Several moons ago one of the Glibertariat – a mostly-lurking *chipper* IIRC – had asked for a primer on how to think musically when first learning to play the guitar. Sorry for the delay in responding; mine is busier than a pushing-50 dad bod ought to. Feeling myself fit for the task, I started writing this out laboriously linearly, then decided no: the prose will hint at the rambling coil that is a musicians’ convo.
I’ll assume you’ve got some song books (it is 2019 so maybe you’re using teh interwebs for a site like ultimate-guitar.com) and some chord or song charts. We’ll also assume you know how to tune your axe. Everything that follows is for standard EADGBE tuning. This submission will be an attempt to teach theory in a way in which I wish I’d been taught … in a way that might bring a more rapid understanding within the context of being a guitar hobbyist or a semi-pro gigging guitarist. Thus beginneth the lesson.
Everyone knows how to sing, “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.” This is the major scale and can be sung in any key. What you need to know as a guitarist is that from one note in this scale to the next, you either move up one fret or two frets on your guitar’s neck. A musician would replace the term “one fret” with “half step” and replace “two frets” with “whole step.” Easy peasy. For the key of C (only the white keys on a piano), it looks like this:
When we get to 8, we’re actually back at the note of C, or the root note of the key, but one octave higher. So we’re really back at 1. No one says 8. (A musician will frequently talk in terms of the numbers rather than the notes; so will I.) On your guitar, pluck an open string – not fretting it anywhere with your left hand. Now put a finger on the 12th fret (typically the one with 2 dots close to the guitar’s body) of that same string. You just played the same note but at 2 different octaves.
Also notice on the chart that there are only half steps between 3&4 and 7&1. Remember this. There’s a whole step between all the others. On your fretboard, going from 3 to 4 or from 7 to 1, you simply move up one fret. For all the other notes, you move up 2 frets. Now we can modify our chart for any key, and it looks like this:
with the root being 1. For example, in the key of G, G is the root and is 1.
So let’s bail on the Do Re Mi and look at all the keys. # means sharp, a half step up from the natural note. b means flat, a half step down from the natural note. A natural note is neither sharp nor flat. On the guitar, a sharp or a flat is the fret between the natural notes.
Notice that there is only a half step between the natural notes of E&F and B&C. This is a Musical Iron Law. Know this just like you now know that there is only one half step between 3&4 and 7&1 in any major scale. Don’t ask why, it’s just the way things are. IOW, when talking about notes, there is only a half step between the natural notes of E&F and B&C. When talking about any major scale, there is only a half step between the notes of 3&4 and 7&1.
What shall we do next? Chord construction. A chord is 3 or more notes played/strummed simultaneously. (Side note: 2 notes played simultaneously is called an interval, not a chord. The term “power chord” is a misnomer, as it is actually a 1/5 interval. /pedant off) A major chord is playing the 1, 3 & 5 together. Since there are 6 strings, sometimes you’re playing the same notes more than once, just at different octaves.
Let’s chart it out, and with an example. The fret diagram/grid shows the fingering at the top. For guitarists (not pianists) the index finger is 1, middle is 2, ring 3, pinky 4. 0 (zero or O) means the string is played but left open – you’re not fretting it. Thumb is T. X means don’t play that string. As you get better, you’ll naturally learn to mute unplayed strings, either with idle fret hand fingers (or parts of active fingers) or the base of your picking hand palm. I digress; the major chord construction visuals:
Make sense? Cool. So after the lesson you can bust out those chord charts and see more of what I’m talking about. Note that the root here is the lowest note, or as we say, it is at the bottom – it is the foundation of the chord being played. But the root is not always the bottom note of a chord. For example, if you put your pinky or thumb at the 3rd fret of the low E string, the bottom or bass note would be a G. Now the chord would be C/G, or as we say, “C over G.” When the root is not the bottom, it’s called an inversion or an inverted chord.
Big side note: A bass player will typically play the root note with you if the chord is not an inversion. For inversions, she’ll typically play the bottom note indicated to the right of the slash. E.g., she’ll play the G note for the C/G inversion above.
Bigger side note: if you’re playing with a bass guitarist (or a keyboardist who can cover the bass with the left hand), you can usually not worry about which note is the bottom and play an inversion in a higher register (a higher group of notes). This is where the real fun begins and is a subject for another lesson, or a million other lessons 😉
Let’s do minor chords and call it a day. A brief introduction is all that’s needed; at this point, the visuals should do the trick. A minor chord is simply a major chord, but with a flat 3rd, or b3. To say it yet another way, instead of playing a major 3rd, you play a minor 3rd. There are minor scales, but we’re only working off the major scale for our theory now. Here we go:
Again, bust out those chord charts and spot-verify this chord construction theory with some other minor chords so that you get it. The guidance regarding the bass and inversions mentioned above also applies to minor chords.
Warning: You might be looking at some of your own charts and wondering about the theory behind chord extensions. Extensions are numbers added to the chords, like A7, or B-9, or C#add4. Never fear. Ignore the numbers for now. For an A7, you can just play an A chord. For the B-9, just the B minor chord, etc. You will get into trouble if you ignore the “sus” in a suspended chord, or if you play a major 5 for an augmented or diminished chord. We can get to those later; for now, just lay back and do what those nice chord charts tell you.
I hope this is a good start, and I hope your musical world just got a little bigger. If it is and you want more, lemme know! We’ll move on to barre chords, playing scales, and a bit of improvising.