Guitar Theory From First Principles

Music Theory has always been a hard sell. There is a widespread perception that knowledge somehow interferes with our free expression, encourages gratuitous excess and seeks to undermine the sacred link we are forging between our ears and fingers. What's more, this viewpoint is regularly reinforced by many of our guitar icons. The full extent of the challenge to guitar teachers becomes apparent when you combine this dismissive opinion with a healthy mistrust of jargon and a fear of the unknown.

We all enjoy the amazing feeling that accompanies a breakthrough. The hours of practice finally pay off and the satisfaction kicks in. It feels good and motivates us onwards, bringing greater confidence and creative inspiration. It is my contention that a solid theoretical knowledge will better facilitate this progress. I also believe that it is unjust to lay the blame for tasteless mediocrity at the doorstep of knowledge; rather it is unimaginative players who are culpable. I suspect that if we asked guitar legends such as Steve Morse, Robert Fripp, John Williams, Carl Verheyen or Martin Taylor they would not disagree.

The only things you will need to pack on this journey of discovery are an open mind, the motivation to learn and most importantly... fretboard friendship. All I ask is that you please lend me your ears for a few minutes in your daily downtime.

In order to properly understand a musical concept you need to be able to turn the theory into practice; by taking concepts to the fretboard for testing; for it is only once you start to establish connections between the ideas and the sounds that you will begin to feel the benefits.

Identifying notes by name helps you interpret your imagination quicker and gives you the tools and confidence needed to communicate more effectively with other musicians.

Authors of technical articles often pepper their columns with the notes and harmonic concepts that underpin the techniques. If you can follow their train of thought on the board you will find yourself applying their ideas (and not just the licks) in your own playing.

College/ university program will expect you to pass a theory entrance exam. A few months of immersion in the fretboard and some guidance from me will make that possible.

Finally, for those of you who feel stuck in a rut, this is an opportunity to clear the blockage.

Let's get down to business. Grab your guitar and look at the diagram below.


The fretboard is less complex than you think. Starting from each open string, notice how the notes follow the alphabet up to G and then reset to A. Each note reoccurs at least twice per string because the board repeats itself at fret 12 e.g. the F note at 6E-fret 1 reoccurs at fret 13. The notes in between each letter are called sharps (#) or flats (v). 'Sharp' means above and 'flat' means below. Once we learn the concept of a key, you will know which name to use in any given situation. Music theory is littered with frustrating counter-intuitive jargon but please persevere.

Here are some tasks to help you internalize the board.

1. Recite the notes names

Play up and down each string and recite the notes names. It feels a little foolish but it helps.

2. Learn the location of equivalent notes

Play open 1E, then 2B-fret 5, 3G-fret 9, 4D-fret 14, 5A-fret 19 and 6E-fret 24. These E notes have the same pitch (E) but the different string gauges render it differently (this is known as timbre). Repeat this procedure with open 2B, 3G, 4D and 5A. Using equivalent notes will get you around the board and help you find the deepest pockets.

3. Memorize one note in all positions

Start with E which occurs 14 times on a 24 fret neck (harmonics excluded). Right next to each E is an F and D is only a couple of frets behind. That's two free notes with every E!

4. Use your favorite songs

Play a few tunes and see if you can identify any of the notes by name. This will help either reinforce the notes you have already memorized or reveal any blank areas on the board that will need your attention.

5. Talk the talk

The next time your buddy asks you how to play a riff, start using the correct note names e.g. "Dude, it starts with a G, fret 3 on the 6E".

6. Deconstruct and rebuild chords

Play C, A, G, E and D (all majors) and see if you can work out the names of the notes within

Notice that each chord is made of three notes in various combinations. These cosy combos are known as triads. Take the triads and reassemble them (in any order) into fret-able shapes around the board. Congratulations, you are now building your own chords and have begun work on the CAGED system (more of this in next month's article)!

Next: The scale is the key.

Guy Pople is a music, education and multimedia specialist based in the UK`s North-West. He plays guitars, studies theory and runs St Annes Music in Lytham St. Annes, a one-stop shop for musicians on the Fylde coast of Lancashire. St Annes Music offers professional instruments, recording, tuition and accessories.

His live band Nomad is currently building up their original music. You can catch him
on Virtual Strangers.

Guy Pople

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