The Basics Of Guitar Music

Part I: The physics of sound, your guitar and theory of music in a nutshell

“…Stevie was right here with me, studying me as I studied the music. That’s how we both learned to play. Off the records. No reading, no writing, no training. All by ear.”
- Jimmie Vaughan on Being Born Into The Blues [1]

You don’t need to know all the following stuff, but maybe it helps you to understand your guitar and the music a bit better.

Music theory can be very complex. I’ll try to keep it short and easy, but still correct – from a physical point of view.

Content

The Guitar

At first let’s take a short look at your guitar to name the main parts:

Guitar parts

Tones


Back to the music. Music consists of different tones. To hear a tone, the medium around us (normally air, except you’re a diver or astronaut) must transport vibrations from the source to your eardrum (in a vacuum you won’t hear anything, apart from you would feel a little strange. So “space guitar” looks nice, but no one can hear it!). These vibrations can be generated very nice for example (what a coincidence) by a guitar string, which compresses and expands the air around it when picked. The vibrations spread like waves. (Physicists call them “mechanical longitudinal pressure waves”).

String

If you plot the intensity of pressure (P) versus time (t) you get a sine function:

Sinus


Two things of this wave are characteristic:
The number of peaks per seconds and the peak height.

The number of peaks per second gives the frequency or tone pitch. The more vibrations per second, the higher the tone. This is directly comparable to our guitar string, which also looks like a sine function: open strings have always a lower tone than pressed strings.
The peak height (amplitude) gives the volume of the tone. The harder you pick, the sooner your neighbors will ring at your door.

Remember:
Frequency = tone pitch
Amplitude = volume

Now pick the A string and listen. If tuned correctly, it will vibrate 110 times per second (abbreviated Hertz, HZ. 1 HZ = 1 vibration/second). The other strings vibrate at (rounded):
82.4 HZ (low E-string), 146.8 (D), 196 (G), 246.9 (B), 329.6 (high E).

Short exercise:
 What's the wavelength of the 440 HZ A tone?
 Wavelength = Speed/Frequency
 Sound speed in air is about 345 m/s
 (1088 ft/s in the USA...)
 So the wavelength is 345 m/s / 440 1/s  = 0,784 m
 Remember: this is not the length of the string!

Depending on your age and number of visited Cream life concerts, your ear will hear tones from 40 HZ up to 16000 HZ, some people say 16 – 20000 HZ (some people also say they’ve got all Clapton records). Deeper tones (below 40 HZ) are perceived more through your body than through your ear. Higher tones will only produce headaches. A guitar has a range from 82.4 HZ to 880 HZ (from the open lower E string to the 17th fret of the higher E string, with harmonics you can get even higher). A cat can hear up to 85000 HZ, elephants below 5 HZ. But they usually don’t play guitar.

Frequencies

Electric guitar
The tone from an electric guitar is a little bit different. As long as you play it “dry”, it’s an acoustic instrument. When you plug in and pump up the volume, you don’t hear your guitar directly. Instead of this the vibration of the guitar strings (must be metal, nylon doesn’t work) generates an electric current in the coil(s) of the pickup. This current also has a wave form, is amplified by your Fender Twin Amp or Marshall 4×100 Combo and converted back to acoustic waves by the speaker.
All other things I discuss here (harmonics etc.) are the same for acoustic and electric guitar. With the electric guitar (and amplified acoustic) you just get some more (electrical) methods to change your sound, like distortion, wah-wah and feedback.
Back to our guitar. The open A string has a frequency of 110 HZ, no matter how hard you pick it. This frequency is a headstone of music, it’s defined as an A and has a fixed position on standard notation. Now play the same string, pressed down at the 12th fret. Notice that the 12th fret is in the middle of the string. The tone sounds very similar to our first, only higher. You know it already ? – it’s also an A. The shorter a string, the higher the frequency and tone pitch. Pressing down the string at the 12 fret will halve the effective string. The frequency now is exactly 220 HZ – just twice of the open string. This tone interval (12 frets on our guitar, frequency ratio 1:2 physically) is called an octave. Other intervals are: small minor third (7:6), minor third (6:5), major third (5:4), fourth (4:3) and fifth (3:2). This series continues to infinity, but only a few of these notes have a correlation to the 12 tones we commonly use.

The length of a string isn’t the only thing that determines the frequency. The tension of the string also affects the tone pitch: the more you stretch, the higher the tone. This physical property is very useful for Blues guitar: it is used for string bending and vibrato. And of course to tune your axe.

Another property which affects the frequency is diameter of the string. If all strings would have the same diameter, your guitar would be unplayable – the tension of the strings would differ from totally loose to over-tight. So the bass strings have a greater diameter than the melody strings.

Harmonics

Now it’s getting more complex. When you pick a string, it doesn’t vibrate at only one frequency. It generates a whole set of frequencies called harmonics or overtones, the open string is called the 1st harmonic:

harmonics

The open A string with a frequency of 110 HZ (“concert A”) has overtones which include several octaves (110 HZ, 220 HZ, 440 HZ, …) If you have a tuning fork or whistle for the A tone, it has a frequency of 440 HZ. You get this tone normally at the 5th fret of the high E-string. Among the overtones of the open A string, vibrating at 110 HZ, is also the 440 HZ overtone. That means you can use this to fine tune the A string with this tuning device.

