How To Learn Music Theory For Guitar

Music theory tends to be a topic enshrouded in a sort of mystique amongst guitarists. For most self-taught guitarists, trying to learn music theory can seem like a daunting task to undertake. 

However, music theory is an important body of information that shouldn’t be overlooked. Even learning the basics will allow you to communicate much more efficiently with other musicians.

The following information will give you an idea of what music theory is and how to go about learning it. 

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Are There Any Paid Lesson Resources That Teach Music Theory For Guitar?

If you’re considering taking video-based lessons on the internet, you’ll be pleased to know most teach music theory. In fact, many of them teach in such a way that you might not even be aware you’re learning theory. 

Resources like Guitar Tricks have courses that cover music theory topics. Whether that is worth the price is up for you to decide, especially since this can be learned for free.

What Information Is Covered In Music Theory?

Music theory can essentially be boiled down to be considered the building blocks of all musical forms. Every song you’ve ever heard has an element of music theory at play.

Because of this, knowing the basics of music theory can unlock many doors for you as a musician. You can use your knowledge to analyze songs, which in turn allows you to learn them much faster. 

Plus, if you ever plan to write music of your own, you can use music theory to your advantage. You can rely on your knowledge to help you through any sort of creative block you might be facing.

Many shy away from music theory because they think it is a set of rules that must always be followed. Some even think that learning theory will suck every ounce of creativity out of the equation.

However, these preconceived assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Music theory presents information that helps in creating tasteful music.

Once you know the basics, you can use as much or as little of it as you want. Just keep in mind that you must at least know the “rules” before you can break them.

Music theory isn’t necessarily very difficult to understand. In fact, the basics are often taught to young children in the lower grade school years.

Not sure what music theory encompasses? You’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the following musical contexts:

  • Rhythm
  • Scales
  • Key signatures
  • Chords and extensions
  • Notation

Don’t worry too much if you’re not well-versed in these topics. For the most part, each of these topics is correlated with another with significant overlap. 

What Is Rhythm?

You’re probably fairly familiar with the idea of rhythm. This is essentially what sets other songs apart from one another.

At its most basic level, rhythm can be considered to be the number of beats within a musical measure. When looking at a piece of sheet music, you’ll see this dictated in various time signatures, including:

  • 4/4
  • 3/4
  • 6/8
  • 5/4

You’re probably also familiar with the idea that some musical notes are sustained longer than others. The rhythmic aspect of music theory helps to bring clarity to this by giving providing a communicable set of classifications.

Most popular music tends to be written in 4/4 time, utilizing 4 beats per musical measure. Because of this, we’ll use the 4/4 time to illustrate the different rhythmic qualities present in music.

In this 4/4 time, you’ll be able to tap your foot 4 times to complete the measure. Every single beat can be considered a “quarter” note, as 4 are needed in each measure.

However, you can subdivide this quarter note to have 2 notes per beat, 3 notes per beat, and beyond. Like the quarter note, these also have fractional names:

  • 1/8 note (2 notes per beat, 8 notes per measure)
  • 1/16 note (4 notes per beat, 16 notes per measure)
  • 1/32 note (8 notes per beat, 32 notes per measure)
  • Triplet (3 notes per beat, 12 notes per measure)

Similarly, if you wish to hold a note out longer than a single beat, there are classifications for this, too:

  • Whole note (4 beats per single note)
  • Half note (2 beats per single note)
  • Dotted quarter note (single beat plus an eighth per single note)
  • Dotted half note (2 beats plus an eighth per single note)

Utilizing Rhythm As A Guitarist

While the aforementioned information is only a basic primer, you’ll be utilizing it all the time when playing guitar. Your strumming patterns will revolve primarily around different note values within each particular measure. 

When consciously practicing rhythm, it is best to have a metronome handy to provide the basis for the beat. Then, begin to experiment with different note values that are found in music.

For instance, you might begin by playing a note and holding it for 4 beats. Then, gradually work your way up to playing 8 notes per single beat (1/32 notes). 

After that, it’s worth experimenting with different time signatures, such as 6/8. The 8 in the time signature denotes that the 1/8 note is the basis for the measure’s pulse.

What Are Scales?

You’ve probably been exposed to the idea of scales, but you might not fully understand their function. If music is a language, then scales provide the alphabet for the words being spoken.

Scales are often promoted for use to be able to play guitar solos. While this is true, understanding their function goes far beyond playing lead guitar.

The basic Major scale consists of 8 notes, 7 of which are different with the 8th degree being an octave. Each note has an intervallic relationship between themselves in degrees of half-steps and whole steps. 

Take the scale of C, for example, which has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C. All of the notes have a whole step between them with the exception of E-F and B-C.

Each Major scale also has a “Relative Minor” scale. This essentially takes the same scale and starts from the 6th interval, affecting the order of whole steps and half-steps. 

You’ve probably heard of “modes” before, which can be very confusing for any guitarist. However, modes operate in the same way, using the major scale and starting from a different point. 

