Lessons in Music Theory for Guitar (and everyone else)


How does learning music theory help us when we’re playing guitar?

“Theory” is concerned with how music works. We can think of it as the language of music, containing an alphabet, spelling rules, and grammar.

Some might say straight up that this sounds a bit boring for guitarists.  (Hey, life’s too short.)  Isn’t music theory and analysis what music students study?  Maybe we just want to jam along with the next guy.  Or be playing the Blues, or strum along to a song.

Yes, we can see how a knowledge of musical notation may help us if we want to play classical guitar from a score.  If we want to understand musical terms and follow rhythm, for example.

But how much will it help if we simply want to play in a band, or sit songwriting in a bedroom?

How much will a grasp of harmony help us get to grips with learning the guitar fretboard?  Or a chord progression?

Well, music theory explores how notes relate to each other.  It’s there at the root of all music-making.

When we improvise beautiful melodies, or strum in harmony along with popular songs, we don’t need to be aware of what’s going on specifically.  But the music theory is the tendencies and patterns that make music sound “right” (or “not right”, depending on the goal of the composer) when we’re playing and performing.

It starts with those five lines, and the little black dots, and what they all mean.

Table of Contents:

Music Theory for Guitar

Understanding music theory concepts helps us learn and memorize pieces more easily.

Music theory for guitar is simply when that theory is transferred to our fretboard.  When we learn guitar music theory, it can affect our playing.

We can make more expressive musical and phrasing choices.  (Sorry.  It doesn’t help get those barre chords sounding clean.)

Music theory is universal and is not specific to any one instrument.  The guitar is fortunate, in that a composition might be written for the instrument in several ways.  This can include standard music notation, tablature, or chord references.

But the same musical theory concepts that work with the guitar fretboard are also relevant to piano, violin or tuba.  Music theory applies to all written composing and aural improvisation.

So should we really spend time learning it?

Will being a music theory expert make us sound like a better guitar player?

Should You Learn Guitar Music Theory?

If we’re just starting out on guitar, we don’t have to understand music theory to be able to put our fingers on the frets.

If we’ve just begun guitar lessons, we don’t need to be able to list the musical notes in G major’s relative minor scale.  Or delve into the intricacies of chord construction.

We can play melodies without any idea of how the notes combine to form music that has shape and direction.  We can find chord shapes without understanding basic chord structure.  We can play real music without knowing the theory behind different types of time signatures.

So as guitar players, we’re more likely to listen to harmony in a Beach Boys song than analyze it.

We might use our time better, at first, by working on the more practical aspects of getting to grips with the instrument.

We could learn a C major chord for instance.  And practice bouncing between it, and other common chords to form a chord progression.

We could play major and minor scales up and down the fretboard, by all means.  We could do some finger exercises to get our hands working and to learn to synchronize them.

We can create a practice schedule and get physical practice underway.

Then we can start learning music theory concepts, and the language of music later, if we want to.

See below for more on the question, “Do you need to learn music theory?”

 

As guitarists wanting to play our own music, we don’t necessarily need to spend time learning theory.

We don’t have to understand chord voicings to play music.  Or wrestle with why a major chord is a major chord (and not a minor chord).  There are plenty of things we don’t need to know.

But we might find we start to ask questions.  For example:

We might feel that we want to understand music more.  That the theory might help explain what we’re playing.  We might start to feel that understanding music theory will enable us to make better music and become better musicians.

If that’s the case, then the logical thing to do is to start with the theory basics.  These are the building blocks of all music and guitar playing.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Music theory is a language. It starts with a few core ideas and builds on them. (To infinity!)

As such, don’t expect to get everything in one sitting. Instead, allow this to be an ongoing study that deepens over time.

At first, all this may seem like a lot. It is! It’s common to feel overwhelmed.

Therefore…

we can narrow our focus to just one or two lessons (say, exploring major chords) and then move to the next (minor chords) when we feel comfortable. We have all the time in the world.

(We might like to make ourselves a cheat sheet for each lesson, so it’s easy to refer back.)

We only progress as quickly as we can stay interested, curious, and enthusiastic.  So little and often is the key.

And above all, we keep practicing our guitar playing!

Whether we want to play classical guitar or acoustic, rock, pop, jazz or the blues, we don’t want to let theoretical knowledge derail our practical work (pieces, technique practice, sightreading, etc.).

We don’t have to understand just yet how all this pertains to the guitar.  Just absorb the concepts as a separate study, and in a short time, we will be able to transfer that knowledge to the guitar fretboard.