Harmonics are an essential part of your guitar sound. If you mute a string for example, you get another sound by changing the harmonics. When you play with a pick, you get another sound than with fingerstyle: a pick generates more of the higher harmonics, a fingertip more of the lower harmonics. You can use this to change your sound, use your fingers for a deep Delta Blues and a pick for a cool Chicago sound. Also the place where you pick the string is important – just compare picking in the middle of the string (more deep harmonics) and picking it near the bridge (lot’s of overtones). Also the kind of string material (nylon or metal) affects the overtones.

If you play electric guitar, there’s another problem: if you play the 4th harmonic (5th fret), you get a non-vibrating node over the neck pickup. That means, you can’t hear it unless the middle or bridge pickup is activated. This is also the reason why a bridge pickup gives another sound than a neck pickup: the neck pickup (the one EC preferred during Cream) sounds fat (more lower harmonics) while the bridge pickup sounds more twangy due to the higher harmonics. Combined with a single coil pickup it gives the typical Strat sound.

You can also force a harmonic by suppressing the vibration of the open string. To get the second harmonic of a string, press down the string slightly at the 12 fret (or use a slide). Don’t press the string directly on the fretboard! Now pick carefully – the string vibrates on both sides of the 12th fret. In this case there’s not much difference to the normal tone, because both have the same wavelength. Now try the same at 5th and then at the 7th fret: You hear a very light, sweet tone. And the tone at the 5th fret is higher than the tone at the 7th! What happens? Your finger mutes the 1st harmonic (or 2nd, 3rd… depending on the position), so that only the higher harmonics can vibrate:

flageolet

(if your finger really looks like this, you should consult a doctor)

Sound example: harmonic d-string, open + 5th fret

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There are only a few positions on the fretboard where you can hear this (the “nodes“). You can try it out or calculate them (1/2 length of the string, 1/3 (7th fret), 2/3, 1/4 (5th fret), 3/4 etc.). Pick the string near the bridge to get a better sound. And, by the way, now you know why it’s essential to mute the strings on the not-picked side when you play slide guitar – they would also vibrate and produce an (unwanted) noise.

Some definitions (vary a bit, harmonics are also called flageolets):

  • natural harmonic: using an open string and touching the string lightly at a node.
  • artificial harmonic: doing the above with a pressed string (1 hand for fretting, the other for picking and muting, not easy).
  • tapped harmonic: fret a note with the left hand, then tap (short!) the fret exactly one octave higher with the right hand.
  • and there are other, special ones (pinch or pick, touch etc.), which are variations of the above (with/without pick etc.)

Some guidelines on harmonics:

  • harmonics on the 12th fret are one octave higher than the open string
  • harmonics on the 5th fret are two octaves higher than the open string
  • harmonics on the 7th fret are one octave higher than the string pressed down at the 7th fret
  • The harmonic on the 5th fret of the low E string is unison to the high E string (329.6 HZ)

Guitar tuning

There are several methods to tune your guitar, divided in two basic principles: tuning with equal and tuning with just intonation.

Equal intonation

The most common tuning for equal intonation is called unison tuning. The procedure is:
Get an E from a tuning device to tune the E-string and then tune the A string while pressing the (low) E-string down at the 5th fret. Then tune the D string and the others in a similar way like

E I---------------0----I
B I------------0--5----I
G I---------0--4-------I
D I------0--5----------I
A I---0--5-------------I
E I---5----------------I

Sound example: very basic tuning, need some adjustments…

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I you have a tuning fork (a very stable tuning device!) it is most likely producing an A with 440 HZ. This A on our guitar is on the 5th fret of the high E-string or the harmonic produced at the 5th fret of the A-string. You can also use this to check if the tuning is OK. Use only octave harmonics for equal intonation. The best way to tune your guitar is a fine tuning in the key and scale you are using. A guitar is not physically perfect!
Another way to tune or check the tuning is the octave tuning (self-explanatory):

E I---------------7----I
B I------------8--0----I
G I---------7--0-------I
D I------7--0----------I
A I---7--0-------------I
E I---0----------------I

Equal tuning is the common tuning in western (not only country *grin*) music and is also used for piano and keyboards.

Just intonation

Just intonation can be achieved by using the natural harmonics (1/2, 2/3, 3/4, …) of a string using flageolets (5f means flageolet on 5th fret):

E I-------------------7f---0---I
B I---------------5f--5f-------I
G I-----------7f--4f-----------I
D I-------7f--5f---------------I
A I---7f--5f-------------------I
E I---5f-------------------5f--I

The overtones are:

Fundamental: open string
1st overtone (frequency x 2): 12th fret (1/2 string length)
2nd overtone (frequency x 3): 7th fret (1/3 string length)
3rd overtone (frequency x 4): 5th fret (1/4 string length)
4th overtone (frequency x 5): 4th fret (1/5 string length)

Listen carefully, you can hear very small differences in the tone pitch.
To be true, you can not play guitar in just intonation, because the frets are adjusted to give equal intonation (except you play slide or remove the frets). But other string instruments can be played this way (violin etc.) and a string orchestra tuned this way sounds very “beautiful”.

As long as we use octave harmonics, this method can be used for equal intonation “fine tuning” too. The only step that doesn’t fit is the 4f/5f tuning of the G/B string, because the 4th overtone harmonic is not exactly above the 4th fret of our guitar.

Why are equal and just intonation different?

The equal tempered scale is a mathematical derived scale, the just tempered uses the natural harmonics (the scale using ratios of whole numbers like 1:2, 2:3 etc. is named “Pythagorean diatonic scale”).

The just intonation gets problems when changing from one key to another. If you start with our 440 HZ A, you get the frequency of 495 HZ (9/8) for B. If you calculate the same note starting with C (261.63 HZ) you get 496.68 HZ (243/128). That’s not fine. So the musicians decided to use a mathematical 12 tone scale, based upon the 440 HZ A and spreading the error over the scale. Every note gets a little bit out of tune, not much at all, and all instruments tuned this way can play together, regardless of the key.

Notes

The frequencies between an octave have special names, the notes. Looking at the fretboard we see 12 frets for an octave, that means 12 different notes we can use. If we use them all, we have a “chromatic” scale, all intervals are similar: one semitone. Since all intervals are the same, it’s boring and almost useless for normal playing. Instead of using all notes we only use a part of them, this set of notes is called a scale. There are two common types of scales, those containing 7 notes per octave (called heptatonic) and those containing 5 notes per octave (called pentatonic). We need this to understand how the notes got their weird names.

It could have been easy if these 12 notes were just named 1,2,3, … or A, B, C, … . Instead of this (we love it complicated), the notes are named by the notes of the C major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B.

This major scale (NOT the major pentatonic scale we use in Blues music) is the “mother” of all scales in western music. The notes “between”, which do not belong to the C major scale, get an additional sign: a # (sharp, means up a half step or semitone) or a b (flat, means down a half step or semitone). So all the 12 notes (in other words the chromatic scale) in half steps beginning with (for example) A are named:

A – A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G#

Note that not all notes get an additional #.
This is also the sequence of notes on the A string of our guitar from the open string to the 12th fret.

This naming works fine for “stupid” piano and keyboard players:
white keys A-B-C-…, black keys A#-C#, … They really can see the scale!
For us guitar players it’s not that easy. It’s getting even worse: The notes can also be named with the b, so that the notes have two names: A# is the same note as Bb, C# is the same as Db. These notes are called “enharmonic“: Same pitch, different names.

So the chromatic scale beginning with A can also be named like

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

(Flats are usually used if you go down a scale, sharps if you go up). To continue strictly: E# is the same as F, Cb is the same as B. C## is D, Fbb is Eb. If you have a dim7 chord (we’ll need it later), the last note is a 7bb, which is a 6. And, to complete the confusion, in some European countries the B is named H and Bb is named B. Stupid world.

To find the notes on the fretboard, the following scheme may help (some dots on the fretboard help you to navigate):

Fretboard scheme with notes

Intervals

More important than the note itself is the interval, the difference in pitch between the notes. This determines the tonality, color or mood or whatever you may call it. They have also special names – and yes, right you are, the names are also awful. They are based on the major scale: from one letter to another we have one step. But the problem is that this step can consist of a different number of semitones: from A to B is a second, called major (=big) second, from A to Bb is also a second, called minor (=small) second. If we go from C to F we have a fourth (C,D,E,F). Now we have 3 possible (fourth) intervals: from C to F it’s a perfect fourth, from C# to F is a diminished (= reduced) fourth and finally from C to F# is an augmented (=enlarged) fourth. That’s again confusing, especially because the same number of semitones can get different names.

Why is it called diminished fifth, not minor fifth? Both terms mean lowering an interval. If you flatten perfect intervals (unison, fourth, fifth and octave) by one semitone, the result isn’t called minor but diminished. Perfect intervals got their names because they sound perfect due to their frequency relation, an octave also can always be divided into a fourth and a fifth. They always invert to another perfect interval. When you invert a perfect fourth, for example C – F, it becomes a perfect fifth: F – C. On the other hand, a minor interval is any interval that inverts into a major interval and a major interval is any one that inverts into a minor interval. Finally, an augmented interval inverts into a diminished interval, and a diminished interval inverts into an augmented interval. If there was a minor fifth, let’s say C – Gb, it would convert into Gb – C, which is – an augmented fourth! So there’s no minor fifth.

Below is a table of it with the notes from the minor Blues scale marked bold:

Name Half steps
(Semitones)
Example Shortcut Enharmonic
(same interval, different name)
perfect unison 0 C – C P1 diminished second
minor second 1 C – Db m2 augmented unison
major second 2 C – D M2 diminished third
minor third 3 C – Eb m3 augmented second
major third 4 C – E M3 diminished fourth
perfect fourth 5 C – F P4 augmented third
diminished fifth (tritone) 6 C – Gb d5 augmented fourth, “blue note”
perfect fifth 7 C – G P5 diminished sixth
minor sixth 8 C – Ab m6 augmented fifth
major sixth 9 C – A M6 diminished seventh
minor seventh 10 C – Bb m7 augmented sixth
major seventh 11 C – B M7 diminished octave
perfect octave 12 C – C P8 augmented seventh

The sharp and flat signs are also often used to describe scales or chords using intervals: a 7b (also written b7) simply means the seventh note is lowered a semitone to a minor seventh, the correct shortcut would be m7.

So the intervals for the minor pentatonic are:
perfect unison – minor third – perfect fourth – perfect fifth – minor seventh
or
P1 – m3 – P4 – P5 – m7
or
1 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b7 (or 1 – 3b – 4 – 5 – 7b)
The “blue note” (described later in the Blues scales section) is a diminished fifth (d5).
Don’t ask me who named them – it wasn’t a chemist…

By the way…:
What is the definition of a minor second?
Two lead guitarists playing in unison.
How do you get two guitar players to play in perfect unison?
Shoot One.

Scales

The word scale is derived from the old Latin word scala, which means ladder. A scale is a kind of ladder, with the notes as steps, so you can go up and down. As already mentioned, we don’t use all 11 available notes to play a song. We build up a scale by using some notes of the chromatic scale, usually 5 for pentatonic or 7 for heptatonic (the most common) scales. If you have a piano or keyboard by hand, take a look at the keys: playing only the white keys means playing the diatonic C major scale starting with a C, playing only the black keys means playing the pentatonic scale. Try to find out what pentatonic scale it is and where it starts!

Don’t be confused about the numbers – sometimes the octave is included when counting, sometimes not. Including the octave a heptatonic scale (like the major diatonic scale) has 8 notes, the pentatonic scale 6 notes.

There are a huge number of different scales, and for a beginner it’s hard to follow. Each of these scales has a certain tonality or sound, determined only by the intervals – the number of steps, their order and size.
If you want to hear what we are talking about, use one string of your guitar to play a scale. You know already that a fret is equivalent to a semitone, so you can simply start playing all this stuff without learning scale patterns. Listen to the different sounds all these scales produce.

If you play classic Blues only all you need is the Blues scale, which is derived from the simple minor pentatonic scale. If you want to extend your playing and to understand why some chords can be played and others not, you should take a look at the other scales. If you know the basic scales of one key, you know the others also – the intervals between the notes are the same, and that’s the most important feature of a scale.

Let’s start with the “mother” of all scales: the C major scale C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (you should know now…).

Why doesn’t it all start with A like the alphabet?

The name of the notes is much older (ancient Greek) than the system of the scales and modes. During the Roman Empire these notes where named by the alphabet: A B C D … Later the system of the scales was developed and it came out that the ionian major scale without any sharps or flats was the C major scale. A piano keyboard starts with A and ends with C.

If you write it in intervals (semitones) within one octave it’s

   2      2    1   2      2      2    1
C-(Db)-D-(Eb)-E-F-(Gb)-G-(Ab)-A-(Bb)-B-C

or shortened 2-2-1-2-2-2-1. 7 intervals for the 8 notes of an octave (octa = 8).

Another way to understand it is to divide the scale into two parts, each containing 4 notes. This will give you

  2    2   1
C-Db-D-Eb-E-F
  2    2   1
G-Ab-A-Bb-B-C

So you get two parts with identical intervals. These intervals are important, the principle of the diatonic scales is build on it. Diatonic scales (introduced by Zarlino 1558, Greek: “progressing through tones”, also known as the “heptatonia prima”) are based on harmonious scale intervals, that means the octave is split into 7 notes with distinct half- and full-tone intervals, to be more precise: the scale must contain 2 semitone intervals per scale. The following table showing the C diatonic scale will help you to understand it better. The scale ratio is the frequency ratio of a note and its preceding note (example D: 297/264 = 9/8). The octave ratio are the smallest whole numbers that are proportional to the scale ratio and frequency (multiplied i.e. by 11 they give the frequencies of this table). The important tonal ratio is the frequency ratio of two consecutive notes. As you see there are only three different tonal ratios.

Scale Note Frequency [1/s] Octave Ratio Scale Ratio Tonal Ratio
C 264 24 1 -
D 297 27 9/8 8/9
E 330 30 5/4 9/10
F 352 32 4/3 15/16
G 396 36 3/2 8/9
A 440 40 5/3 9/10
B 495 45 15/8 8/9
C1 528 48 2 15/16

These semitone intervals determine if it’s a major or a minor scale. Normally you’ll hear the difference too – the “nice and happy” sound of a major scale compared to the “sad” sound of a minor scale. So there are two kinds of diatonic scales: major and minor. The diatonic major scale starts with the intervals 2-2-1. Pentatonic scales do not contain semitone intervals, so they are not diatonic scales (but they can be derived from diatonic scales by omitting some notes).

