the same.
If you play the open E string and then play the E on the 12th fret you will get two notes that sound different but have a lot of similarities.
To notice this, play the open E string and then the note D# on the 11th fret.
You can hear that the note sounds completely different, unlike when you played an open E and the E on the 12th fret which sounded somewhat the same.
This is another reason why there are many more notes than 12 on guitar. Not only are some notes repeated exactly in different places, but notes are also repeated at different octaves.
Guitar Intervals: The relationship between two notes
Simply put, an interval is a distance between two notes on the guitar.
In music theory, every interval has a different name.
For instance, if you play the open E note followed by the note B on the 7th fret of the guitar, you have played an interval of a perfect fifth.
In fact, any two notes that form that exact same distance between the E – B, form the interval of a perfect fifth. (For instance C – G, D – A)
So on and so forth with every guitar interval.
You may not need to learn the name of each interval at this point, our goal here is to simply understand the guitar theory concept, and to know that every distance between two notes is called an interval and has a name of its own (such as Perfect 5th, major 3rd, Augmented 4th).
Guitar Scales theory
Guitar scales are patterns, made from a succession of intervals, that great musicians before us have tried and tested and found that work fine.
Patterns we can replicate and use to make sense through all those notes on the guitar neck.
If you go back to all the notes on the low E string in the example above and try to make a melody with them, choosing from all the notes on that string, it will, very likely, sound nasty.
However, if you try to make a melody and use only these notes:
You’re much more likely to come up with something melodic because that selection of guitar notes forms the pattern called the E major scale.
And if you play only these notes instead:
You would be going down the path of the E minor scale.
If you notice, some notes in the E major and the E minor scale, are the same, but some are different.
Now, if you have learned some scales on guitar so far you may be wondering why the scales above seem completely different to what you have been learning.
The reason is that I’m showing you the notes on the low E string only for explanation purposes.
Unless you’re on a more advanced level and want to expand your horizons, you should not learn guitar scales like this.
Instead, you will use a pattern on the fretboard that is comfortable for your fingers to move through – rather than having all guitar notes on one string.
An example of these more commonly used patterns, for the A major scale, would be this:
In this example, I’m using a three note per string pattern. There are other options such as the CAGED system, which I don’t find particularly effective.
But the pattern is just a pattern. Whatever system to learn scales you will be using, keep in mind that you’re still playing the same notes.
Just on different places on the guitar, or at different octaves, as has been described before.
Guitar chord theory
Every interval, as described above, has not only a different name but also a different sound.
Some intervals, sound consonant, pleasing to the ear, while others are dissonant, to different extents.
In this lesson on consonance and dissonance in music I explain in detail how both dissonant and consonant intervals are used together to create beautiful melodies.
Chords are simply a selection of notes from the scales that either sound very consonant (such as major and minor chords) or have an element of dissonance that can be creatively resolved into consonance (such as 7th chords)
For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll stick to the two most important and common chords of all: The major chord and the minor chord.
By knowing a just a few major and minor chords, you can literally start writing your own songs on guitar.
You don’t even need to have the following information to start writing songs, but if you understand the connection between chords and scales below, you’ll be more informed during the process.
In the case of any major and the minor chord, the chord is made of the first, third and fifth note, of the respective scale.
For example, the A minor scale is made of the notes A – B – C- D – E – F – G – A
Thus the A minor chord is made of the first, third and fifth note of this scale, that is A – C – E
This means that when you’re playing the A minor chord on a guitar, you’re only playing these 3 notes. The reason you’re strumming 5 notes when you’re playing an open A minor, is that some of these 3 notes are repeated at different octaves.
The A major scale is made of these notes: A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A
The first, third and fifth notes of the scale would be A – C# – E.
If you compare the major and the minor scale, you’ll notice that only one note is different – the C/C# in the third note.
And that note is what makes the difference between a major and a minor. It’s that note that makes minor chords sound sad, and major chords more bright.
In this lesson, I’ve tried to explain, in a nutshell, a topic that’s pretty complex.
My goal was to give you a basic understanding of how music theory works for guitar.
I really do suggest that you go into more detail on the subject of music and guitar theory and learn about the different intervals, scales, and chords.
As well as memorize the name of all guitar notes on the fretboard (this may seem a daunting task, but you don’t need to do it all at once. Start learning their names a few at a time, spending just a couple of minutes of your practice time on them).
The more music theory you learn, as well as applying it and using it on your guitar, the sooner things will start making sense.
PS: If there is any topic related to guitar theory, practice and songwriting you would like me to write a lesson about, I would appreciate your suggestion in the comments section below this article.
What is the one thing you can’t possibly figure out?
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