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Music Theory – Why It Shouldn’t Scare You

There are many, many jokes that get passed around between musicians, usually at the cheerful expense of fellow band members. Here’s one you can aim at the vocalists; 

Q:        What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?

A:        A singer! 

And another one for any drummer friends you might want to annoy; 

Q:        How can you tell if the stage is level?

A:        The drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth! 

Marvellous stuff – simple, cruel and based on wonderfully lazy stereotypes. But there’s another joke that probably gets told even more often, and this one’s aimed at us guitarists…. 

Q:        How do you get a guitarist to stop playing?

A:        Put sheet music in front of them! 

Ooooooh – now that’s just harsh. Or is it…? 

There’s sheet music, and then there’s sheet music 

Any guitarist reading this blog will almost certainly have encountered the guitar chord ‘box’ or ‘frame’ – an excellent way of delivering information on how to strum or pick a particular chord, and hugely useful when featured on song sheets or in chord songbooks. You’ve probably also come across riffs and solos written as guitar tablature (or TAB), which provides even more in-depth information about how to move through a tune fret-by-fret. And if not, we’ve written a book Guitar Tabs: Learn to Read Tabs in Less than 60 Minutes that shows you how! 

But do chord boxes and TAB constitute ‘sheet music’? Well yes and no. They certainly show you where to physically place your fingers (thus playing the correct notes) and what certain chords are called. But they don’t actually tell you the names of the notes on the fretboard, or which individual notes a certain chord is made from. They almost certainly don’t give precise information relating to pulse or rhythm either. This is all information that can be gained instantly from conventional music notation on a traditional 5-line stave, and it’s THAT kind of sheet music that the guitarist joke above relates to (seriously, out of the 100+ guitarists I know personally, less than 10 can actually read standard notation). 

And yes, in a world where chord boxes and TAB exist, standard notation isn’t an absolute essential for guitarists. But many of us do tend towards not bothering with any musical knowledge beyond where to just place our fingers. In a typical guitarists brain, anything more complicated than that might just be bordering on Music Theory, and that’s a term that too many of us find scary. Which is just ridiculous. 

What IS Music Theory? 

Put very simply, music theory is the language used to describe music to other musicians. Still scared? Thought not! 

Chord boxes and TAB will give a guitarist all the physical information needed to play a tune by themselves. But even a rudimentary understanding of simple theory (including grasping the basic principles of reading ‘normal’ sheet music) will allow that guitarist to explain what they’re doing to the rest of the band, and have ideas explained back to them. Look at it another way; saying “I’m playing a G, then an A” will make more sense to a piano or trumpet player than saying “I’m playing the 3rd fret, then the 5th fret” – what the hell would they know (or care) about frets?!? 


As with everything, start with the simple basics when beginning to consider music theory. 

The Strings: Yes, just learning more about those 6 simple notes from E to E is a good place to kick off. You know how to tune them, but have you considered that most of them are a major 4th apart in pitch? Apart from G and B which is a major 3rd? Or that high E is two octaves above low E? What is an octave anyway? To find out, just play ANY open string, then play it again at the 12th fret. That wasn’t hard, was it?!? 

The Fretboard: Piano students may have the advantage of being able to see each individual note as a black or white key to press, but we’ve got sooo many more ways of playing each note – you can perform the same E that comes from the open 1st string in at least 4 other places on most guitars just for starters. But it’s easy to learn where all these notes are – just start with the main frets (i.e. the ones with dots on) and work from there. We’ve even written a book that will help you “Memorize the fretboard in less than 24 hours” – it really is possible to learn that quickly! 

The Chords: You’ve probably got at least 10 of these lodged in your brain already – muscle memory is a wonderful thing. But once you’ve got your fretboard learned, you can use barre chords on any ‘root’ note you want. It really IS that simple. And very handy if someone asks you to play in C# minor… 

The Scales: The foundation of all good solo playing, not least of all the magnificently simple blues scale which we discussed in “Blues 101”. But it goes so much further than just playing melodies. Remember that all chords are hidden inside scales - if you know the scale then you don’t just know the chord, but all kinds of tricks that can be played around that chord. 

Chord Progressions: Simple ways of moving through songs, whether you’re working from chords (“A to D”) or intervals (“root to the 4th”) – it all means the same thing and works the same way. Probably the best place for a guitarist to start here is with the 12-bar blues, which we’ve previously looked at in “Blues 102”. 

Beat/Pulse and Rhythm: Do terms like “3/4 time signature” or “unequally divided pulse alternating between long and short durations” confuse you? What about the terms “Waltz feel” or “Swing feel”? These second far more simple-sounding terms mean exactly the same thing as the first terms. Which proves that you can make music theory just as simple or complicated as you want. Yeah, we prefer it simple too… 

Wrapping it up 

There’s really no sensible reason for any guitarist to avoid picking up even the barest minimum of music theory, even to just improve their own understanding of what is happening when picking through a simple tune, and certainly when trying to communicate to the rest of a band about how to end a song at the same time. Maybe this is where Paul McCartney went wrong at the end of ‘Hey Jude’…? 

We’ll explore these ideas a little further in future articles, so until next time… 

… Peace out!

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1 comment

  • Gypsy Perry
    Your explanations make good word pictures.

    I am a harpist who plays a bit of guitar. It takes a bit of brain study to go from ‘vertical’ playing to ‘horizontal’ .

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