Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Is Guitar Theory? Applying Music Theory to the Guitar Fretboard.

This guitar blog post will answer the following questions:

1. What is guitar theory?
2. Why do guitar players have to learn theory and what are the benefits?
3. What does guitar theory include and where should a player start?

Theory is the study of music - how it's written, notated, discussed, thought of and played. Guitar theory is the study of how music theory specifically applies to the guitar fretboard and usually focuses on how all the different components of songs, such as scales, chords and progressions, fit together. It's a topic best suited for intermediate and advanced guitar players who already know the basics of playing such as chords and easy songs and want to take their knowledge to the next level and navigate the fretboard like the pros. These things are required if you want to be able to improvise, compose, or just understand the music you play better.

The Benefits of Guitar Theory
Many players who don't understand the inter-workings of music are limited in their ability to apply what they know. For example, a student might learn a new scale pattern from a scale book or a new chord shape from a chord chart but have no idea where it fits into songs. Without knowledge of how something functions it's pretty much useless.

What Does Guitar Theory Do?
Guitar theory will explain what musical elements are and what they do. For example, a new chord shape might be seen as an extension of a common barre chord. Wherever this common barre chord is played the new shape can be substituted for a new sound. A scale pattern might fit together with a specific chord progression. Each time this progression is used the scale tones can add melody and harmony. In music, knowing how the pieces fit together makes all the difference.

Where to Start Learning Theory?
Music can be approached and studied from many different angels. Guitar players can study notation, technique, rhythms, scales, chord construction and so on. While all musical topics are interesting and have their benefits - mapping out scales, chords and progressions on the fretboard is what ultimately has to be done. If you're interested in developing this type of working knowledge of guitar music theory, then follow the outline below.

1. Guitar Scales

99% of guitar scale work in popular music is based on either pentatonic or major scale patterns. Focus on learning and memorizing these patterns. The pentatonic scale patterns are simpler and easier to apply, so they make a perfect place to start. Below is a fretboard diagram which illustrates the first and most commonly used pentatonic scale pattern. The notation example that follows shows you how to play the notes in order by pitch ascending and descending.

2. Guitar Chords

There are literally thousands of different types of chord shapes that can be played on the fretboard but most of them can be traced back to just 5 common open forms. These forms are C, A, G, E, and D. Together they make up what's called the guitar CAGED chord system, which includes arpeggio patterns, inversions, fingerings and voicings. In the fretboard diagrams below you can see how the open C form can be moved up, played as a barre chord, and then reduced to more practical forms. These chord shapes occur all the time in popular music.

3. Guitar Chord Progressions

Understanding guitar chord progressions and playing by numbers will help you chart and learn songs better. You'll also better understand the construction of the songs you play and remember more. Chord progressions are also foundational to many other music theory topics including applying scales and playing scale modes.

Progressions stem from major scale patterns. Learn how to build triads and chords using the major scale. When you do this, a major/minor number sequence emerges that is quite possibly the most important foundational concept in all of music. Have you ever heard someone refer to a song by numbers such as 1, 4, 5? The system is all based on major scale degrees.

Hopefully now you have an idea of what guitar theory is, why it's so beneficial to learn, what it includes and how to get started. With music theory each concept builds on the one before it. Learn things in the right order and everything will fit into place both mentally and physically on the fretboard. Be sure to take your time and allow yourself to fully absorb and apply each subject (this should include learning lots of actual song examples). As you go, light bulbs will turn on in your head and you'll surely achieve more success and experience more enjoyment as a musician.

Play Until Yer Fingers Bleed!
Mr. Desi Serna (Google me!)

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