Basic Music Theory

Most people begin learning folk/rock/pop guitar with learning how to strum some chords from one of the songs they like. Given that, let us start with some Chord Theory.

Basic Chords

The simplest chords are based on having only three notes in them. On a guitar you will start to learn by letting the strings on your guitar ring by bringing your pick or thumb across 6, 5 or 4 strings.

Below are some chord diagrams for three chords, E major, A major and D minor. When musicians talk about major chords they simplify the names by just calling them by their letter names (see below). Minor chords are indicated by the capital letter of the chord plus a small case “m” beside the capital letter as in D minor: Dm.

The chord diagrams below are standard chord diagrams. The strings on a standard tuned guitar are E A D G B E, left to right.

The thick dark line is the nut or the zero fret on the guitar.

The guitar player places their fingers on the strings where the dots are placed.

“O” above the indicated string means that that string is played with the other strings but is let ring “open”.

“X” above the indicated string means that string is not played or it is actually muted. Do not worry about muting the strings if they are on the bass side of the guitar. Just do not strum them with the other strings.

Three chords

One way to play a C major chord (or just C as commonly written) is given below.

C Chord

Remember that the statement above says that the simplest chords are based on having only three notes in them. You may have noticed that more than three strings are ringing in chords you strum. That is because some notes occur more than once in the chord. They may have different pitch or frequency but they are the same note.

So now the questions arise

  • How do I know what notes are which in a major chord?” and
  • What does the word ‘major’ mean in the term ‘major chord’?”

The answer lies in what is called chord theory. Only basic chord theory is discussed here. Still, this can seem to beyond your grasp before you begin to understand it.

Major Scales

Most people begin playing piano with an introduction to where “middle C” is and how to play the C major scale. You can find one of the C notes on you guitar on the second string, first fret. If you have trouble finding it just look at the C chord diagram above and you will see a dot on the second string from the right.

A scale covers one octave. An octave covers the notes within a range of 12 semi-tones above it. Hard to understand? Just look at the C note of the second string first fret and then count up the string 12 frets (semi-tones) and you arrive at the note C an octave above the previous C.

I would diagram the fret board but I believe that going between the paper and the guitar is necessary for the learning process.

Now, what are the notes in a C major scale? The notes in C major scale are:

C D E F G A B C.

Take a second look at where these notes are on the fret board. If you do not know where to fret the string you will in a second. There is a formula for the major scale, a pattern if you will.

Each fret is a semi-tone away from the next fret. Two frets away means that the note is a full tone away from the next note. The C major scale is the only major scale that has no notes that are sharps or flats.

That makes the C major scale pattern as follows:

C major scale pattern

When you look at the fret board it looks like this (this fret board is sideways to save space):

Fret board

You would actually fret the C note here, where the dot is:

These dots are the position markers for the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets on the fret board:

Homework interrupt:

At this point I suggest writing out the fret board on a piece of loose-leaf paper. I find it easiest if you write the fret board out vertically as if you were looking at the guitar standing up. (This is the way standard chord diagrams are written.) Just turn the above diagram 90 degrees clockwise. The fret board should have six columns of notes and room for 20 to 22 frets depending upon your guitar. The fret board repeats itself at the 12th fret.

A standard tuned guitar will be tuned:

Quick Review

Now you know the C major scale, where the C major scale is on the second string on the guitar, the formula for every major scale (T, T, ST, T, T, T, ST – remember these are the intervals between notes), and you should have a map of the whole fret board of your guitar. The map of the fret board will help you when you are looking for different ways to play the same chord.

Notes of the C (Major) Chord:

Simple major chords are called major triads. Triad refers to the chord being made up of three notes. The three notes of a major triad are the 1st, major 3rd, and 5th of the root note’s major scale. The C major scale is labeled below in terms of what the numbers are:

C major scale

For the moment do not bother wondering about why some of the Roman numerals are capitals and others are small case and the majors, minors, dom and what the rest of the stuff means on the third line of the list above; just take note of the number. You may write in the regular numbers if you like. That makes the C chord made up of C, E and G.

That makes a C (major chord) made up of C – the 1 or the root (I), E – the major 3rd (iii), and G – the 5th (V). Now that you have your fret board map you can see where these notes are fretted in the open position chord. What is an open position chord? A open position chord is a chord that has one or more strings that are let ring open when played. Look at the C chord below. The notes played on each string are given below the respective strings.

Another C chord

The second C chord shown above and to the right is a 3rd position chord because the lowest fret that is fretted in the chord is the 3rd fret. Take note that it is not the lowest note that is fretted that determines the position of the chord; it is the lowest fret fretted.

D chord

Notice that there is a note with sharp in the D chord. D is the 1st note, F# is the major 3rd, and A is the 5th note in the D major scale. The D major scale looks like:

D major scale

So you begin to see that you can figure out the notes for all of the major chords by figuring out the major scales for each root of the scale and taking the 1st, major 3rd, and 5th of the major scale. When you place the chords on the fret board the notes will match up with the notes in the chord diagrams. You can do this with any major chord to figure out its notes.

Homework interrupt:

At this point you should figure out all of the major scales for just the roots that do not have sharps or flats in them (to clarify: the major scales of C, D, E, F, G, A, and B). The scales for the roots of C and D have been provided but you should write them out on a piece of paper anyway. You should write out all of the scales in order of occurrence on the fret board: C major scale, D major scale, E major scale, F major scale and so on.

Hint: You may have asked yourself how do I know when to put in a sharp or a flat for that matter. For the moment when figuring out the above listed major scales, use all sharps.

Note: There is a semi-tone between all notes that are two frets apart. That means that there is another note between A and B; that note is A#/Bb. (The small case “b” is often used as the flat symbol in standard word-processor programs because it is faster to use it than inserting a symbol or it is simply not available.) A# and Bb are the same note. That extends to other notes such as C#/Db, D#/Eb, etc. TAKE NOTE THAT E# is F and Fb is E; B# is C and Cb is B. THIS MEANS THAT THERE IS NO SEMI-TONE between E and F or between B and C.

When you end with the B major scale and look at all of the scales you should notice that some scales have more sharps than others. When you have the scales written one under the other in the order of C, D, E, F, G, A, and B the number of sharps in the scales do not increase in order.

HERE COMES THE INTERESTING PART – When you put the scales in the sequential order of number of sharps, low to high this sequence has a particular property. All of the scales are now five notes away from each other. If you place the roots of the scales in a semi-circle you have half of what is called “The Circle of Fifths” or “The Cycle of Fifths.”

How does this make a difference to me?

There are many songs that are totally based upon or have sections based upon The Circle of Fifths. Just look at some of the music from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, even up through to current day.

When you finish the other half of The Circle of Fifths you will a complete circle that allows you to see all of the major keys in the order of sharps and flats.

Look up more information on the Internet about chord theory, The Circle of Fifths and scales.