Unfortunately there are 3 different possible diatonic e minor scales, which all have in common that the intervals they start with are always 2-1-2 (tone, semitone, tone):

  • The natural minor scale (2-1-2-2-1-2-2). The most important one, derived from the 6th degree of the major scale (see below). Looking at the interval pattern you’ll see that is the same if you start at the 6th note: 2-2-1-2-2-start_here-2-1-2-2-1-2-2-stop_here-2-1-2-2-1-etc. This is important because we don’t need to learn new fretboard fingering patterns – we just have to shift them 3 frets!
  • The harmonic minor scale (2-1-2-2-1-3-1) results in “correcting” the natural minor scale in order to keep the 7th note (to build up the dominant 7th cords) at his old place. The 2 semitone step from from the 7th to the octave of the natural minor scale is shortened to one semitone. By raising the 7th note we get a 3 semitone gap below (3-1 instead of 2-2).
  • The melodic minor scale (2-1-2-2-2-2-1) fixes the 3 semitone gap problem of the scale before. Now we raise the 6th note by a semi tone and get – yes, almost the major scale except the beginning 2-1 interval.

We now have 1 major and 3 minor scales. But – there are more. In the next step we introduce the system of modes. All of these are still based on the major scale we had already.

The principle of using modes gives us an easy way to understand which chords can be used within a scale. Modes are often mixed up with scales although this is not correct. At least, not nowadays.
The ancient Greeks (the guys who build the Acropolis and invented coined money) were among the first who introduced musical scales. They named their main 8-notes-within-an-octave scales after their biggest tribes: Dorian, Phrygrian, Lydian and Mixolydian. The Dorian scale was descending from E, the Phrygrian from D and so on. Later the musicians of the Christian Church adopted the system to their needs – and changed nearly everything reversing the order, changing the starting note and now calling it mode instead of scale. Out of names they also introduced some new, so that for example the good (=Greek) old Lydian scale became the brand new Ionian mode. So the modern modal system uses some names of the old Greek system, but with a new meaning, and also added some new modes (ionian, aeolian or locrian, also Greek tribes) to get a mode for each degree of the scale.

Details of the modal system.

Let’s take once again the diatonic C major scale C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. If we start on each note of this scale and go up using only notes of this scale we get different modes with different intervals. For example starting with D would give D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. The difference is that the starting note – which determines the key – is different. All these 7 different modes have special names as described before. For determination if it’s minor or major we count the number of semitones between the 1st and 3rd note: minor have 3, major scales 4 semitones.
These modes are (in brackets the kind and C major scale example notes):

  • Ionian (major, C) – the standard major scale, based on the first note of the scale. Intervals are 2-2-1-2-2-2-1.
  • Dorian (minor, D) – based on the second note of the scale. Intervals are 2-1-2-2-2-1-2.
  • Phrygian (minor, E) – based on the third note of the scale. Intervals are 1-2-2-2-1-2-2.
  • Lydian (major, F) – based on the fourth note of the scale. Intervals are 2-2-2-1-2-2-1.
  • Mixolydian (major, G) – based on the fifth note of the scale. Intervals are 2-2-1-2-2-1-2. Often used in rock, jazz and – Blues, because it contains the flatened 7th.
  • Aeolian (minor, A) – based on the sixth note of the scale. Intervals are 2-1-2-2-1-2-2. This is the base of the (compare!) natural minor scale.
  • Locrian (minor, B) – based on the seventh note of the scale. Intervals are 1-2-2-1-2-2-2. Not used very much except for some Hindu or far east music…

That means:

The G mixolydian scale (also written myxolydian) as a mode of the C major scale contains only notes from the C major scale, these are G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Compared to the G major scale you see that the seventh note is flattened (F instead of F#). This gives a slightly different sound – not only when playing melody lines but also when building up the chords using the scale notes. This one is good for the Blues, because it contains the 7b used for the 7th chords! BTW – combining major and minor pentatonic results in the mixolydian scale plus the 3b!

Finally, you got it all. Although there are still some artificial scales, imagine the number of variations to select 8 notes out of 12, we’ll stop here. It up to you now to discover what can be done using these principles.

Back to the more Blues specific things.

Below is a table of different scales in different keys. To play a minimal Blues, we only need the minor pentatonic. The Blues scale has an additional “blue note”, which is (look at the table above) the diminished fifth, and the major pentatonic scale gives us more room for improvisations like EC does (this is explained later at Soloing: scales).

I have included the major scale because the namings are based on it, i.e. the I-IV-V chord progression:
the chords used for a Blues in A are A, D, E – that’s 1,4,5 or I, IV, V on the major scale.

There’s even more information in it: I,IV,V (uppercase letters) means major chords; ii,iii,vi,vii means minor chords (see explanations above). You’ll get these by strictly building up triad chords with only notes from the scale. The only one making problems is the vii, which is not only minor, but diminished. That means, not only the 3rd note is lowered a semitone, but also the 5th note, so that all notes have the same interval. The following tables maybe very useful:

Common scales in the key of A
NAME A A#
Bb
B C C#
Db
D D#
Eb
E F F#
Gb
G G#
Ab
A
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Common scales in the key of B
NAME B C C#
Db
D D#
Eb
E F F#
Gb
G G#
Ab
A A#
Bb
B
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Common scales in the key of C
NAME C C#
Db
D D#
Eb
E F F#
Gb
G G#
Ab
A A#
Bb
B C
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Common scales in the key of D
NAME D D#
Eb
E F F#
Gb
G G#
Ab
A A#
Bb
B C C#
Db
D
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Common scales in the key of E
NAME E F F#
Gb
G G#
Ab
A A#
Bb
B C C#
Db
D D#
Eb
E
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Common scales in the key of F
NAME F F#
Gb
G G#
Ab
A A#
Bb
B C C#
Db
D D#
Eb
E F
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Common scales in the key of G
NAME G G#
Ab
A A#
Bb
B C C#
Db
D D#
Eb
E F F#
Gb
G
Chromatic semitones 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Major 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 1 (8)
Major (other naming) I - ii - iii IV - V - vi - vii I (VIII)
Minor X - X X - X - X X - X - X
Pentatonic Minor X - - X - X - X - - X - X
Blues X - - X - X X X - - X - X
Pentatonic Major X - X - X - - X - X - - X
Mixolydian X - X - X X - X - X X - X

Once again: compare the major and minor pentatonic scale intervals:
Minor pentatonic: Root-3-2-2-3-2
Major pentatonic: Root-2-2-3-2-3
That means: move the minor scale down three semitones and you’re in the parallel major scale of the same key!

You can use the scale generator to view all positions of these scales and modes on the fretboard.

More scales

To change from a minor to the relative major scale you have to do – nothing. They have the same set of notes, but the root note changes. Example: the A minor scale is the same scale (and fingering pattern on the fretboard) as the C major scale. The starting point (root) is different (A -> C), you change the key.

If you change from minor to a major scale in the same key, you get the parallel scale by moving down three semitones (or frets).

Watch out:
I found that some books and websites mixed up the definition of relative and parallel keys! I had troubles myself with it, so once again the correct and logical definition:

  • Relative minor: same notes, different key. Starting (root) note is the 6th note of the major scale.
    Example: A minor is the relative minor to C major: C(I)-D(ii)-E(iii)-F(IV)-G(V)-A(vi).
  • Parallel minor: different notes, same key. Starting (root) note is the same in both key.
    Example: C minor is the parallel minor to C major.

This is exactly what you do when you don’t want to jam only in the “safe” minor Blues scale – using both together as a “composite” scale, to add more colors to your playing.

Example: you play a solo in E minor pentatonic at the 12th fret (first fingering pattern), and you change to the major pentatonic by using the same fingering pattern starting at the 9th fret. The root note to build up licks and solos is still E!

Another way to get more notes is to change into the dominant or subdominant chord scale: jamming in a 12 bar Blues in A, you come to a chord change from let’s say A to D. As long as you play with this chord, you can use the D scale (both minor Blues and major pentatonic). So you have lots of notes to play! Be sure to go back to the root at the end and don’t change too often, otherwise is sounds as if you’re changing the key of the whole song.

The dominant chord scale is achieved by moving up a perfect fifth, the subdominant scale by moving up a perfect fourth as well as (!) moving down a perfect fifth (this is also called the cycle of fifth – if you step from fifth to fifth and repeat it over and over, you will go through all notes and end back at the root note!).

Now we can drop a smile to the keyboard player: these steps are pretty easy on guitar, because our guitar is mostly tuned this way! Play a Blues in A, you need : A (root, I), D (subdominant, IV) E (dominant, V). Now take a look at you bass strings: E – A – D. Wonderful! To get the subdominant just move up a string, to get the dominant move down a string. This is the beginners Blues in A.

Another way to get more notes for soloing is to use the mixolydian scale. I’ve already explained what it is (see above), but not why we can use it. Take a look at the scale tables above – I included the mixolydian scale. Two things come to mind: the scale must be great to play over dominant seventh chords (because it already includes the flatened 7th!) and it contains the complete major pentatonic scale as well as the minor pentatonic, except the 3b. In other words, combining major and minor pentatonic results in the mixolydian scale plus the 3b. Isn’t it magic? That’s a way to describe how EC plays the Blues.

You can use the scale generator to view all positions of these scales and modes on the fretboard.

Chords

More detailed on the chords page!

The difference in pitch between two notes it is called an interval (see above), no matter if you play them together or one after the other. Playing two (strictly: three, two notes are a double-stop) or more notes together is also called a chord. Most chords have at least three different notes, and the chords that have intervals that are a 3rd apart are called triad chords. Note: all triads have three notes, but not all three-note chords are a triad. Hehe. That’s music theory.

Starting with the root note there are four different triads possible depending on the intervals:
major: 1 – 3 – 5
minor: 1 – b3 – 5
augmented: 1 – 3 – #5
diminished: 1 – b3 – b5
If you take the C major chord as an example you get

C major (C): C – E – G
C minor (Cm): C – Eb – G
C augmented (Caug): C – E – G#
C diminished (Cdim): C – Eb – Gb

All the chords you get by building up triads from every note of the scale and using only notes from that scale have special names, some of them you might know already:

Position
(major scale)
Name
(other word: degree)
1 tonic (root), I
2 supertonic, ii
3 mediant, iii
4 subdominant, IV
5 dominant, V
6 submediant, vi
7 leading tone, vii
8 (=1) tonic, I

Important for the Blues (and other music styles) are the tonic (as the root), the dominant and the subdominant. When you play Blues rhythm, you use these chords, example in E:

E (tonic, I) – A (subdominant, IV) – B (dominant, V)

When you play these chords you hear that the A chord drifts away from the root and the B wants to come back to it, it sounds like it’s waiting to be resolved back to the E chord.

