A little bit of music theory for guitarists

Picking up from my post about learning to play a guitar, I thought I’d add some notes of some of what I’ve learned along the way.

First up, reading music. Not necessary. I used to be able to read music, back when I played classical guitar in the 1980s, but I’ve fallen out of practice now. FACE, EGBDF, treble clefs and their ilk are all a distant memory. These days I read chord charts and lyric sheets with a few strum patterns!

The three chord trick

I mentioned in my last post that the chords A D and E were useful for playing basic pop/rock songs. There’s a huge range you can play with these three chords. That’s because of something called the three chord trick.

Basically, for a given key, there is a set of three chords that will work together musically. These are the 1st, 4th and 5th. In the key of A, that’s A D E. For G it’s G C and D. (Musical notes only run A to G, then they start again for the next octave).

There are other things to consider – like major and minor keys; and subdominant, tonic and dominant seventh chords but the 1, 4, 5 is really helpful to know. Just play around and see what you can play/make up with three chords.

Using a capo

If you want to adjust the key, but don’t want to move away from simple open chords like A, C, D, E and G (Bs and Fs make things complicated on a guitar), then a capo comes in handy. Basically, it’s a bar that’s placed across the strings at a given fret and it effectively shortens the strings (acting in place of the neck of the guitar), adjusting the key without retuning.

Barre chords

I’m at the stage where I’m just starting to learn about barre chords. Basically, a barre chord uses a finger, laid across five or six strings in a similar manner to a capo. Add in an E shape (6 strings) or A shape (5 strings) chord and move up and down the fretboard to play all of the major chords.

Featured image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay

40 years of learning to play a guitar

40 years ago, I started to learn to play a guitar. I was 9 years old – I didn’t know what I wanted to learn! After 4 years, 3 grades of classical guitar, and not enough practice, I gave up. My Mother was not impressed after all that money spent on lessons. We just hadn’t found the right teacher, or style.

Then, in my 20s, I was travelling in South Africa with some friends. Two of the guys on the trip had guitars with them and would play on the bus/around the campfire. I loved it… a bit of ‘Stones… some other classic pop/rock. This was what I wanted! I bought a copy of Guitar for Dummies and tried to teach myself. It didn’t work. The book sat on the shelf for years and my guitar gathered dust in the loft.

In my mid 40s, I saw a local group of musicians advertising a guitar workshop in the town where I live. Come along and join in, learn to play, no experience needed – all ages welcome. So I went down with my elderly classical guitar, met Ian (Roberts) and Trevor (Aldred), learned a few chords (A, D and E) and was soon playing old Elvis Presley songs. A few months later, I’d learned a few more chords and I bought myself a new guitar (a Faith Blood Moon Neptune cutaway electro-acoustic). Not long after that I played my first gig. OK, “gig” is a bit strong but it was me and some of the other students, in a pub, playing a few pop/rock songs like American Pie and Chasing Cars.

I still don’t practice enough, but my family complain when I sing (which directly impacts my practice). I’m working on Heroes and Times Like These right now. And I’m trying to perfect my strumming. Recently, I realised just what a difference changing my strings makes to the sound of the guitar – it’s like new again (thanks to Newport Music).

Whilst I still play with my local group on a Saturday morning (although we didn’t meet for a year because of the pandemic), I have the basics and can learn a bit more on my own. I still find books unhelpful (mostly) but there are some fantastic resources on the ‘net, and I really rate Justin Sandicoe (JustinGuitar)’s and Andy Crowley (AndyGuitar)’s websites and YouTube channels.

So, if you fancy learning to play the guitar, my advice after 40 years would be:

  1. Work out what you want to play – electric or acoustic; pop/rock, folk or classical.
  2. Practice.
  3. Don’t give up.
  4. Practice more.
  5. Find some others to jam with (it really builds confidence and hides your mistakes).
  6. Have fun!

(Maybe one day I’ll build the confidence to play solo at an open mic night…)

Featured image: author’s own.