Guitar Theory: Mastering the Music

guitar theoryEver since the inception of rock and roll music, the guitar has been viewed as the quintessential instrument of the western world. The piano is still the starting point that most parents urge for their kids, and drums and bass still hold a lot of appeal for those drawn to the percussive, rhythmically-driven aspects of music, but there is nothing that says “rock star” (or “folk star” and “pop star,” for that matter) quite like a guitar toting frontman or frontwoman.

For all of these reasons, many people who have not previously identified themselves as “musicians” see romance and appeal in picking up the guitar and learning to play. With the internet and all of the resources it provides, the act of simply picking up an acoustic guitar and teaching oneself how to play is easier than ever before. Udemy seeks to make things even easier, offering courses in guitar technique for everything from classical guitar style to blues fingerpicking and jazz chord formation. However, before you dive right into the guitar and start trying to teach yourself how to play your favorite songs, you are going to want to formulate a basic grasp of music theory concepts as they pertain to the guitar.

Why You Should Learn Music Theory 

For many, “music theory” is a term that inspires little more than moans and groans of contempt. Even for advanced musicians studying the art of music at colleges and universities, music theory courses can be a major source of frustration, largely because theory is complicated, mathematical, and academic in scope. After all, music should be fun, passionate, and beautiful, right? It shouldn’t feel like work or school.

However, while learning and mastering music theory can be a long road for even the most skilled musicians, it is invariably a trip worth taking if you are serious about learning to play the guitar or any other instrument. With a firm understanding of music theory, you will be able to play guitar in a more accomplished fashion, nailing chords and solos like a pro, learning to play your favorite songs by ear, and even dreaming up and composing music of your own.

Learning the Basics 

As with any other skill, the first steps to learning guitar theory will come with mastering the basics. Make sure you have a guitar that you can learn on and practice with frequently, either by borrowing an instrument from a friend or buying a model of your own. If you choose to buy your guitar, you will have to choose between an electric and acoustic. Most teachers will tell you that learning on an acoustic is preferable, partially because amplification isn’t necessary and partially because it isn’t difficult to find an inexpensive learner’s model at your local guitar shop. If you do decide to splurge and go for an electric instrument, however, check out this blog for tips on buying the best guitar.

Once you have an instrument to work with, you can start practicing the theory tips that will help you to truly become the soloing and shredding guitar hero that years of video games and air guitar exercise have helped you to envision. There are a slew of different musical theory resources online, but be careful in using just any of them: many sites teach theory in general academic terms, and while that sort of knowledge can be valuable, you would do better and get where you want to know quicker by selecting a source that teaches theory with aspiring guitar players in mind. Specifically, you want to learn the basics of playing the guitar, and that means learning how to master tunings, play steps, intervals, and scales, understand keys, and formulate chord structures.

  • Tunings

Over the years, guitar players have developed all manner of different tunings to help make playing unorthodox chords and songs a bit easier. From drop tunings to modal tunings to open tunings, there are a lot of different variations here that you will learn as you continue your guitar theory education. To begin though, you only will need to know standard tuning, which for a basic six-string guitar will pitch the strings at E, A, D, G, B, and E. Download an app on your smartphone to help you tune the strings by ear, or simply play the pitches on a piano or keyboard and use those notes to properly ready your guitar for standard tuning.

  • Steps, Intervals, and Scales

When you hear a knockout guitar solo in your favorite rock song, you are listening to a guitarist who has mastered theory to such an extent this his or her fingers can simply glide over the frets of the instrument and create fully-formed melodies along the way. The roots of those skills are steps, intervals, and scales.

To start, you will simply want to get your hands accustomed to the guitar. Your right hand will be in charge of plucking or strumming the strings, while your left hand will “fret” the strings (hold down different strings at different spots along the neck of the instrument) to produce different notes and chords. Get comfortable with the sounds that different fret positions make, then start noting where on the fret whole steps and half steps occur.

Your ultimate goal here – for now, at least – should be to learn a major scale (you know: the famous Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do melody from The Sound of Music). Once you have learned a major scale in one key, you can start to understand how different intervals work in that key. Work through the major scales in each key, memorizing the fret locations of each as you go. If you need help mastering scales, intervals, steps, and keys, then consider taking this Udemy course for beginning guitarists.

  • Chords

Most pop and rock tunes are built from simple collections of chords, so if your primary goal behind learning guitar to accompany yourself as you sing some of your old favorites at a family reunion, then chords should be the main focus of your study. In guitar theory, chords are formulated – as with scales and intervals – by fretting different strings on the guitar. Where scales only use one pitch at a time, chords are built from several pitches sounding in harmony or dissonance. Therefore, to play chords, you will need to fret two, three, or sometimes even four or five strings at a time, all with your left hand.

At first, chords can feel alien and difficult, simply because they require you to hold your left hand in an awkward position. However, over time you will develop muscle memory and chords will become second nature to you. Look up chord structures online (you can learn them from tablature diagrams to simple photographs), or take Udemy’s course for “mastering the art of guitar chords” to help accelerate the learning process.

Sticking with It 

Learning guitar theory can be an overwhelming experience, simply because there are so many different skills to master before you can start sounding anything like the legendary rock guitarists you have been listening to for years. Don’t be discouraged: while learning guitar is a long road, it is also a rewarding one, and if you simply set you mind to mastering one new guitar theory skill per day, be it a new scale, chord, tuning stype, or song, you will be playing in front of crowds before you know it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it, either, whether from a friend who plays guitar, a teacher at the local music school, or even one of Udemy’s experts. From our beginning guitar lessons to our more advanced courses, we can help you transform yourself from a musical novice into a guitar theory mastermind in no time.