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Jazz Cat Blog

Basic music theory

Posted by on July 5, 2016 at 12:45 AM

When I take on a new student, the first thing that I go over are the raw mechanics of music. Even if the student has several years of experience, I refuse to simply take for granted that they know this material.

If they know it, great... it will only take us about three minutes to brush through this and we can move on. However, if there is any of this that is not known, I hammer it out with them and make it clear that this is the one thing that I will be a total Nazi about and literally insist that they memorize it before we move forward.

The reason is that it's absolutely essential to having a clue about how the guitar (or any instrument) actually works and because it's so horribly overlooked by so many teachers.

The reason given for this sin of omission is that students these days are less and less interested in music theory, they just want to know how to play.

This is a crippling stance to take, because this is how you learn to play.

That is, unless you really insist on doing it the hard way.

In truth, I think it's sort of ridiculous that this stuff can even be considered music theory. That's akin to saying that the English alphabet is literature. It's not. It's a set of symbols, used to form words, which are strung into sentences and paragraphs, verses, stanzas and chapters, which are combined into works which we refer to as literature. 

It is really stupid simple to learn this stuff, actually. 15 minutes of practice on this each day and in a few weeks, you'll have it down cold and you'll pretty much know it for life. You'll understand what other musicians are talking about and this will make you feel empowered and that, will make you learn faster, because you'll be excited.

Nothing creates success like success

Here is all that you need to know to get started:

These are the only letters we use in music. The examples above are all what we call naturals. They are not sharp or flat. See below:

Here are the possibilities in sharps: 

Here are the possibilities in flats:

We have two alphabets, sharp and flat. There are sharp keys, like G Major and D Major for example and flat keys, like B flat Major and E flat Major.

Songs are written in keys and so a flat key will use the flat alphabet and a sharp key will use the flat alphabet. Don't try to understand this for now, just memorize the two and it will make sense later. Your brain will not bleed, I promise.  

So, you accept the fact that you need to know this, now how do you practice it? Easy, pick a string and start with the note name of that open string.

The sixth string is E, so begin on E and go by half-steps (one fret at a time), playing and saying OUT LOUD! the note names, as in:

E   F   F#   G   G#   etc.

Make sure to go up to the 12th fret and back down to the open string again. In case you don't know your string names, here is a diagram: 

That's all you need to get going. Every song you try to learn, every new chord, every scale or arpeggio, they will all be much, much simpler, with this information under your fingers. Enjoy.

My name is Magus (Kevin Trent Boswell) and I am a guitarist, vocalist, songwriter in NC. 

Categories: Rudiments, Grab Bag (random tips for guitarists)

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