After 13 years of playing the guitar (just chords)... I am just starting to investigate learning theory to be a better guitar player. Also seeing piano players pick up the guitar and soloing in no time is a ball buster.

I've browsed and started a couple short brief lessons but nothing seems to be a complete and worthwhile guide.

Does anyone have any suggestions or sources to start learning theory?

  • Trying to find you some resources, but r/musictheory is a good place to hang out. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Dec 4 '14 at 18:11
  • This is not a direct answer to your question, but it will be useful to study fretboard logic... or the CAGED system. – amalgamate Dec 4 '14 at 18:19
  • What do you mean by theory? There is "Music Theory" the formalized study of the way music works. There is reading music (I have a friend who consistently and wrongly refers to this as music theory). Also, your question seems to imply that you want to know how to play the guitar beyond using chords. Each would be a different answer. – amalgamate Dec 4 '14 at 18:22
  • @amalgamate thanks for the break down. I was unaware that what I want is really a combination of techniques/practices. What I need to do is take a step back and figure what one I want to spend my time focusing on first. Whatever one I choose will no doubt make me a better guitarist. – mikeymurph77 Dec 4 '14 at 19:04
  • I recommend learning scales and then connect them to the chords you know. (This is one way to approach fretboard logic/ or the CAGED system). Learning to read music does also give you a tool in the quest to understanding. I always told my students to try to balance chords, scales and reading music in their daily practice. – amalgamate Dec 4 '14 at 19:21

I've been making music for 30 years, and started formally learning theory last year. Yes, it's easier to learn theory on the piano but there are other ways. I'm assuming you can't play any piano at all, and can either read music or are willing to learn.

CAGED Guitar Theory will enhance your ability to translate theory to the fretboard. The general idea is to learn the basic chord forms and then learn how to apply them and transpose them. I'd start here even though it's more of a guitar system than a theory one; it'll make it easier to pick up music theory concepts later.

General theory:

  • You'll want a good general music theory reference. Open Music Theory does a good job of mostly steering clear of the piano. Get through as much of this as you can.

  • If you'd rather want to spend time pushing through a book, Music Theory for Guitarists looks like a comprehensive resource, and it's specific to guitar.

What next?

A real-life theory teacher is the best way to learn, but that's not an option for a lot of people. Youtube has a ton of videos that will demonstrate basic theory concepts, but be careful: There is a lot of misinformation out there. Once you have the basic concepts of chord theory, modes, progressions, and intervals under your belt, it'll be easier to know when someone's giving you an oversimplified version of a concept.

When you don't have a teacher, you'll need to rely on internet resources. There are websites and apps that will help you with interval training, drill you in reading music, and learn relative/perfect pitch. (My current favorite is Perfect Ear 2.) How much of these you learn depends on how far down the music theory rabbit hole you want to go.

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  • Thank you very much for this detailed answer. I will definitely take a look at CAGED Guitar Theory and the Open Music Theory text. – mikeymurph77 Dec 4 '14 at 19:01

This query recalls the tourist in New York City who asked a street local “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”. The New Yorker replied “Practice, practice, practice!”. You might enjoy beginning in the Wikipedia with this: “guitar”. To whet your search appetite, a few thoughts.

GUITAR A standard 6-string guitar is tuned to specific Western Scale notes: E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 and E4. This means that each succeeding string is 5 notes (a Perfect Fourth) above its neighbor. There is one exception to this: B3 is 4 notes (a Major Third) above G3.

KEYS There are essentially 12 distinct Key Signatures: C, the six signatures with sharped notes G D A E B F#, and the five signatures with flatted notes Db Ab Eb Bb F. The order of this listing is such that the signature notes are exactly 7 notes (a Perfect Fifth) apart. Thus the relation to the Circle of Fifths diagram. Key signatures have other names (e.g., Gb = F#, Cb = B, C# = Db). When you look at a given sheet music, you see the Key Signature.

To ascertain the Key, the reader must associate the Key Signature and the Mode of the music. There are 7 Modes: Ionian (associated with the Major Key), Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, MixoLydian, Aeolian (associated with the Minor Key), and Locrian. Often, the mode is correlated to the first note appearing in the composition.

Example: Key Signature C in Ionian Mode = the C Major Key; Key Signature C in Aeolian Mode = the A Minor Key. Thus, there are 84 (12 signatures * 7 modes) distinct Keys in the Western system.

CHORDS Two familiar chords (specifically, Triads in the Key Signature C) may tempt further searches: The Major Triad C E G; The Minor Triad A C E. Finally, look at wiki chords. Likely, yau already use thtwo aforementioned triads. Now, continue with the diminished and augmented chords. Good hunting!

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Is it that you'd like to learn to play solos ?

If so, try searching google and youtube for the "pentatonic scale" which gives you a way of playing a solo in any key (anywhere on the neck). It's not the be-all-and-end-all but it's a very good place to start. At its most basic, it's an easy way of playing blues solos.

You can go very far with it though. Eg Hendrix used it a lot, as does Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

I think this isn't the same as music theory. It's just a pattern of fret positions which makes things easier, a bit like how typists have "home keys" and reach out from there. It is a scale though, so it's derived via music theory & what's convenient for guitar.

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