Many guitarists are intimidated by the words “music theory” because they think it’s too hard to learn. Other guitarists don’t think music theory is worth their time.
The truth is, basic music theory is easy to master, and knowing just a little music theory can help you learn songs faster, play more melodically, write better songs, and much more. A little music theory can dramatically improve your guitar playing, and you can master essentials of music theory in just a few minutes a day.
If you’re looking for a place to start mastering music theory, look no further. In this article, I’m going to show you two of the most important scales in music: the chromatic scale and the C major diatonic scale.
1. The “dictionary” of musical notes
The first scale I’m going to talk about is the chromatic scale. I like to think of the chromatic scale like a “musical dictionary,” because it’s got all 12 notes in it.
A dictionary has all the words, and the chromatic scale has all the notes. Get it?
Now, if you just opened up the dictionary and started reading, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense, right? To make a sentence and actually say something, you have to take words from different parts of the dictionary and put them in order.
Likewise, if you just play the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, you aren’t going to be “saying” much with what you’re playing. To create music, you have to play some notes from the chromatic scale and leave others out.
But first, let’s just look at the chromatic scale.
There are seven letters used in writing music. Those letters are:
A – B – C – D – E – F – G
There’s no such thing as an “H” note, or an “I” note, or any other notes that use other letters. Everything alphabetical in music (at least in the English-speaking world) goes from A to G, then it starts over back at A.
“But if there are only 7 letters,” you may be wondering, “how can there be 12 notes?”
That’s a good question, and the answer is simple: there are five more notes between those seven notes. Those notes are called “flats” or “sharps.” I have placed them where they go in the scale below. The new notes are in bold:
A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab
Before I go any further, I want to make something clear: “A#” (A sharp) and “Bb” (B flat) are the same note. The same goes for the other pairs: C# and Db are the same note, D# and Eb are the same note, F# and Gb are the same note, and G# and Ab are the same note.
There’s a reason you can write each of those notes two ways, but don’t worry about that right now. For now, just memorize these 12 notes and the order they go in. No matter where you start on the chromatic scale, it always goes in this order, then starts over again.
And if you were wondering why there’s no sharp/flat between B and C or between E and F, well, there just isn’t. There are only 12 notes, and they are written the way I showed you above.
Have you ever noticed how on a piano, some of the white keys have black keys between them, and others don’t? Guess what? The white keys play the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, and the black keys play the other notes.
There’s no note between B and C on the chromatic scale, so there’s no black key between B and C on the piano. The same goes for E and F. If you can remember that, memorizing the rest of the chromatic scale is a snap.
Just remember the word “BE”: there’s no such thing as B# (or Cb), and there’s no such thing as E# (or Fb).
OK, now that you know what the chromatic scale is, let’s start using it to improve your guitar playing.
2. Memorize the notes on the 6th string
Eventually, you’re going to want to memorize ALL the notes on ALL six strings. But for now, start with the 6th string.
If your guitar is in standard tuning, the sixth string is the “low E” string. So, here are all the notes, beginning with an open string and going up to the 11th fret:
E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb
When you get to the 12th fret, you’re playing another E note. The 13th fret is F, the 14th fret is F#/Gb, and so on.
I can’t stress this enough: do NOT skip this. Knowing the notes on the 6th string is going to be useful as long as you play the guitar. You’ll be able to find the right notes, chords, and scales whenever you need to, as well as learn new songs with ease, because most songs come from a few basic chord progressions you can find easily just by using the 6th string. Take the time to memorize the 6th string now, and I promise it will help you improve your guitar playing.
HINT: the dots on your fretboard can help you memorize where all the notes are.
3. “Just play the white keys”
Before I go, as promised, we’re going to take a quick look at the diatonic (7-note) C major scale.
Just to review, here are all the notes in the chromatic scale. Remember, it doesn’t matter which note you start with, as long as the notes are in the right order. So, this time I’m starting with C:
C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B
Remember the dictionary analogy: if you want to write a sentence, you can’t just open up a dictionary and start reading words. You have to take words from different parts of the dictionary and leave others out, if you want to make any sense.
You can do something very similar with the chromatic scale: by playing some notes and skipping others, you can get all the other scales from the chromatic scale.
The C major diatonic scale is easy to remember, because there aren’t any sharps or flats. Here it is:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
If you’re on a piano, all the white keys are part of the C major diatonic scale. None of the black keys are in this scale. To play the C major scale on a piano, you just play the white keys.
On a guitar it’s a little more tricky, but there’s a big payoff: the major diatonic scale follows the same pattern, no matter what key you’re in.
I’ll explain more in the next article. Until then, play on… and memorize the notes on that low E string!
Let me know in the comments section below!