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Basic Music Theory for Guitar - Scales and Keys

Jun 22, 2008
To a beginner the world of music theory can seem a daunting one. There are a lot of terms, phrases and ideas that can seem so foreign that they may as well be a different language. Understandably this puts a lot of new players off from starting to learn music theory and apply it to their playing.

I was the same until I'd been playing for three years or so and decided start learning some theory to help take my playing up a notch. It has been many years since and I'd like to share some things that I used to get started, and to guide you through the first basic steps of learning to apply music theory to your guitar playing.

For the purposes of this article I'm going to assume you've taken the first step towards learning theory and learnt where all the notes are across the neck. If not, then go do that now! Knowing the notes is extremely important to start applying theory.

The first thing I did was learn scales and how they are put together starting with the major key, I used C major.

The major scale is made from seven different notes. The first note is called the root note, the note that you start the scale with. The root note is where the scale gets its name from. In this case the root note is C, and so the scale is C major. Each fret on a guitar is a half note, or a semitone. To play a major scale go up the neck in the following increments;

Root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, and then a half back to your root one octave higher. The third note in the scale is the note that decides whether it is a major or a minor scale. In a minor scale the third note is one semitone lower in pitch than in a major scale. Try playing it to hear the difference.

The notes in a C major scale you should notice are; C, D, E, F, G, A, B. See a pattern? There are no flats or sharps in the C major scale, which is why I decided to start there when I began learning.

The next step takes a lot of time and a lot of practise. Take these notes and find them all over the neck. Try to learn the scale in as many places as you can, make sure you get really comfortable with it.

You'll find that once you're totally at home with the C major scale it should be quite easy to move the shape and patterns around to find other scales. Try moving every note you know from C major up two frets on the guitar. You're now playing the D major scale. Move one half step down from C major and you're playing the B major scale. This is how I learnt my scales. I took shapes and patterns I knew and simply moved them round the neck, learning each key one at a time. Over time I learnt which notes were the fourth note, the third note, etc. As you play more you'll get a feel of what notes are good to start and end phrases on, where you can bend to and just generally what notes will sound better over each chord.

The next thing that I did is what really made music theory click for me. I started to learn the minor keys. I started with A minor, the notes are A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Notice anything familiar? The notes of A minor are just the same as C major. In fact, if you take the 6th note of any major scale and play the notes up to the 6th one octave higher you're playing the minor scale. So after learning the major scales I came to realise I knew all the notes for the minor scales as well. Obviously they share the same notes but of course, you need to phrase them differently when you play. The only way I can really recommend this is with experimentation. If you're looking to learn a minor scale then the increments are;

Root note, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step and then whole again to the root note one octave higher.

There should be plenty to get you going here, it took me months to get my scales and notes to where I needed them to be. Ideally after some practise you should feel comfortable jamming in any key. If I shout that we're playing in B flat minor then you should be able to play there! Good luck practising and remember to take everything slow to start with.
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