Basics Music Theory for Guitar

ipad goodnotes guitar tab

Before diving into playing the guitar, it is essential to understand the music theory for guitars.

Understanding music theory for guitar

Music theory is like a language for music.

Similar to a language where letters form words and words form sentences, music theory adopts the same principle.

This article will cover the very basics, but for a more thorough run through of beginners guide to music theory. 

Check out this article: 

Okay, let's get back to a few of the basics that we will cover including: 

The musical alphabet

  • Creating a scale on guitar
  • Circle of Fourths
  • Circle of Fifths
  • Triads in music
  • Chords in scales

The musical "alphabet"

A great place to start is the music alphabet which is composed of twelve letters.

The base letters or natural notes are seven and they include; A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Then we have five other notes that are known as sharps and flats. Sharps represent a higher form of the natural note while flat represents a lower form of the natural note.


















These notes are also the basic guitar chords.

The distance between notes

It is also important to define the distance between notes. 

There are two forms of steps, the half step which is the smallest distance between notes.

e.g. from B to C and the whole step which is two half steps apart e.g. from C to D. 

What does this mean on guitar?

Interpreting this to guitar language, every single fret on a guitar is a half-step, so if you play the sixth string of the guitar, at standard tune its E when open.

Pressing on the first fret makes it an F and this is half step movement form E, moving on to the second fret raises the pitch by another half a step making it an F sharp and so on.

Creating a scale on guitar

Having understood the music notes, we can select several notes in an orderly manner and come up with what is known as the major scale, which is a set of notes that are commonly used in music.

The major scale is set up in such a way that if you start with a particular note, you will end up on the same note.

The formula for this is given by WWHWWWH where W represents the whole step and H represents half step.

A clear example will be starting from G going through A B C D E F# about the formula then back to G again.

 The standard major scale only accommodates seven notes at a go.

The circles of fourths

Another thing to take note of is the circles of the fourths.

It's known as the circle of forth because the guitar is tuned in fourths.

The circle of forth is a simple tool that organises all scales in a neat graph that can be easily interpreted.

The circular graph starts with a C note at the 12 O'clock position and moves anticlockwise.

With this movement to figure out the next position on the circle, we move to the fourth note of our C scale which was F.

The next note would be the 4th note in the F scale, which is Bb.  

You keep going with this pattern, and it creates a circle is arranged in such a way as you move down you generate more flat notes, making the next letters be Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb. 

When you come up with the other side of the circle you encounter natural notes B, E, A, D, and G.

Circle of fourths music theory

In scales, flats and sharps do not exist in the same scale. 

So when looking at this circle, remember that: 

The Db is the same as C#, the F# is Gb and the natural B is same as Cb. 

These notes are identical and sound the same when played on a guitar.

That's why writing out the circle of fourths, you end up just with flats instead of a mixture of sharps and flats.  

When you take the circle of fourths and move in anti-clockwise direction it becomes the circle of fifths where you will encounter sharps instead of flats.

Circle of Fifths

With the circle of fifths, the next note is of the C scale will be the fifth note which is G. And if you keep going, we will end up writing up writing some sharp notes instead of all flats. 

Music theory seems confusing?

These show how music theory can be an abstract language to learn but the more you understand it, and is able to apply it, the easier it is to understanding playing guitar and music. 

In our acoustic and electric guitar lessons, we would be able to apply these concepts into music. So you aren't just trying to understand these concepts, but actually know what this means for you. 

Understanding basic triads

The other important subject to learn in music theory basics for guitars is basic triads.

 The word triad is another name for a three-note basic code.

So basically it's just taking the major notes and cramming them together in different combinations to get a different type of chords.

The three basic triads found in the major scale include; the major chord, the minor chord, and the diminished chord.

Creating an emotional effect on your listener

These chords have different emotional effects on a listener, for example, major chords in a song create a happy or triumphant scene, and the minor chords create a sad and somber scene and diminished chords which are used to create tension. 

In our guitar lessons, we can help you understand more about how to use triads all over your guitar, in playing, and songwriting to create more expressive music. 

Chords in your scale

Finally, another important subject to take note of in music theory basics for guitar is the chord scale. Chord scale basically allows you to take a scale in a particular key and figure out what chords you can play on that scale and will sound good together.

The process is simple, we start by building a triad which is a group of notes, we then compare these group of notes to get to their own major scales, and by comparing it to its key, we determine what type of chord it is whether major chord, minor chord or diminished chord.

Building a chord scale helps a guitar player discover which set of chords sound good together and makes it easy for a guitarist to come up with interesting music.

To see a better illustration of this, go to our beginners music theory guide. We even have downloadable content so you can have references sheets that help you learn to use these in your own guitar learning as a beginner: