Guitar Theory For Dummies®

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Table of Contents


About This Book

Foolish Assumptions

Icons Used in This Book

Beyond the Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I: Getting Started with Guitar Theory

Chapter 1: Guitar Theory in a Nutshell

Why Learn Guitar Theory?

Navigating the Fretboard

Seeing the fretboard as a grid

Viewing neck diagrams

Reading guitar tablature

Playing Scales

Pentatonic scale

Major scale


Harmonic minor scale

Working with Chords

CAGED chord system

Adding chord tones and extensions

Passing chords

Charting chord progressions

Testing Your Guitar Theory Knowledge

Chapter 2: Navigating the Fretboard Like a Pro

Tracing Everything Back to Strings 6 and 5

Moving between pitches with whole steps and half steps

Naming the pitches between natural notes: Sharps and flats

Grouping notes

Tracking Notes and Playing Songs with Octaves

Shaping octaves with your 1st finger on strings 6 and 5

Shaping octaves with your 1st finger on strings 4 and 3

Shaping octaves that are three strings apart

Repeating octaves beyond the 12th fret

Measuring the Space between Pitches with Intervals

Playing intervals 1 through 7

Filling in the gaps with flats and sharps

Part II: Working with Chords from the Ground Up

Chapter 3: Harmonizing the Major Scale to Form Triads and Chords

Building Triads and Chords

Major triad: Building from the 1st scale degree of the major scale

Minor triad: Building from the 2nd scale degree of the major scale

Playing through the Seven Triads of the Major Scale

Playing the Chord Sequence of the Major Scale

Chapter 4: Forming Chord Shapes with the CAGED System

Making Chord Inversions and Chord Voicings

Using the C Form

Using the C form as a moveable barre chord

Playing a C form arpeggio pattern

Playing C form chord voicings

Using the A Form

Using the G Form

Using the E Form

Using the D Form

Connecting the Five CAGED Forms

Starting on C

Starting on A

Starting on G

Starting on E

Starting on D

Sample CAGED Chord Changes

Playing Minor CAGED Forms

Playing the C minor form

Playing the A minor form

Playing the G minor form

Playing the E minor form

Playing the D minor form

Connecting the Five Minor CAGED Forms

Minor CAGED Chord Changes

Chapter 5: Adding Chord Tones and Extensions to Chords

About Chord Tones and Extensions

Adding 7ths to the Major Scale Chords

Playing major and minor 7th chords

Playing dominant 7th chords

Playing minor 7th flat 5 chords

Working with 2nds and 9ths

Sus2 chords

Add9 chords

Minor chords with 2nds and 9ths

9th chords

Working with 4ths and 11ths

Sus4 chords

Add4 chords

Playing 6th Chords and Blues Shuffles

Adding Harmony with Pedal Point

Playing Pedal Tones with Two Guitars

Part III: Getting to Know Keys, Modes, and Chord Progressions

Chapter 6: Playing Chord Progressions by Numbers

Drawing Chord Progressions from the Major Scale

Using Roman Numerals to Represent Chords

Visualizing Numbers on the Fretboard

Transposing to New Keys

Playing Common Chord Progressions

Playing I-IV-V chord progressions

Playing major chord progressions

Adding minor chords ii, iii, and vi

Playing minor chord progressions

Starting Numbers on the 5th String

Playing Chord Progressions with Open Chords

Chapter 7: Knowing Music Inside Out: Identifying Tonics, Keys, and Modes

Understanding the Relationship between Major and Minor Scales

Numbering the Relative Minor

Accounting for any interval changes

Looking at a few minor key song examples

Identifying the Modes of the Major Scale

Ionian (I)

Dorian (ii)

Phrygian (iii)

Lydian (IV)

Mixolydian (V)

Aeolian (vi)

Locrian (viif5)

