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3 Essential Music Theory Concepts For Beginning Guitarists

3 Essential Music Theory Concepts For Beginner Guitarists

Music theory is a way of understanding and conveying to others the music we hear and play.

When first starting to learn to play guitar, it can feel a bit overwhelming if you take on too much at once so don’t jump into music theory right away. Concentrate on playing in the beginning.

Have fun and learn some songs and enjoyable exercises. Work on picking, strumming, and learning to move your fretting-hand fingers the way you want them to move.

Once you get the basics of playing guitar down and start to get a little more serious about your instrument, start moving on to some basic theory to help you expand your playing.

Musical Alphabet

The musical alphabet is used to describe the 12 notes in western music. These 12 notes are the basis of much of the music theory used today. The 7 natural notes are:

A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

When moving up to a higher note in pitch the next note will be sharp. For example, if you’re moving up to the next note after A you will be at A# (A sharp).

If you are moving to a lower note from a higher-pitched natural note the lower note will be flat. For example, the note below B in pitch is Bb (B flat).

This is the same for all notes except for B/C and E/F.

The notes of the musical alphabet (also known as the chromatic scale) are :

A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab.

The next note would be A and the scale repeats again and again.

Note that there are no sharps and/or flats between B-C and E-F. Also notice that notes with a sharp (#) or a flat (b) have two names. For example, A# and Bb are the same note played on the same fret. Another example, D# and Eb are the same note.


Learning how rhythm works can help you break down and learn to play riffs, strumming patterns, and melodies.

A whole note is 4 beats long. A half note is two beats, a quarter note is one beat, and an eighth note is a half beat long. In 4/4 time (the most common time signature) there are 4 beats per measure.

You can see in the musical staff above that 1 whole note, 2 half notes, 4 quarter notes, and 8 eighth notes represent the same amount of time in music.

Think about it like a whole note equaling $1, and quarter notes equaling $0.25. Four quarters equal one dollar just like four quarter notes equal one whole note.

Diatonic and Pentatonic Scales

The major and minor scales are called diatonic scales. They are 7 notes long and these notes repeat up and down the fretboard. Be sure to learn all seven scale shapes as you develop as a player, but scale shape one (below) will give you a lot of options to make some great music. By learning these scales you can play and write great melodies and leads. Each of the examples below are all in the key of A major or A minor. The root note is the starred note.

The major scale can be applied to a major key. Just be sure the root note matches the key you are playing in.

Likewise, the minor scale can be applied to a minor key.

The pentatonic scales are based on the diatonic scales but they are only 5 notes long. This gives these scales a different flavor and makes them somewhat easier to play. There are five shapes of each major and minor pentatonics. Eventually you will want to learn them all so you can play anywhere on the fretboard but for now shape one will give you a lot to work with.

The major pentatonic has the same notes as the major diatonic scale with the 4th note and the 7th note removed.

The minor pentatonic has the same notes as the minor diatonic with the 2nd note and the 6th note removed.

The blues scale is similar to the minor pentatonic but there is an added note called the flatted 5th or tritone. In the root position of the scale in A minor this note is located on string 5 fret 6 and string 3 fret 8.

These three essential music theory concepts for the beginner guitarist will open up a lot of possibilities for your playing on guitar. To learn how to use these concepts to play in your favorite styles and in the best way for your goals, take guitar lessons with an expert guitar teacher.

About The Author:

Ryan Popovic is a professional music instructor providing guitar lessons in Minneapolis – St Paul, MN. He is a member of an elite world-wide music teaching mentorship program, the Music Teachers National Association, and the Minnesota Music Teachers Association. He teaches primarily blues, rock, and metal guitar. Ryan teaches all ages and skill levels.