We’ll start to get an idea of how the sound of a tune or melody is connected to major and minor scales.  And how a knowledge of bass lines helps us to explore a chord progression.  How to analyse what’s going on in that simple riff, so we can remember it.

If you are new to music notation, you may enjoy the full course, How to Read Music for Guitar.  You might also want to bookmark or print our handy checklist for How to Learn a New Piece in 7 Easy Steps.

Getting Started with Music Theory

In the lessons below, the piano keyboard is sometimes used for visual reference. It’s okay if you’re not familiar: you’ll pick it up quickly.

This page can act as a resource to come back to later. You may like to bookmark this page so that it’s handy when you need it. You can also click the yellow “add to favorites” button at the top of this page.

Choose from the options below to learn basic music theory, or to test yourself on your music knowledge.

For the best understanding, go in order, and complete each lesson. If you like, you can use the fretboard quizzes at any time. You need not wait to start on them.

INSTRUCTIONS – How to use the lessons below:

Click on one of the accordion topics below.  Then click on the yellow highlighted line, and use your right or down arrow key to see the lesson.  On mobile, click on each line in turn.  Enjoy!

Music Theory Lessons

Rhythm and Meter

Intervals

Scales and Key Signatures

Chords

Quizzes


Do You Need to Learn Music Theory?

When we first start learning to play the guitar, it’s all about the hands. Putting the right fingers on the right frets and the right strings at the right time.  Working out the chord shapes.

Yet as soon as we pick up a guitar method book, or watch a video, we seem to enter an alternate universe. It’s one where everyone appears to know more than us.

It seems like if we want to play the classical guitar – or even if we just want to strum some simple chords – we have to learn a ton of music theory.

So Much Theory: So Little Time

Music theory is everywhere. Or so it seems.

It can seem like a never-ending onslaught from all directions. A huge, complicated body of knowledge that we need to understand before we can play the guitar.  Or even understand ‘real’ music.

But what should we start learning first?  The modes or the scales?  We can play chords, but how do we build chords or play intervals?

What happens if we don’t know our subdominant from our minor seventh? How are we going to play guitar if we don’t understand time signatures?

Do we actually need to learn all this theory? And how long is it going to take?

What is Music Theory?

Music theory is a term used to explain what music is, and how it’s constructed.

It enables us to communicate musical concepts to others. It’s the rules for ordering elements of music into structures. We could say it’s the language of music. The grammar and the syntax.

As keen guitarists, we may like to know some of this. But if we’re just starting out, do we need to study it?  Is it one of the most useful things we could focus on?

The answer is no.

When we’re starting to learn to play the guitar, we don’t need to learn masses of music theory.  It’s difficult to know where to begin, so it’s confusing.  And it gets in the way of doing something constructive, like practicing chord shapes.

Frankly, it might not be the best way to use our time.

Attractively Brainy

Music theory is so cerebral. It appears to be brainy, so it’s very attractive. We want to learn it. And we know we can, if we put in the hours needed to figure it all out, and if we read several books.

And then, importantly, we’ll be able to chew the fat with other musicians!

But reading theory books won’t help us to learn to play the guitar.

Because playing guitar means using our hands as well as our heads. It’s the act of placing our fingers on the strings. Recognizing finger patterns and learning chord shapes. It’s our coordination and dexterity. It’s about producing a sound from an instrument.

Theory is thinking about music. It’s intellectual, not physical. So it’s a few steps removed from our fretboards.

So Are We Saying Never Study It?

To begin with, learning classical guitar is mainly working out how to use our hands.

(We may be reading music too, but most people tend to learn this music theory as part of the physical practice of finding a note.  The difference is that we don’t typically learn it in isolation, away from the instrument.)

Classical guitarists tend to play music composed by others. (For example, it’s different from jazz. In jazz, the players use elements of music theory while they improvise solos.)

But, as we become more advanced classical players, we may want to delve more into music theory. We might discover that it becomes useful to recognize the devices a composer uses to create a piece.

This can inform the way we play our music.

We’ll quickly realize that understanding rhythm patterns is important.

But we’ll also begin to appreciate that seeing relationships between chords helps us make musical choices. It might help us decide to get louder at a particular point in a piece. Or help us to bring out heightened tension in a passage.

Music theory might help us to interpret our music.  This enables us to play with increased expression.

But, when we are just beginning, most of this theoretical information is unnecessary.

We’re Not All Car Mechanics

We don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car. Or how electricity works to plug in an appliance. We only need to know how to turn on the ignition, or flip the switch, because that’s all the knowledge we need at that moment.