Key Signatures and Common Discrepancies

Looking past the key signature to figure out a song’s mode

Considering some common discrepancies in music notation

Comparing Scale Formulas and Structures

Chapter 8: Following Key Changes

Getting to Know Key Changes by Switching Tonics within a Scale

Switching between relative major and minor

Switching between other scale degrees

Transposing a Progression

Changing Key and Progression

Using Modal Interchange and Borrowed Chords

Playing modal interchanges

Playing minor modal interchanges

Using the Circle of Fifths for Circle Progressions

Applying the same circle to fourths

Seeing circle progressions in action

Chapter 9: Dominant Function and Voice Leading

Chord Function and the Dominant Chord

Leading with the leading tone

Tension rises with a tritone

Playing songs with dominant function

Secondary Dominants

Drawing attention to some common secondary dominants

Thinking of secondary dominants as mini key changes

Songs that use secondary dominants

Voice Leading

Chapter 10: Filling the Gaps with Passing Chords

Getting to Know Chromatic Passing Chords

Passing chords in blues

We gonna get funky

Chromatic ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Getting to Know Diminished Chords

Fingering diminished chord shapes

Playing diminished 7th chord inversions

Using diminished 7ths as passing chords

Substituting diminished 7th chords for dominant 7th chords

Playing Augmented Chords

Playing augmented chord inversions

Using augmented chords for dominant function

Using augmented chords in voice leading

Part IV: Playing Guitar Scales

Chapter 11: Preparing for Riffs and Solos with the Pentatonic Scale

Getting to Know the Pentatonic Scale

Covering the Fretboard with the Pentatonic Scale

Starting with pattern 1

Playing pentatonic pattern 2

Playing pentatonic pattern 3

Playing pentatonic pattern 4

Finishing up with pentatonic pattern 5

Connecting all the patterns

Using the Pentatonic Scale as Major and Minor

Playing the Pentatonic Scale in Other Keys

Playing in F minor and Af

Playing in Fs minor and A major

Playing in G minor and Bf major

Playing in Gs minor and B major and other keys

Playing in A minor and C major

Applying the Pentatonic Scale

Chapter 12: Playing Music’s Primary Melody Maker: The Major Scale

Getting Familiar with the Major Scale

Playing the Major Scale as Five Smaller Patterns

Breaking down the G major scale

Focusing on fingering

Connecting the five patterns to cover the whole fretboard

Practicing the Major Scale without Getting Bored

Playing along with accompaniment

Adding minor notes and patterns

Transposing the major scale to new keys

Applying the Major Scale

Playing Three-Notes-Per-String Patterns

Chapter 13: Playing in Modes and Using Modal Scale Patterns

Understanding Modes

Knowing how modal sounds are made

Remembering that modes are more than just patterns or starting positions

Playing Ionian Mode

Seeing and hearing Ionian mode in action

Using Ionian mode with the pentatonic scale

Playing Dorian Mode

Getting the Dorian details

Using Dorian mode with the pentatonic scale

Playing Phrygian Mode

Playing Lydian Mode

Playing Mixolydian Mode

Playing Aeolian Mode

Chapter 14: Exploring New Patterns with the Harmonic Minor Scale

Getting to Know the Harmonic Minor Scale

Raising the 7th scale degree

Identifying some harmonic minor chord progressions

Using Harmonic Minor within a Pentatonic Pattern

Adding a raised 7th to the pentatonic

Outlining the V7 chord

Completing the harmonic minor scale

Covering the Fretboard with Harmonic Minor Scale Patterns

Picking out patterns

Focusing on fingering

Practice, practice, practice!

Transposing the harmonic minor scale to new keys

Playing in a Harmonic Minor Mode

Getting to Know the Melodic Minor Scale

Using Harmonic Minor in Dorian Mode

Chapter 15: Playing the Blues

Recognizing Blues Elements in Popular Music

Playing Over a Blues V7 Chord

Playing the dominant scale

Using the major and minor pentatonic

Mixing up the scale options

Tackling Whole Chord Progressions with the Twelve-Bar Blues

Switching dominant scales

Sticking with minor pentatonic

Using a major pentatonic scale

Changing pentatonic scales on each chord

Playing the Blues Scale

Part V: Part of Tens

Chapter 16: Ten Guitar Songs Worth Learning

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd

“La Bamba” by Los Lobos

“Jack and Diane” by John Mellencamp

“Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

“With or Without You” by U2

“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

“Smooth” by Santana

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream

“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms

Chapter 17: Ten Sample Scale Applications











Chapter 18: Tens Ways to Put Theory into Practice

Learn and Analyze Songs

Play Along with Songs

Record and Listen to Yourself

Become a Super Looper

Play with Others

Play Out

Practice a Little and Play a Lot

Study More Music Theory Resources

Set Reasonable, Realistic Goals

Have a Good Time All the Time

Appendix: Audio Tracks and Video Clips

About the Author

Cheat Sheet

Connect with Dummies

End User License Agreement


Music theory is the study of how music works. Guitar theory focuses on understanding music from a guitar player’s perspective. Makes sense, right? With a good working knowledge of guitar theory, including the use of scales, chords, progressions, modes, and more, you can easily figure out why a song is put together the way it is and how you can improvise and compose your own music.

