Music theory for guitar
Natural notes – definition
To start our journey into music theory for guitar, we’ll start with the natural notes. The natural notes are just A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. If you were to look at a piano, the natural notes are the white keys.
Another way to define natural notes are to say that they’re notes without either sharps (# – raises a note by 1/2 step) or flats (b – lowers a note by 1/2 step). As you proceed from note to note, ie. A to B, B to C, etc, the distance will either be 1/2 step (which is 1 fret on the guitar) or a whole step (2 frets on the
guitar). Let’s take a look:
A B C D E F G A
W 1/2 W W 1/2 W W
(W = whole step)
If you notice, there are far more whole steps than half steps. You can use that to your advantage. There are only 2 pairs of half steps in the natural notes – E to F, and B to C. Everything else is a whole step. If you can manage to memorize E to F and B to C, you’ve got it – everything else is a whole step, it’s that simple.
Here’s a great way to practice these ideas on the guitar and get them in your brain. Start on the 1st (E) string. What’s the next note after your open E string? – F. F is a 1/2 step (1 fret) above the open E note, so you’ll play the F on the 1st fret (Just look at the graphic above, and it will guide you).
The best way to do this is to say out loud what you’re thinking. So, in this case you would say, “E to F, 1/2 step”, then play the note. It’s better to say it first, then play the note 2nd. Otherwise, it’s easy to get confused. Trust me, I’ve seen it time and time again with my students. Feel free to look at the diagram above while you do the exercise. Do that for a couple of strings every day for a few minutes, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll memorize it. Your goal should be to do this up and down all 6 strings (EADGBE). For example, here’s what the natural notes look like on the open A (5th) string :
A B C D E F G A
W 1/2 W W 1/2 W W
Sharps and flats – more detail
Let’s discuss sharps and flats in a little more detail. For every pair of notes that are a whole step apart (A/B, C/D, D/E, F/G, G/A), there’s a note in between. For example, A to B. If we look at the note that’s in between, it goes by 2 names. If we look at it from the perspective of the A note, we call it A# (A sharp), because it’s a half step higher in pitch than the A. If we look at that note from the point of view of the B, we call it Bb (B flat).
Same note, 2 different names. These notes are referred to as “enharmonic equivalents” of each other. At this point, don’t worry about when we’ll call the note Bb, and when we’ll call it A#. That will be discussed separately. Here’s what our complete musical alphabet looks like now:
A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A
Every note above is separated by a 1/2 step, which is again – one fret on the guitar. Here’s what it looks like on the open A string:
A A#/B B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A
I would apply the same procedure to these new notes that you did for the natural notes – say it, then play it, and do that for every string.
This first music theory lesson is so fundamental that if you don’t learn it well, you’ll struggle with everything else that comes after it. A great way to track your progress is to time yourself while performing the exercise on all 6 strings (1 at a time). Once you’ve done that, your job is to beat your score. It makes it a little more fun to get your competitive side working. Once you’re comfortable with this exercise, check out my lesson on the major scale!
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