It’s the same with examples of theory.

Take scales. It doesn’t matter if we know why each note follows the other.  When we listen to a C major scale, we can hear how it relates to a melody using the same notes.  We don’t necessarily need to understand why.

We can just use scales as exercises to synchronize our hands or work on dynamics. We can use them as a tool to help improve our playing.  But we don’t need to know specifically how they are created.

Don’t Know How to Use the Theory? Then Don’t …

There’s not much point in trying to memorize all the notes of the Mixolydian mode unless we know how to use it.

But there are some elements of music theory that we can use right from the beginning.  And learning chords is one of those foundations.

… Unless it’s a Chord

Whether we play Sor or Tom Petty, it makes no difference.  Guitar playing is all about chords, so we do need to be familiar with them.

As guitar players, we can learn a chord shape with our fingers, and think no more about it (the practical).  Or we can learn how chords relate to each other (the theory).

We learn how composers use them to create their own music.  How they work in context, and relate to other aspects of the music.

Music Theory: The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, if you don’t know why you’re learning music theory in your spare time, then don’t.  Just practice your guitar.

Music theory is wonderful, but we don’t need it to start with.

As we advance, then it can make sense to deepen our study of musical notes.  It enriches our experience as guitar players.  It can help our ability to interpret and memorize music.

But when we’re a beginner, music theory can get in the way.

So, if you’re in the early stages of your journey, skip the theory and just go and play chords on your guitar.  Enjoy the sound of it.

For the time being anyway.

Then when you’re ready, the lessons above are a great place to start.

Other Articles and Tutorials About Music Theory

Below you’ll find many other CGS articles on music theory topics.

  1. 9 Guitar-Specific Musical Notation Symbols Explained
  2. A Simple Guide to Ties in Music
  3. All About Accidentals In Music Notation
  4. All About Drop D Tuning: Open D Tuning for Guitar
  5. All About Triplets – How to Count and Play Triplet Rhythms
  6. An Introduction to Musical Form for Guitarists
  7. Clap and Count Rhythm Aloud: How to Learn the Rhythms in Your Music
  8. Classical Guitar 101: String Names, Finger Names and More
  9. Classical Guitar Scales: Shapes Explained
  10. Classical Guitar TABs: Both Terrible and Wonderful
  11. Cross the Bar Line for Better Phrasing, Better Classical Guitar Practice
  12. Dotted Notes in Music – How to Count Dotted Rhythms
  13. How Chords and Scales are Related (How the Guitar Works!)
  14. How Classical Guitar Technique Can Help You Play Other Styles of Music
  15. How To Count and Play Mixed Meter Time Signatures and Rhythms
  16. How to Learn Classical Guitar Chords (and Why They’re So Great)
  17. How to Listen to Music (and Become a Better Musician)
  18. How to Play Beautiful Tied Notes and Syncopations
  19. How to Play Guitar From Chord Charts and Lead Sheets
  20. How to Play Polyrhythms on Classical Guitar
  21. How to Play Rests in Music: Theory and Notation
  22. How to Play Stacked Rhythms on Classical Guitar
  23. How to Use a Metronome for Guitar Practice
  24. Introduction to Roman Numeral Analysis (Harmonic Analysis)
  25. Introduction to Slash Chords for Guitar
  26. Key Signatures Made Easy: A Quick Way to Find the Key of a Song
  27. Lessons in Music Theory for Guitar (and everyone else)
  28. Musical Definitions for Classical Guitarists (Common Words Explained)
  29. Musical Roadmaps: Navigation Symbols and Definitions for Sheet Music
  30. Note Duration – The Different Types of Musical Notes (Music Theory Lesson)
  31. Practical Musical Analysis: First Steps in Learning New Music
  32. Problems with the Word “Classical” in Music
  33. TABs to Notation: How To Bridge the Gap
  34. The 8 Most Common Rhythm Patterns (and how to simplify a tricky rhythm)
  35. The Four Elements of Music – Musical DNA, and How Music Works
  36. The Four-Measure Musical Formula for Practice, Phrasing and Memory
  37. The Most Common Chord Progression in Music
  38. The Power of Half-steps in Classical Guitar Music
  39. What is an Agogic Accent in Music?
  40. What is Classical Guitar?
  41. What is “Phrasing” in Music? Interpretation and Expression in Pieces of Music
(Special thanks to www.musictheory.net for their generous help with these lessons! You can find more fun topics to explore there.)


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.





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