About This Book

This book aims to explain how you can play popular music on the guitar fretboard, as well as why certain elements of music go together the way they do. Specifically, it covers what types of scale patterns guitarists use and how they form chords, assemble chord progressions, and apply modes.

Note: By popular music, I mean the types of songs you regularly hear on Top 40 and classic rock radio stations, including music by Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Guns N’ Roses, Dave Matthews Band, and U2, just to name a few. Throughout this book, you discover important details of songs like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Purple Haze,” “Tears in Heaven,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “With or Without You,” and many more.

Instead of taking a traditional approach to music theory, which usually emphasizes reading and writing standard musical notation, this book takes a hands-on approach that emphasizes playing on the guitar fretboard and using guitar tablature and neck diagrams. For example, it shows you how to play scale patterns used for riffing and jamming guitar music, as well as how to build the same chord shapes on the fretboard that famous guitarists use. It also shows you how to play through common chord progressions that you hear in the most popular radio hits. Perhaps most importantly, though, it explains how all these components work together.

With the primary focus being on scales, chords, and progressions, this book doesn’t cover much in the way of note reading, rhythm, and technique. It also doesn’t teach many of the classic music theory terms and concepts that are normally part of a formal music curriculum. So although you may not be able to pass a music theory exam at a music school after reading this book, you will know how familiar guitar songs are put together and how you can compose and improvise songs on your own.

Rhythm and technique are very important to good guitar playing, but these topics fall outside the scope of this book. If you’re new to guitar, you can train your fingers to become a lean, mean guitar-playing machine by working with Guitar For Dummies, Guitar Exercises For Dummies, Rock Guitar For Dummies, Blues Guitar For Dummies, and Classical Guitar For Dummies (all written by Mark Phillips and/or Jon Chappell and published by Wiley). You can also learn about basic rhythms by working with a beginner-level note-reading course like Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method, Hal Leonard Guitar Method, or anything else that is similar.

Here’s what sets this book apart from other guitar resource materials:

check.png The practicality and efficiency of the content: If you don’t need to know a certain topic or technique to play guitar and understand popular music, I don’t present it here. On the flip side, I cover many concepts that don’t typically show up in traditional music theory courses but that are important for guitar players to learn.

check.png The number of familiar song references: Say goodbye to learning abstract ideas without knowing how they apply to the music you know and love! I refer to some of the most popular songs and famous guitarists of all time in the pages that follow.

As you work your way through this book, keep in mind that sidebars and Technical Stuff icons are skippable. A few other things to note are

check.png All the information applies to both acoustic and electric guitar unless otherwise noted.

check.png I use six-string guitars and standard tuning in all examples and figures unless otherwise noted.

check.png You can apply much of the information in the book to bass guitar, too.

check.png I use a right-hander’s perspective throughout the book.

check.png You have to look up and practice popular song references on your own. I don’t include the music here.

Within this book, you may note that some web addresses break across two lines of text. If you’re reading this book in print and want to visit one of these web pages, simply key in the web address exactly as it’s noted in the text, pretending that the line break doesn’t exist. If you’re reading this as an e-book, you have it easy — just click the web address to go directly to the web page.

Foolish Assumptions

Before you dive in, I need to make one thing clear right now: This book is not for beginners! It’s for guitar players who already know the basics and can play but who want to take their knowledge and skills to the next level. Perhaps you’ve been playing for years but have never really understood what you’re doing. Whatever the case may be, to get the full benefit of this book, you need to know and be able to play and read the following:

check.png Open chords and open chord songs

check.png Power chords and power chord songs

check.png Barre chords and barre chord songs

check.png Some melodies, riffs, and simple solos

check.png Guitar tab and neck diagrams

You don’t need to be an expert on these concepts; you just need a working knowledge of them. You don’t have to know how to read standard musical notation, either, because tablature is the preferred notation method here. If you still need to learn the basics and acquire the skills I list here, I suggest you start with Guitar For Dummies, by Mark Phillips and Jon Chappell (Wiley).

