Guitar Theory-In-A-Nutshell


Guitar Theory In A Nutshell

For the beginning to advanced guitar student who wants to begin with a solid understanding of music fundamentals, theory and application, and continue through a course of study leading to a higher level of playing ability and greater understanding of music.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Note Am I Playing?

In most of the guitar method books that I’ve seen, the notes on the fretboard are presented a few at a time as you are learning to read the music. That’s not a bad thing if your intention is to read music for guitar, and I strongly suggest you go ahead and do that. Reading music is only one of the many skills that well rounded musicians possess. I’ve seen many people who’ve taken lessons that play their instrument only when they have a sheet of music in front of them. Take away the sheet of music and they find that it’s almost impossible to play by heart.  Always keep in mind that the art of improvisation is just as important as all other aspects of learning music.

That being said, there are times when you need to know the name of the note you are playing.  This lesson will help you easily to find any note on the guitar using two simple rules.  First, there are a few prerequisites that you need to know.

Prerequisite: Memorize how the guitar is tuned, i.e., E A D G B E

Prerequisite: Sharps and Flats – a sharp (#) raises the pitch of a note by a half step
– a flat (b) lowers the pitch of a note by a half step

Prerequitsite: “Natural” notes – A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are natural notes
Notes that have a sharp or a flat are NOT natural notes, i.e., C#, Eb, F#, Bb, etc.

How To Find Any Natural Note On The Fretboard Using Two Simple Rules

RULE #1:  All natural notes are a whole step apart, with the exception from B to C, and from E to F, which
are a half step apart.

RULE #2:  A half step on the guitar fretboard is a distance of 1 fret (see illustration below), and a whole step
is a distance of 2 frets.

Let’s choose the second string (B string) on the guitar and determine which fret the note “C” is on.  The first note on the open B string is, of course, “B”.  As we go upwards in pitch, the next natural note we will come to in ascending alphabetical order is “C”.   Appying RULE #1, we say that “B” and “C” are a half step apart.
Now, we can apply RULE #2 which states that a half step is a distance of 1 fret on the guitar.
Therefore, the note “C” is at the 1st fret of the second string on the fretboard.

That was a fairly simple example.  But suppose you had wanted to find the note “G” on that same string.
Proceed by re-applying RULE #1 and RULE #2 as many times as needed until you find “G”.

For example, from “C”, the next natural note is “D” (RULE #1 – a whole step higher), then,
RULE #2 is applied (a whole step is a distance of 2 frets).
Move two frets higher from “C” – 1st fret + 2 frets = 3rd fret – “D”

from “D”, the next natural note is “E” (RULE #1 – is it a whole step or a half step?”
RULE #2 – move a distance of 2 frets (whole step).
Move 2 frets higher from “D” – 3rd fret + 2 frets = 5th fret – “E”

and so on…….if you determined that the note “G” is on the 8th fret of the second string (“B” string), you are correct.  You can use this method to find any natural note on any of the strings.  Eventually, after you have done this a bazillion times, you’ll get to know what note you are playing without thinking much about it.  It’s just like finding your way to a destination by car…the first time you make the trip, you have to follow the directions.  After you’ve made the trip a few more times, the neighborhood starts getting a little more familiar.
Q:  What if I’m playing a note on a fret that is located between two natural notes?
A:  In our previous example, we determined that the note “G” is on the 8th fret of the “B” string.
Move a half step lower to the 7th fret and you’ll be playing a note in between two natural notes,
“F” and “G”.  This is an “enharmonic” note, meaning that it can take it’s note name from either one of
it’s nearest neighbors, “F” or “G”.  Because it is a half step higher in pitch from the natural note “F”, it
may be called “F Sharp” (F#), or alternatively, since it is a half step lower in pitch from the natural note
“G”, it may be called “G Flat” (Gb).  Which name to choose is dependent upon the context in which
the note is referenced and is the subject for further study in a subsequent lessons on music theory.

Whether you are playing a note on the guitar and want to know it’s name, or trying to find the location of specific notes anywhere on the fretboard, you’ll find that using this method is much easier and certainly more intuitive than trying to look at a chart and memorize where each note is.  In time, you’ll get to know at a glance what note or notes you are playing just as if you were looking at the points on a compass or the hours on the face of a clock.  Furthermore, by learning to read music notation, you will develop an ability to connect the notes on a sheet of music to the notes on the fretboard, learning and practicing the best fingerings and optimal hand positioning.

Posted by Ed Vallee at 12:57 PM No comments:  

Monday, June 21, 2010

You Can Tune A Guitar (but you can’t tuna fish)

It’s time now to learn one of the fundamental things you should know about a guitar; how to keep it in tune.

If it’s not in tune, it won’t matter what you’re playing because it’ll sound wrong.  There are a two methods for tuning a guitar, Absolute Tuning and Relative Tuning.  First, let me say two important things about being “in tune”:

1.  Be sure to tune your instrument by starting with a standard device such as a digital tuner, pitch pipe, harmonica, tuning fork, piano (any keyboard), computer program, etc., that is referenced to concert pitch.

2.  Use your ears (don’t rely only on your tuner) – one of your most important goals should be to learn how to listen and hear pitch correctly.  In time you will gain enough experience to do this, but for now just remember that your ears are infinitely more accurate than any external digital or analog device.

View the diagram above: from left to right (lowest pitch to highest pitch), the strings on your guitar are to be tuned   E   A   D   G   B   E
One of my students suggested an easy way to remember the note for each string:  Memorize the phrase “Easter Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter” and apply it for each string starting from the rightmost (thinnest) string to the leftmost (thickest) string.

Use the following diagram to tune your guitar to a piano keyboard.


As you gain more experience with tuning, you will eventually understand how to use rough tuning and fine tuning to make your guitar as close to perfectly tuned as it can be.  No matter which tuning reference you use, i.e., keyboard, another guitar, digital tuner, etc., the following method will apply:

  1. Start with the low E string.
    Rough tune the string flatter than the pitch you are tuning it to by approximately a whole step.

Generally speaking, the definition of rough tuning is to change the pitch by a whole step or more.

  1. Rough tune back up to within a half step below the reference pitch.
    Here it is important to let the string sustain while tuning it up so you can here how it sounds as it
    changes and approaches the pitch you are tuning to.  As the sustain of the string begins to decay,
    it will be more and more difficult to hear it.  You will have to refresh it as often as necessary.
  2. As the string continues to sustain, begin fine tuning it upwards in pitch until you reach unison.
    Unison can be identified by careful listening, for example, when two strings are sustaining together
    in unison they sound like one string.  If you accidentally tune too high, go back to step 1 and start over.
    As the pitch of the string you are tuning approaches the reference pitch you are tuning to more closely,
    you will begin to hear a pulsation.  The rate of this pulsation becomes slower as the two pitches get closer
    in tune to each other.  When the string is in unison, the pulsation will disappear and the tone will sound
    very pure.  Listen carefully and learn to identify this pureness in tone, as the pulsation will become very
    slow as to be almost imperceptible when the pitches are very close, but still out of tune.
  3. Repeat steps 1., 2. and 3. for remaining five strings.Notice that the strings are first lowered, then tuned upwards using the previous method.  Guitar strings, or any stringed instrument for that matter, will tend to stay in tune longer when the strings are tuned upwards.

    What if you didn’t have any kind of keyboard or other tuning reference readily available to tune to?

Make your best guess as to which one of the strings is the closest to being in tune and tune all of the other strings to that one.  This is called “Relative Tuning“, or more simply said, “tuning the guitar to itself”.


Refer to the diagram below for the information which follows describing how to tune the guitar using relative tuning.

In this example, assume that the open “A” string is the closest to being in tune. Therefore, we’ll tune all the other strings to that one.

  1. Tune the low E string to the A string as follows:

Play an “A” note on the low E string by putting the first finger of your left hand down on the low E
string at the 5th fret as shown.
While continuing to hold down, pluck both the Low E string and the open A string, letting them both

ring together and sustain for as long as possible.

  1. While both strings continue to sustain, place your right hand on the tuner (not shown) for the E string
    and rough tune the E string to a pitch lower than the A string.  Tune back upwards until the E string
    is within a half step below the open A string.  At this point you should begin fine tuning (making smaller,
    finer adjustments) until both strings are the exact same pitch (in unison).  If you’re not careful, you will
    tune the E string too high….if this happens just rough tune back down again and start over.


  1. As you tune, the strings won’t continue ringing forever, so you’ll have to refresh them by plucking
    them again and again each time they decay to a low level of volume.   Repeat as neccessary.4. Now that both the low E string and the A string are in tune with each other, tune the D string to
    the A string by simultaneously playing the open D string and the D note at the 5th fret of the A string
    and adjusting the tuner (not shown) for the D string.  Repeat this process for each pair of strings.

    5. Check your tuning frequently and make adjustments as necessary.

I like to start tuning the low E string first because it’s the heaviest string and it exerts the most pull on the neck of the guitar. As you tighten any string, the change in force it exerts on the neck increases and will result in a slight loosening of all the other strings. Conversely, as you loosen a string, the change of force it exerts on the neck lessens and will result in a slight tightening of all the other strings. This small, but noticeable effect will accumulate as you tune each string. The thicker the string is, the greater it’s overall effect will be on the tension of the other strings. Once I have tuned all six strings, I’ll go back and re-check the tuning again and again making finer adjustments until the tuning is as close to perfect as it can be.


This would make a great “Equalization of Forces” experiment for your physics class!

Here’s one final important thought that should be considered whenever you use relative tuning.  How do you know for sure when two strings are exactly the same pitch (in tune)?  This requires careful listening and practice.  Remember, when two guitar strings are perfectly in tune together, they sound like one string.  That is the best way it can be described.  When two guitar strings are slightly out of tune with each other, you can hear a pulsation.   This pulsation becomes slower as the two strings get closer and closer in tune to each other.  Sometimes the difference in pitch is so slight that it’s almost impossible to hear the extremely slow pulsation.  With time and practice, your ears will become trained to hear perfect unison, when two strings are perfecly in tune!


Posted by Ed Vallee at 5:51 PM No comments:  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

C Major Scale – The Mother Of All Major Scales

Before we get to the guitar, there are a few things to lay down as a musical foundation upon which to build a general knowledge of music as it relates to any musical instrument of choice including your own vocal chords. The piano keyboard will be used for this purpose and, later on, the information presented here will be transferred to the guitar’s fretboard.




do – re – mi – fa – so – la – ti – do


This is how many of us remember the C Major Scale from early childhood education.  Look at the illustration of the piano keyboard below.  It has both white and black keys. The white keys are labeled with their note names.  Notice also that each black key has two distinct note names; one containing a sharp ( # ), and one containing a flat ( b ).
Notes that occupy the white keys are called “naturals”.  A black note that has a sharp (#), such as G#, is higher in pitch from the nearest natural note of the same name,  i.e., G.
A black note that has a flat (b), such as Ab, is lower in pitch from the nearest natural note of the same name, i.e., A.

The set of alphabetic letters, from “A” to “G”, are used to represent all the keys from the lowest pitched to the highest pitch in ascending alphabetic order. A typical piano keyboard has eighty-eight keys. How can such a large number of notes be represented by only seven letter names?
The answer is this; once all seven letter names have been used up, they are repeated over and over again.  As you can see from the illustration above showing a partial section of the piano keyboard, the pattern of white keys and black keys also repeats over and over again.


Now, look again at the piano keyboard illustration and total up all of the white and black keys starting from “middle C”, up to and including the rightmost note, “B”.  Note that there are twelve distinct notes.  The “distance”, or difference in pitch from a lower “C” to the next higher “C” is called an “octave”.  Our western scale consists of a set of twelve evenly divided tones called the “Twelve Tone Scale“, or sometimes called the “Chromatic Scale“.


The C Major scale, and in fact, any major scale, comprises eight out of the twelve aforementioned tones.


Look at the C Major Scale above and notice the space between each of the notes. In musical terms, this “space” is referred to as an interval.


An interval is defined as: The “distance” or, to be concise, the difference in pitch between any two notes. Furthermore, this interval can be quantified in units of measurement called “half steps” and“whole steps” (sometimes referred to as “half tones” and “whole tones”).  Look at the C Major Scale illustration again.  Note that an octave has a change in pitch of 6 whole steps (or 12 half steps).


The illustration of the piano keyboard at the top of the page is a good way to visualize the idea of half steps and whole steps. Look at the first two notes on the keyboard, “C” and “D”. Why do we say that they are a whole step apart?

If we move from “C” to the next higher note, “C#”, we have moved a distance of one half step. Then, moving from “C#” to “D”, we have moved yet another half step higher in pitch. Moving from “C” to “D” is a total distance of 2 half steps, or 1 whole step.

Also, on the illustration of the piano keyboard you might notice that there are two places where a pair of white keys have no black key in between them. These are the natural notes “B”, “C”, “E”, and “F”.

Look again at the C Major Scale above and notice that all of the notes in the scale are a whole step from each other, except in the case from “E” to “F”, and, from “B” to “C”, which are each a half step apart.  It is precisely this relationship of the magnitude of change from one pitch to the next that defines how a major scale should sound.


The C Major Scale is the only major scale that requires no sharped or flatted notes. If you were to play a major scale on the piano starting on a note other than “C”, you would need to use one or more sharped or flatted notes (#’s or b‘s) to maintain the same relationship of changes in pitch from note to note that define how a major scale should sound.

Posted by Ed Vallee at 3:30 AM No comments: 

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