Music Theory Basics for Guitarists

music theory

It is less common for guitar students to learn music theory than it is for someone learning piano or a band or orchestra instrument. It is entirely possible to have a long, successful guitar career without much musical theory knowledge. But, theory is great to know for a variety of guitar-related tasks and activities, such as songwriting, teaching, and accompanimental playing. Bobby, The Guitar Answer Guy, has written an article on, “The Very Basics of Music Theory for Guitarists,” where he covers all of the basics to get you started with music theory.

The Notes and Chromatic Scale

First things first: we need some notes! In Western music there are 12 notes in existence that make up “the chromatic scale.” They are:

C    C#/Db    D D#/Eb    E F F#/Gb     G G#/Ab A A#/Bb     B

Learning and knowing note names can come in extremely handy if you are working with instrumentalists playing a different instrument. Once you know the names of the notes, you can learn about their placement in the grand staff and in turn go on to write out melodies for both yourself and the other members of the group.

Chords and Keys

What’s the difference between a scale and a key? A scale is a sequence of notes formed using a recognized formula. A key is a sequence of chords formed from a scale.

Chords and keys are huge when learning to play guitar. I’m sure you have seen, or are at least a little familiar with, a lead sheet. This is that written out version of the song that has a melody line on the staff with guitar tabs (chords) across the top. Knowing what key you are in and how the other chords within a song relate to that key can really help in writing out a new song, or simply understanding the song you are currently working on. “Why did we move to this chord?” Or, if you are writing a song, “which chord should come next?”

Note names, keys, and chords all come in handy when playing any instrument, and can be a huge help for your guitar knowledge and playing.

Bobby Davis, The Guitar Answer Guy, is an Air Force Vet that has been playing guitar since 1987. His site,, is designed to help guitarists of all levels learn about proper care and maintenance for their instruments, and also provides some guitar lessons and theory information. To view the full article on his website, please visit

Cassidy is the Digital Marketing Manager at Making Music and has recently begun her career in the music industry. In May 2017, she graduated from the Crane School of Music with a double degree in Music Business and Music Theory. Upon graduating college, Cassidy did an internship with DANSR, Inc. in Illinois before moving to Southern California where she was the NAMM intern for six months. Her favorite instrument is the clarinet, but she also enjoys dabbling with guitar, piano, ukulele, saxophone, and flute.

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