Icons Used in This Book

In order to highlight different types of information, I’ve marked certain paragraphs with the following icons:

tip.eps This icon points out tips, tricks, shortcuts, and more that make your life as a guitar player a little easier.

remember.eps This icon points out especially important concepts that you don’t want to miss or forget.

technicalstuff.eps This icon highlights technical information (go figure!) that you can skip if you’re short on time (or if you just want to focus on the need-to-know stuff).

playthis.eps This icon points out the audio tracks and video clips I’ve recorded to illustrate various scales, patterns, and so on throughout the book.

Beyond the Book

As if all the great information in this book weren’t enough, you can go beyond the book for even more!

I've recorded numerous audio tracks and video clips so that you can view and listen to various scale patterns, chord progressions, and more throughout the book. Go to to access these files.

Also be sure to check out the free Cheat Sheet at for all sorts of super-handy info, including a fretboard diagram showing notes along the 6th and 5th strings, sample major scale patterns, a chart of Roman numerals and the scale degrees and major/minor chord qualities they represent, and mode names.

Where to Go from Here

As with all For Dummies books, you don’t have to read this book from beginning to end. You can certainly try starting anywhere you like. However, because musical concepts build on top of one another, you won’t be able to fit all the pieces together and see the big picture until after you’ve completed most of the chapters. That being said, I suggest starting with Chapters 1 and 2 in Part I. From there you can decide whether you want to focus more on chords or scales. If you’re primarily a rhythm guitar player, you may find Parts II and III the most useful. If you’re primarily a lead guitarist, you may want to focus on Part IV.

As you work through this book, work with each concept one at a time. Take breaks from the text to practice and rehearse what you read about. Your goal is to commit every skill to both your mental memory and your hand memory before reading on and playing more. You may learn some concepts after only a few minutes of practice; others may take hours. Take as much time as you need to practice playing and rehearsing the topics I cover here. This isn’t a race. Enjoy the process and make everything stick — that is, work with the concepts until they become a permanent part of your playing.

Remember: It's not enough to play a new chord shape or scale pattern off a page in this book. You need to play each shape or pattern in context (that is, in actual songs) to really understand what to do with it. That's why I reference so many songs throughout this book. You don't need to look up and learn every single song I mention, but try to play through a few examples every time you learn a new concept. You don't have to learn every song in its entirety, either. If I reference a song because it features a guitar riff using a particular scale, then just focus on playing that riff. If my focus is on the chord progression, then just play through the chord changes. (If you're not sure where to find the music for a given song referenced in the text, check out,, or


Go to to access Wiley’s ebook EULA.

Part I

Getting Started with Guitar Theory


pt_webextra_bw.TIF For Dummies can help you get started with lots of subjects. Visit www.­ to learn more and do more with For Dummies.

In this part . . .

check  Discover exactly what guitar theory is and why it’s so valuable to learn. See how focusing on elements of popular music and familiar songs can help you better apply theory to your own music. Prepare yourself to play scales, chords, progressions, modes, and more.

check  Get familiar with a guitarist’s perspective and a hands-on approach to music theory. See how the fretboard is a grid and get to know the basic concepts, such as intervals, whole steps, half steps, flats, and sharps, that all guitarists use to find their way around the fretboard. Visualize shapes and patterns on the neck. Explore the benefits of using guitar tablature and neck diagrams over standard musical notation.

Chapter 1

Guitar Theory in a Nutshell

In This Chapter

arrow Understanding why guitar theory is important

arrow Getting to know the fretboard with the help of guitar tabs and neck diagrams

arrow Surveying the different scales guitarists need to know

arrow Building chords and chord progressions

arrow Access the audio and video at

So you want to find out more about guitar theory? Well, you’ve come to the right place. This chapter gives you a quick overview of guitar theory and explains why this information is so useful for guitar players to know. It also introduces you to some of the elements you’ll encounter throughout this book, like guitar tabs, neck diagrams, scales, and chords. Be sure to take the quiz at the end of this chapter to see what you already know about guitar theory. Then dive in to the rest of the book to find out what you don’t know.

playthis.eps To hear an audio example that explains why guitar theory is so important and demonstrates the sound of some of the material presented throughout this book, listen to Audio Track 1.