Note that some triad result in major chords, written in upper case, while other result in minor chords, written in lower case. For the standard dominant Blues only the major chords are used.

More Chords

As you may have noticed already, the Blues chords are not just the major chords but mostly seventh chords (7th).

What does this mean? The “normal” major chord consists of 3 notes: root, major third and perfect fifth (1,3,5). Now just add another note, the minor seventh, and you have the “seventh chord” consisting of 4 notes (1,3,5,m7). When you do the same for the dominant chord of this scale (like B for the E scale or E for the A scale) you get the (tataa!) dominant seventh (7th). The E7 (dominant 7th of A) chord wants to be followed by the A chord. But instead of giving the A back to him, we play it as another 7th – the A7, or play the D7, and these unresolved chords are musically the quintessence of the dominant Blues, that’s why it sounds like a worried mind.

Some more chords demystified…

Which chords belong to a scale if it’s not only the Blues scheme (I-IV-V)?
The simple answer is: all chords containing only notes from that scale.

If you have the C major scale (here we go again) with the notes
C – D – E – F – G – A – B (- C),
we can build up the chords on every note containing only the scale notes:

Numeric Note Chord tonic Chord sixth Chord seventh Chord ninth
I C C major C major 6 C major 7 C major 9
ii D D minor D minor 6 D minor 7 D minor 9
iii E E minor - E minor 7 -
IV F F major F major 6 F major 7 F major 9
V G G major G major 6 G dominant 7 G dominant 9
vi A A minor - A minor 7 A minor 9
vii B B diminished - B minor 7 b5 -

These chords can also be used for the A minor scale, because it’s the relative minor to the C major scale and has therefore the same set of notes.
As an example take the G7 chord: it contains the notes G – B – D – F (1,3,5,m7). All notes belong to the C major scale, so the chord is OK for it. It does not fit into the G major scale, but it’s OK for the mixolydian scale, which already contains the m7.

Some more chords:

Example Meaning Note
E E major (notes: 1,3,5) Same as EM (1,M3,5), uppercase M = major
Em E minor (notes: 1,3b,5) Same as 1,m3,5
E5 E fifth (notes: 1,5) used for power chords, rock
Esus2 E suspended 2 (notes: 1,2,5) -
Esus4 E suspended 4 (notes: 1,4,5) So Esus2sus4 must be 1,2,4,5…
Eadd9 E added 9 (notes: 1,3,5,9) E plus 9 (=2, just an octave higher…)
Edim (Eº) E diminished (notes: 1,3b,5b) All notes have the same interval
Edim7 (Eº7) E diminished 7 (notes: 1,3b,5b,7bb) see Someday After A While
E6 E Major 6 (notes: 1,3,5,6) E plus 6, Rock
E7 E dominant 7 (notes: 1,3,5,7b) E plus minor 7, Blues!
Emaj7 E major 7 (notes: 1,3,5,7) E plus major 7, rock
E9 E (dominant 7) 9 (notes: 1,3,5,7b,9) E7 plus 9, Chicago Blues, Jazz
E11 E (7,9) 11 (notes: 1,3,5,7b,9,11) just keep on…
E/A “Slash” chord, E with an A as bass note Gives a different sound
022100 E major (example) A short way to describe a chord with “semi-tablature”

Once again, the naming is not consistent (The notes for example 5b or m5 are identical, it’s just called 5 flat or minor fifth). Some of these chords we’ll see again during the tutorial, they are explained there. No need to learn them all before starting!

You can use the chord generator to view the chord fingerings on the fretboard.

Standard notation

Intro:
How do you make a lead guitarist slow down?
Put some sheet music in front of him.
How do you make him stop?
Put notes on it.
OK, so you don’t need standard notation for this tutorial. But if you have a songbook or some sheet music without tab, just with these strange lines and dots, you may ask “Can I use it?”. Of course you can! But it’s not that easy. If you have the chance to learn it – do it.

The lines are not the strings, they just determine the tone pitch, and the different dots tell you the length of a note (which is the big drawback of tablature!). Once again – we still love it complicated – it’s not just a full tone from one line to another. Standard notation is like many other things in music theory developed from the C major scale. Lucky piano players – just use the white keys…

If you have a notation without any # or b at the beginning, it’s written in the key of C. In the following chart you can see the notes in standard notation and the same notes in tab:

notation

We start playing with the open E string of our guitar. To draw it with standard notation, we need some “help lines”, because standard notation only consist of 5 lines, every note which is outside this range gets an extra line, only for this note.

Going to the next note, F, we can see the principle of this notation: every step from a note on a line into the next note between two lines (or from the position between the lines to the next line) is the step from one note to the next of the scale. It’s not always a full tone or semitone!

