“I couldn’t not [know music theory]. There was a time when I could get by with not knowing… but not anymore, not with the caliber of musicians I play with. Besides, for me it isn’t satisfying to not know. It’s not satisfying to bluff. I like to know because for one thing, it makes it a lot easier to communicate what you’re doing. Just that alone is a good reason to know.”–Jerry Garcia

Why “practical music theory?”

I refer to it as “practical music theory” because, although music theory is a big and complex field, the fact is that unless you are interested in jazz, classical, or some other kind of avant-garde music, there’s a lot about music theory that will never really affect you. There’s a much more basic level of music theory, a sort of “working man’s” theory, that is surprisingly easy to understand, and that is operating all the time in the music we listen to every day. This PRACTICAL level of music theory will help you:

  • Understand the different types of musical sounds, a.k.a. “harmony,” that can be created through your chord and note choices.
  • Open up creative possibilities on the guitar for composition and improvisation.
  • Know what to play immediately in all kinds of musical contexts.
  • Communicate clearly with the other musicians you play with.

I often make an analogy with math (but don’t let that scare you!). There are many different branches of mathematics, and people can study them all the way up through the PhD level. But the fact is that most of us can get through life just fine only knowing the basics–add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Music theory is exactly the same–it can be taken to a very complex level, but most guitarists just need to know a few basic things about chords, scales, and chord progressions in order to have a working understanding of how music operates. This is what you’ll learn in this section of HCG.

Music Theory Lessons

These lessons are designed to go together as a single tutorial, and I recommend you go through them in order (especially if you are going through them for the first time). Each lesson just takes a few minutes, and the whole tutorial should take less than an hour.

I. The Basics

1. The ABC’s
2. The Major Scale

II. Chord Construction

1. Triads
2. 7th chords
3. Extended chords
4. Chord symbols & definitions

III. Chord Scales

1. Chord scale w/triads
2. Chord scale w/7th chords

IV. Chord Progressions

1. Motion in 4ths
2. I-IV-V (1-4-5) progressions
3. Other common progressions