Why Learn Guitar Theory?

Music theory is the study of music — how it’s written, notated, discussed, thought of, and played. As you may have already guessed, guitar theory is the study of how music theory specifically applies to the guitar fretboard. It usually focuses on how the different components of songs, such as scales, chords, and progressions, fit together to create something great. Guitar theory is a topic best suited for players at the intermediate level and above who already know the basics of playing chords and who want to take their knowledge to the next level and learn to navigate the fretboard like the pros.

You can study music from many different angles. For instance, you can study notation, technique, rhythms, scales, chord construction . . . the list goes on and on. While all musical topics have their benefits, scales, chords, and progressions top the list of must-knows for guitarists. After all, every guitarist, beginner to advanced, strums chords, follows progressions, and plays melodies, riffs, solos, and bass lines with scales.

But what’s the point of learning all this theory stuff? Can’t you just randomly plunk away on your guitar and progress to guitar-hero status with enough practice? Well, I suppose that if you’re blessed with enough raw talent, you can probably go pretty far without learning much about music. As for the rest of us, though, we need to put some thought and effort into learning about guitar theory to get what we want out of playing.

If you’ve ever heard a player who seems to know what’s coming next the first time through a song, you’ve seen what understanding a little theory can do. Knowing how music is composed before you start learning a new song can help you pick up on that song a whole lot quicker. And if you want to improvise, compose, or just understand the music you play better, you need to know the theory behind it. Plus, learning about music can be as enjoyable as playing it.

Navigating the Fretboard

Guitar players navigate the fretboard in a few ways. First, they know the location of some key notes. For example, they often know the notes along the 6th and 5th strings well and use them to track chord shapes and scale patterns. Second, they identify notes on other strings by tracing them to the 6th and 5th strings with simple octave shapes. I cover these notes and octave shapes in detail in Chapter 2; here, I introduce you to the fretboard with neck diagrams and guitar tabs.

Seeing the fretboard as a grid

Remember when you had to match shapes in kindergarten? Now you can put that skill to good use. With the way that guitar strings and frets run perpendicular to each other and the way that they’re all numbered, the fretboard is like a grid. Instead of concentrating on the pitches and note names of the scales and chords you play, focus on how they fit into the grid.

Everything you play on your guitar makes a shape or pattern. You get to know important relationships in music by arranging and connecting these shapes and patterns. This grid-like arrangement is what separates the guitar from other instruments such as the piano and is why you don’t need to know how to read standard musical notation to develop a good working knowledge of guitar theory. Instead, you focus on the fretboard by using guitar tablature and neck diagrams.

Viewing neck diagrams

Neck diagrams are a great way to map out chord shapes and scale patterns. They allow you to see a bird’s-eye view of the guitar neck. Figure 1-1 shows three vertical neck diagram examples. For each diagram, you’re looking at the face of the fretboard straight up and down. Here’s what you see in each diagram:

check.png The first diagram shows a sample G major scale pattern with the letters representing the notes.

check.png The second diagram shows a G major barre chord shape with the numbers representing fingerings.

check.png The third diagram shows a combination of both, with all the circles representing the scale pattern and the black dots specifically outlining the barre chord. Also, in this example the numbers represent neither notes nor fingerings but rather intervals (which you get to know in Chapter 2).

The numbers to the left of each diagram indicate fret numbers: 3fr. is short for 3rd fret, 5fr. is short for 5th fret, and 7fr. is short for 7th fret.

Figure 1-2 shows the same examples as Figure 1-1 but this time in a horizontal neck diagram format. Here, you’re looking at the face of the fretboard longways and upside down. The top line represents the 1st string, and the bottom line represents the 6th string. This is how you see the guitar neck when you hold a guitar to play it and lean over to view the fretboard in your hands. Notice that the fret numbers appear below the horizontal diagrams.

As you see, a lot of information can be displayed in fretboard diagrams from scales to chords, notes to intervals, fingerings to shapes. Diagrams can be displayed vertically or horizontally. You see diagrams used in all these ways throughout the book.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-1: Vertical neck diagram examples.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-2: Horizontal neck diagram examples.