If we keep on, E,F,G,A etc. there are positions on the fretboard (i.e. 2 and 4 on the E string) that are not described in this notation, because they don’t belong to the scale. If we want to include them, they need a special sign – yes, we had this already – it is the # (sharp, up a semitone) or b (flat, down a semitone). Example for #:

notation

If we have a song which is not in the key of C major (or A minor, see above), it’s time consuming to put an # or b to every note. Instead of this, the sign is written at the beginning and on the line of the notes which should be concerned. You’ll find it just after this strange sign indicating the pitch of the notes, the “treble clef“, which looks somehow like a snake (or “G”, because it’s a G-clef) wriggling around the G line. For bass players there’s also a “bass clef”. There are more clefs and groups, but we usually don’t need them for guitar playing.

Finally, a guitar is tuned one octave lower than a piano for the same note on standard notation. For example, the note on the lowest line of standard notation is an E (see above). If you play this note with a guitar, it’s one octave lower than the same note (not pitch!) on a piano (anybody still reading this? Enough now.).

The sort and the number of the signs tell you what key is used. Below you can see a table of some common keys, and with this I will stop here. There are much more signs you have to know if you write in standard notation, but this is enough to get some licks or chords.

Signs Major key Relative minor key Chords I/IV/V (add 7 for the 7th chords)
0 C a C/F/G
1 # G e G/C/D
2 # D b D/G/A
3 # A f# A/D/E
4 # E c# E/A/B
5 # B g# B/E/F#
6 # F# d# F#/B/C#
7 # C# a# C#/F#/G#
1 b F d F/Bb/C
2 b Bb g Bb/Eb/F
3 b Eb c Eb/Ab/Bb
4 b Ab f Ab/Dd/Eb
5 b Db bb Db/Gb/Ab
6 b Gb eb Gb/Cb/Db
7 b Cb ab Cb/Fb/Gb

OK, one last remark: I mentioned the length of a note. It’s divided in full notes, half notes, quarter notes and so on. A half note is just played half the time of a full note (looks like in this case mathematics still work). Example for this notes:

notation

What you should keep in mind

Lord have mercy…
You don’t have to learn all this stuff. Pick out (or print out) what you need and try to use your ears to hear what you have read. On the following pages you don’t need to know all of it. If you don’t understand anything, come back here and take a closer look. After all, it’s not bad at all when you know:

  • a little bit about what’s a tone physically
  • a little bit about harmonics and how to use
  • the name of the basic (major scale) notes, and how to find them on your fretboard
  • the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords of the most common Blues scales (in E, A, C, G)
  • the Blues scale itself, at least the first fingering pattern
  • for soloing: something about relative and parallel scales, and how to move between (the 3 frets down thing)

Don’t worry too much about scales, chords, progressions and all the stupid namings that were given to them. It’s more important that you can rely on your ear and your feeling.

Part II: Details about the guitar’s physical place in music

Warning: Theory inside! Not Clapton or Blues specific!

The following stuff is the result of a long time discussion with Gordon Ruoff. It all started with the frequency of the open guitar A string, which is 110 Hz. Various books and websites erroneously indicate it’s 440 Hz because of the frequency of a tuning fork, but if it was 440 Hz, true middle C at 261.2 Hz couldn’t be attained on the guitar! Gordon had made some very useful graphics and we decided to put them on the web. So I made some web compatible graphics based on his work and added other useful stuff.

The guitar’s musical range compared to other instruments

Comparison

The C major (diatonic) scale in standard notation

Another often used graphic is shown below which illustrates the C major scale.

c_diatonic

Every guitar player should be able to play it, with this scale you cover about 50 % of all folk, country, christmas and other non-Blues music styles. You can also play simple songs for your kids ;)

An often overlooked important musical fact is that the middle C played on a guitar (3rd fret, A-string) is actually one octave lower (130.8 Hz) in sound that the middle C on the piano (261.1 Hz). In other words, to enable useful working with standard notation for a guitar, the guitar is played one octave higher on the treble scale than tuned. That means that standard notation for a guitar is different to standard notation for a piano. You can use sheet music for a piano, but you play it one octave higher.

The circle of fifths and its use for Blues guitar


Also called the cycle of fifth, it’s a very common graphic that illustrates the key signatures. The outer circle is moving clockwise in the dominant direction, that means each note is followed by it’s fifth note. The inner circle is moving counterclockwise in the subdominant direction. If you start with C the next note in dominant direction is G, in subdominant direction F. You can go through the whole circle and end after 12 steps (the 12 notes) again at the starting note. Nothing new so far. Note the enharmonic notes, which have the same pitch but different names like G – Abb. The important thing is the sound of the fifth chord of each scale – played as 7th it will always resolve back to the root (tonic) chord.

For Blues guitar based on the I-IV-V progression this circle makes it simple to find the right chords. If you play a Blues in E you need the chords E(I), A(IV) and B(V). Locate the E note and you’ll find A in subdominant and B in dominant direction – that’s all. If you really want to know how a Blues in G# may sound, take C#(IV) and D#(V) – easy!

It’s getting even better – the pentatonic scale can also be described from the circle of fifths (= penta!). Let’s take the major pentatonic scale in C. Notes are C-D-E-G-A-C. Now start from the root note C and go up using the circle of fifths: C-G-D-A-E. Order them and you get the right scale!
Circle of fifth

Credits to Gordon, Vikram, Dave and others for proofreading it!