It is vitally important to have a decent understanding of the intervallic relationship inherent within a scale. You’ll be using this information to help you build chords and adapt scales to different keys.

Of course, scales are not only limited to 8 notes per scale. There are many scales that have 5 notes, 6 notes, 7 notes, and even 12 notes.

What Are Key Signatures?

Have you ever been playing with other musicians and they’ve asked what key the song is in? You might not have known how to answer this if you aren’t sure what the word “key” actually means. 

To clear this up, refer back to the example of the major scale and the whole steps and half-steps within. You will essentially apply this same formula to a different note.

However, the biggest difference here is to ensure that the pattern of whole steps and half-steps remains the same. 

To give an example, we’ll use the key of G major. This can be spelled out as G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and G. 

Notice how one of the notes now has a sharp symbol? To ensure the intervallic pattern remains the same, the 7th scale degree needed to be raised a half-step. 

Likewise, the key of F can be spelled out as F, G, A, B flat, C, D, E, F. In this instance, the 4th scale degree needed to be flatted a half-step to fulfill the intervallic requirements. 

Understanding the key signature will tell you all of the chords inherent within a particular piece of music. You can use this for composition as well as for playing lead guitar. 

Furthermore, the Circle Of Fifths is a handy chart that tells you the accidentals inherent in each key. It also tells you what the relative minor is of any major key. 

How Are Chords Formed?

Chords are often the first thing a guitarist will learn. However, many do not take the time to understand how chords are actually built.

Taking the time to understand this does pay off, and it isn’t as difficult to understand as it might seem. For starters, a basic chord is built primarily from 3 different notes, known as a “triad”. 

For this, you’ll definitely want to refer to the major scale for the particular key you might be playing in. To give you an idea, we will use C major again, as C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

Within each scale are both major and minor chords, each providing a “happy” or “sad” sound respectively. Each chord has a Root (starting point), 3rd, and 5th. 

As you might guess, you’ll be utilizing every other scale degree to build a chord. The C Major chord uses the notes C, E, and G. 

Notice how there are 2 steps between C and E, and 1 1/2 steps between E and G. This is the requirement for a major chord. 

If you take this and apply it starting from F or G, you’ll end up with naturally major chords. However, the same cannot be said for building chords starting from other scale degrees.

Starting from D (not paying attention to steps/half-steps), you’ll end up with the notes D, F, and A. This chord is minor, having 1 1/2 steps between D and F, and 2 steps between F and A.

The real magic here is in the power of the 3rd interval’s relationship to the root. You can make a major chord into a minor chord by flatting the 3rd a half-step. 

Aside from these basics, there are also diminished chords, augmented chords, dominant chords, and extensions.

How To Learn Music Theory On Guitar For Free

How To Learn Music Theory On Guitar For Free

The aforementioned information can certainly be a lot to wrap your head around. And, let’s face it, some people require other means to suit their unique style of learning.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t quite understand the information. There are many resources available that can help you to learn music theory on guitar, many of which are free.

One of the most notable resources is JustinGuitar, which is a website consisting of free guitar lessons. Justin Sandercoe has put together a comprehensive curriculum to help you learn theory while also learning the guitar. 

There are also many YouTube channels that cover music theory concepts in-depth. Many channels will have all of the basics you need to know covered within 1 video. 

Other Things To Keep In Mind When Learning Music Theory For Guitar

You should feel good about yourself for wanting to take the time to learn music theory. Not everyone has the gumption to want to knock down the barriers in their knowledge.

However, when learning theory, you need to be mindful that it does take some time to grasp. Even if you watch a 40-minute video, you’ll need to allow yourself some time to integrate it. 

Today’s guitarists are inclined to expect instant results, whether it be related to skills or knowledge. Anyone who has played for a while can tell you that becoming a competent guitarist takes time and practice. 

Yes, like those techniques you’ve been working on, music theory must also be practiced. This is an important distinction that separates something from being a vague understanding or working knowledge. 

You really do need to take your time when learning these concepts. Each concept is hinged on another, and any gap in your knowledge could prove to be a bit detrimental.

For instance, you might not fully understand how chord extensions (such as Cadd9) work if you don’t understand intervals. Sure, you can probably play the chord, but understanding why it’s labeled as such is the point of music theory. 

Be patient and you will eventually find that you’ve been using music theory throughout your entire guitar journey. It will help to clear any confusion you might have had about why certain things are the way they are.

Also, the basics really are suitable for most informal musical settings. However, you can take music theory far beyond that point, and you’ll certainly be rewarded.

How To Learn Music Theory For Guitar, Final Thoughts

You’ve probably heard legions of guitarists say that they don’t know an ounce of music theory knowledge. It might have been reason enough for you to ignore it altogether in your own studies.

However, even those guitarists have been using music theory, whether they know it or not. Learning and understanding music theory is definitely instrumental in progressing and fully understanding the guitar itself.

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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