Reading guitar tablature

Reading music is a skill that requires a lot of study and practice; not to mention, standard music notation only indicates pitches. Because you can play most pitches in several different positions on the neck, and because many of the presentations in this book focus on specific positions, shapes, and patterns, you want to know exactly where to place your fingers for certain pitches. That’s where guitar tabs come in handy. Guitar tablature, or tab for short, is a number system that indicates exactly where to place your fingers on the fretboard. If you can count the strings and frets on your guitar, then you can instantly read tab. Tab is especially handy for writing out examples that you want to play in series, like a scale pattern or a set of chord changes. I use a neck diagram to illustrate what a scale looks like as a pattern and tab to show you how to ascend and descend through the notes of the scale in the proper order.

In Figure 1-3, you see three chords written in standard musical notation. If you know how to read music, then you can easily find these pitches in the first position on the guitar.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-3: Three notes in standard musical notation.

In Figure 1-4, you see the same three chords in tab. Notice that you can now see two important things that you couldn’t see in standard notation:

check.png These chords aren’t all played in the 1st position.

check.png These chords are all based on the very same shape moved up two frets at a time.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-4: Three notes in guitar tab.

In Figure 1-5, you see the same chords again but this time with a more complex rhythm. In this case, it’s useful to have both forms of notation. Most guitar players look at the tab to finger and fret the notes and look at the music to count the rhythms.

Reading notation and counting rhythms are beyond the scope of this book. But in case you already know how to read music a bit, throughout the book, I occasionally combine the two when I think doing so is helpful. If I don’t include music and rhythms, though, it means that they’re unimportant and you should just focus on the tab.

Figure 1-6, shows an example of slash notation, which I use when you need to play chord changes in time but not in any specific position or voicing. Usually slash notation includes only very basic rhythm marks, allowing you to fill the bar any way you see fit (called comping). With this type of notation, chord symbols appear above the staff. Some forms of slash notation don’t include note stems like you see in my example, only slashes, hence the name.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-5: A combi-nation of standard musical notation and guitar tab.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-6: Slash notation.

In Figure 1-7, you see an example of rhythmic notation, a method that specifies an exact rhythm in which to play or comp the indicated chords. You don’t need to be able to read standard musical notation or rhythmic notations in this book, but I occasionally include them anyway in case you find them helpful.


Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

Figure 1-7: Rhythmic notation.

Playing Scales

A scale is a series of notes played one at a time in an ascending or descending fashion. Guitarists use scales to play melodies, riffs, lead guitar solos, and bass lines. Different types of scales make different patterns on the fretboard that you have to learn and practice. In popular music, the two most commonly used types of scales are the pentatonic scale and the major scale. From the major scale come modes. The harmonic minor is one more type of scale that’s useful for guitar players to know.

Pentatonic scale

Pentatonic scales are derived from major scales. As the name implies, the pentatonic is a five-tone scale. Because the pentatonic has fewer tones than do major scales (which have seven), its patterns are easier to finger and play on the fretboard. The simple box-shape patterns that the pentatonic scale makes on the fretboard are ideal for getting started with riffing and jamming. Plus, many of the most recognizable guitar riffs of all time are based in pentatonic patterns. Popular pentatonic songs include “My Girl” by The Temptations and “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. For these reasons, guitar players often learn pentatonic scale patterns first. You get started with this scale in Chapter 11.

Major scale

Guitarists use major scales to riff and jam, too. The more melodic a line is, the more likely it is to use a seven-tone major scale. Think “Joy to the World,” which is simply a descending major scale. You hear something similar in the opening to “Friend of the Devil” by Grateful Dead and the chorus to “Wild World” by Cat Stevens.

In addition to using the major scale to play melody, guitarists use it to measure intervals, build triads and chords, add chord tones and extensions, chart chord progressions, and determine keys. You could say that everything is drawn from the major scale or relates to it in some way. For this reason, I introduce basic major scale patterns as early as Chapter 2 and use them to help explain fretboard navigation, chords, progressions, and keys throughout Parts I, II and III. You work on covering the whole fretboard with major scales for playing riffs and solos in Chapter 12. Major scale patterns also make minor scales and all the modes.


Perhaps no other musical topic generates more intrigue and confusion than modes. But the concept is so simple that most musicians miss it. Modes are all the different types of scales that the major scale makes when you change the starting point and pitch center in the scale. This includes the minor scale and also all the modal scales that have Greek names such as Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and so on. Far from being an advanced or exotic concept, most music is in some type of mode, and properly identifying a song’s mode is critical to understanding its composition and construction. You don’t learn new scale patterns to play modes. The modal concept is all based on key centers and how major scale patterns are applied. You get to know both aspects of modes in Chapters 7 and 13.

