I know, I know… music theory, what a drag! Old dudes talking about weird and complicated stuff that you will never use. That’s kinda the mindset I experienced when asking what people think about
music theory and why they don’t make an effort to get some theory chops as well. To be honest, you don’t need to know a damn to be a great rock guitarist. But when you get into
songwriting, learning stuff by ear or jamming with friends, knowing the basics of music theory comes in pretty handy. And as always, the basics go a long way!
Not knowing what is going on is way more painful than investing some time in learning the fundamentals of music theory. There will be a satisfying feeling when you know in what key a song is or
which scale is being used in the guitar solo. This will also make it easier to learn new songs! Hey, there is really no downside to learning theory. No, your super creative and
out-of-this-world feelings-based approach to the guitar will not be threatened by music theory. The opposite will be the case! You will tap into a new creative territory.
Musical Scales and Intervals
Chords and Inversions
Practical Example: Combining Chords and Scales
What will I learn?
You will understand musical scales and how to use them.
Intervals will be no more mystery.
You will learn how chords are constructed and what inversions are.
1. Musical Scales And Intervals
Musical scales are a set of notes which have a distinct relation to each other. Those relations are called intervals. That means that the distinct notes and the intervallic
relation define the scale by giving the scale their unique sound.
We have two factors that define a scale. The number of notes and the intervals of those notes. You can imagine that this gives almost endless possibilities to create scales.
There are musical scales that define our music as we know it today. Especially the (natural) major scale defines what sounds common and good to our ears.
Let’s take a look at the C major scale which we will be using as an example for the whole lesson. You probably know the C major scale already from music lessons in school but never had what this
is good for?! That’s about to change.
Using The Guitar Fretboard To Understand Musical Scales
This is the guitar fretboard in standard tuning. We see that we have all our notes and different strings. To have a musical scale we need a set of notes who have distinct intervals, right? Let’s
take a look at the major scale.
The major scale consists of seven notes who have this intervallic formula:
This is not much use without a given key. Our key will be C for the whole guitar lesson. Let’s use what we have just learned and construct the C major scale.
Intervals Of The Major Scale
The root note or the first note of the scale is C. Therefore C is the key of the scale. With this starting point, we can use the intervallic formula! The set of notes we will get are:
C, D, E, F, G, A, and B
By leaving out notes and therefore creating intervals we achieve a distinct sounding scale. Here the C major scale. You can, of course, use another key and construct the major scale in G
for example! The notes for G major are G, A, B, C, D, E and F#. Look at your fretboard and count the intervals! If you get the same set of notes for the G major scale, you got it.
Not that weird after all, isn’t it? A musical scale is a set of notes that have distinct intervals. An interval is the space between two notes or pitches. That’s as short as I can put it. Here is
the C major scale up to the 12th fret.
A guitar chord is a set of 3 or more notes. Sounds familiar? The difference to a scale is that the notes of a chord are played simultaneously! For example when you strum your classic campfire
Again, the notes of a chord have distinct intervals which makes them sound good. And how do I know how a guitar chord is constructed? Well, it’s actually really easy!
It now starts with our C major scale. To form a basic major or minor chord we need the root note, the third note and the fifth note of the scale. The notes are C - E - G which is a simple C major
We have 6 other notes in the scale, what does that mean? We can construct 6 more chords! Just remember the 1 -3 -5 formula. To be correct, the formula changes for minor chords to 1 - 3b -
5. That's because in minor chords we have a minor third interval. The b (flat) indicates the minor third i.e. one and a half step interval from the root note. The Am
chord shows what I mean. Start at the A note, the third is C (one and half step) and the fifth is E.
Major chords: 1 - 3 - 5
Minor chords: 1 - 3b - 5
If you want to have those scary chords with numbers like a C7 i.e. C major seventh chord, you just add another note. In this case, you add the seventh note in the C major scale to you C chord.
Formula: 1 - 3 - 5 - 7 which translates into C - E - G - B
Guitar chords are a set of notes played simultaneously. The notes of the chords derive from musical scales.
Looking at your fretboard, you probably figured that a chord can be played in different positions. The notes of the chord will have a different order for every position. Well, note mixing is
Check out the C major chord played in different positions. Pay attention to how the order of the notes changes.
We have the same notes and we play the same chord but inversions can spice up rhythm playing and some flavor.
All the music theory stuff is a lot at first. Once you get your head around it is not that hard at all. Let’s create a little chord progression and a simple melody using all the stuff we just
learned. Our little piece will be in, surprise, surprise: C major.
Harmony and chord progression
Ok, we are in the key of C major. That means, we have the following scale/notes that are at the same time the chords we can construct. Since we are no church group with acoustics, we will play
Our chord progression:
| C - G - F - C | C - G - F - C | Am - G - C - C | Am - G - F - F | C
| I - V - IV - I | I - V - IV - I | vi - V - I - I | vi - V - IV - IV | I
When notating chord progressions, we use Roman numerals like I, II or IV. The numerals refer to the scale that’s being used. In our case the C chord is the root, the F chord is
the fourth and the G is the fifth. Our chord progression in C major would be notated as I - IV - V. Those are all major chords. Minor chords are notated using “small” Roman numerals like
ii, iii or vi. In C major scale the vi would be? Yes, an Am chord!
Looking at the basic chords, you can see that the chords are all derived from the C major scale. Isn’t that wonderful? I know, I know…
Now that we have the chord progression and know what notes make up the chords, we can look for a nice little melody to make things interesting.
Finding a melody within the C major scale
Once again, the notes we can choose from are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B when in the key of C major.
A good way to find a nice melody is by looping the chord progression and just start noodling around within the scale. The following example illustrates how a melody works within
a given key. It's all C major!
I hope this lesson made some things clearer and opened up your mind to learning a little theory once in a while. Music theory is really great for understanding what you and other musicians are
doing. It will speed up learning new things on the guitar, writing songs or communicating with bandmates and other musicians. There is no disadvantage in understanding theory. No creative
drawbacks or something like that. In fact, knowing more about what you do will boost your curiosity and creativity. I promise.