Harmonic minor scale

The harmonic minor scale is an altered minor scale that plays a very important role in music. Its primary purpose is to create a dominant 7th chord that pulls to a minor tonic, a very strong harmonic resolution. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, don’t worry! I tell you all about dominant function in Chapter 9 and the harmonic minor scale in Chapter 14. In the meantime, listen to “Smooth” by Santana to get in on the action.

Working with Chords

Chords are built from groups of three notes called triads. Understanding how to use the major scale to build triads and recognizing the resultant sequence of major and minor chords are two extremely important aspects to music. You work with triads by stacking the major scale in 3rds in Chapter 3. The information in Chapter 3 then becomes the basis for the remaining chapters on chords and progressions.

CAGED chord system

You can play literally thousands of different chord shapes on the fretboard, but most of them can be traced back to just five common open forms. These forms are C, A, G, E, and D. Together they make up what’s called the guitar CAGED chord system, which includes arpeggio patterns, chord inversions, and various chord voicings. In Chapter 4, you move up basic open position chords and convert them into barre chord shapes. You then break these barre chords into a variety of other forms that are common in popular music.

Adding chord tones and extensions

In addition to using plain major and minor chords, guitarists add other scale tones to triads to create chords like Cmaj7, Dm7, Gsus4, and Fadd9. See Chapter 5 for more details.

Passing chords

Other types of chords, called passing chords, don’t stem from the major scale at all. They sound very unusual on their own but create nice voice leading when placed in between the right chord changes. You get to know these types of chords in Chapter 10.

Charting chord progressions

You’ve probably heard musicians calling out numbers on the bandstand, right? “One . . . four . . . five . . . ” — well, get ready to find out what those numbers mean. The numbers refer to the scale degrees and chords that the music cycles through. Recognizing chord movement and playing by numbers can help you chart and remember songs better, which, in turn, enables you to apply scales properly, play by ear, and compose your own music.

Musicians often refer to a chord progression by the way it moves numerically through a scale or pattern rather than by its actual pitches. Fortunately, playing chord progressions and playing by numbers go hand in hand, and the whole concept is easier on the guitar than most other instruments. In Chapters 3 and 6, you use major scales to build chords and map out numbered patterns on the neck. These chord patterns are the basis for most chord progressions used in popular music.

Testing Your Guitar Theory Knowledge

Are you ready to get started? Here’s a short quiz to help put your musical gears into motion. If you don’t know the answers now, don’t worry; you will after you work through this book.

1. What’s the difference between a major 3rd and a minor 3rd?

2. What do a root, a 3rd, and a 5th make?

3. Which two chord shapes does Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards favor?

4. In chords like Gmaj7, Asus4, and Dadd9, what do the numbers mean?

5. If you had to play chords I, IV, and V in the key of G, what chords would you play?

6. In which mode is “Oye Como Va” by Santana?

7. What does it mean to “borrow” a chord?

8. Fill in the blank: V7 leads to _____.

9. I’m thinking of a type of chord that sounds unusable on its own but perfect in between the right chord changes. What is it?

10. What are the two primary types of scale patterns used in popular music?

11. True or False: Modes are scales with their own unique patterns.

12. What do you call a natural minor scale with a raised 7th?

13. In what way do blues players break the rules of traditional harmony?

14. How do you play licks and phrases and develop your own style?


1. One fret (Chapter 2) 2. Major triad/chord (Chapter 3) 3. A form and C form (Chapter 4)4. They’re added scale degrees/intervals. (Chapter 5) 5. G, C, and D (Chapter 6) 6. Dorian mode (Chapter 7) 7. To combine chords from two different scales that both center on the same tonic pitch (Chapter 8) 8. I (Chapter 9) 9. Passing, diminished, or augmented chord (Chapter 10) 10. Pentatonic and major (Chapters 11 and 12) 11. False: Modes are based on major scale patterns. (Chapter 13) 12. Harmonic minor scale (Chapter 14) 13. They use minor pentatonic scales over major chords. (Chapter 15) 14. Learn songs! (Chapters 16 and 17)