53. Basic Theory

The music alphabet has 7 letters, A-G. There is no H note. When G is reached, we begin again on A. Ascending (moving forward) through the same alphabet always raises pitch. Descending (moving backward) through the same alphabet always lowers pitch. Example: D is higher than C, but lower than E. When G is reached and A begins again, the next “alphabet” begins.


The range of music notes spans several of these repeating “alphabets” in the process. A musical NOTE is the name for a sound at a particular frequency, or PITCH, that differentiates it from other notes. Each of the 7 letters is a note.  5 of the letters have an additional note in between them, and 2 do not. The distance between any 2 notes is called an INTERVAL.


The entire span, or frequency range, of notes from low to high can be thought of as a circle, or better yet, a spiral. When two notes are exactly the same, this is called UNISON.  When ascending or descending through these series of “alphabets”, and the same note is reached, this interval is called an OCTAVE, which, as you will see below, is the span of a completed major scale.


The sound of the OCTAVE, with two notes that sound the “same”, yet one higher and one lower, is very distinctive and should be learned with the ear as soon as possible. Other intervals are much easier to learn once this is mastered.


The major scale is the axis of western music. Once it is well understood, other concepts are much easier to grasp. The smallest recognized interval in western music is the half step. Remember, this is the distance (interval) of one piano key to the next or ONE FRET on the guitar. The distance of one whole step on the guitar is TWO FRETS, 1 ½ steps=3 frets,  and so on.

The major scale contains a series of whole and half steps, in the following order: Whole step, whole step, ½ step, whole step, whole step, whole step, ½ step.  Below is the most basic of major scales, C.




The notes are numbered 1-8. These are called DEGREES of the scale. As you can see, we start on C and end on C. These notes are the “same”, one is higher and one is lower.


As noted earlier, this is the interval of an OCTAVE. All the other intervals have names as well, based on their numeric order in the scale—3rds, 6ths etc.  To learn the intervals of the major scale, I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the film The Sound of Music, with its song describing its sound and qualities. In it you will hear the notes sung as do, re mi etc.


This musical language is called solfege, and its purpose is to give each note of the major scale one name, training the ear to hear the note intervals, before learning various major scales where the note names change. For now we are doing the opposite, focusing on the construction of the scale only.


Look at the scale again. Note the ½ steps between the letters B-C and E-F. All the other letters, or notes, in our “alphabet” have a WHOLE STEP between them. Since movement in half steps is consistent, this means there is a note between each of these notes.

This is easiest to learn from a piano keyboard: The piano has 88 keys, ½ step between each. There are black keys between the white keys everywhere EXCEPT:










If you forget there are no half steps between B-C and E-F, basic theory will be very confusing, but if you remember this, you will have no problems.




This means there is no Fb, no Cb, no E#, and no B#. In music these note names are occasionally used, but they are not a part of any scales or intervals we will study, and we will not refer to them as such.


Know these terms: The symbol # means SHARP, or HIGHER in pitch.

 The symbol b means FLAT, or LOWER in pitch.                           .

On the piano, all black keys each have 2 different names. Their names are taken from the white keys next to them. Look at any white key that has black keys on either side.


For instance, look at G. The name of the black key to its right will be G with a “#” added to its name, in this case G SHARP (G#), and the name of the black key to its left will be G with a “b” added to its name, G FLAT (Gb). The black key to the left of G is also called F SHARP (F#), since it is ½ step higher than F (the next lowest white key) while the black key on the right is also called A FLAT (Ab), since it is ½ step lower than A ( the next highest white key).

On the guitar, there is no such visual aid; the notes ascend and descend either from fret to fret, or from open string to fret, and all look the same. But we don’t have to play notes with both hands either!

So the basic music alphabet has 7 letters, or notes, plus 5 more when the notes between  A-B, C-D, D-E, F-G and G-A are added, for a total of 12 notes. Together, this is known as the CHROMATIC SCALE. “Chromatic” in this case simply means movement in half step intervals.

  © 2012 Jim Greenfield



52. The Value Of Reading Rhythm


One might ask, “If  the Beatles didn’t write music, why are we reading it, even if it’s only rhythm?” Is it because we are not the Beatles? Not really. Many brilliant musicians have had no formal training, but many more would have struggled to progress much without it.

Most of what I teach to beginning guitarists was learned mostly on my own in the first few years of playing. Anyone who grew up with a lot of music around is undeniably at an advantage. Fortunately, I shared a love of music with my mother, a big jazz fan who infected me with her enthusiasm and kept a large collection of records playing throughout my formative years.

Although I did not play an instrument as a young boy, I was interested in the drums, and had been playing along with records, beating on magazines and furniture, then real drums for a brief time. When I did get a guitar, those developing rhythmic skills gave me a sense of quick progress, even as a beginner. The better rhythm you have, the more you will enjoy the early stages of playing the guitar.

When it comes to rhythm, the one thing my students usually have in common, regardless of age, is lack of guidance. Consider the following:


“Musical development continues beyond the age of 7 or so only in an environment that provides some sort of tutelage.” Howard Gardner, The Arts and Human Development, 1997.


It is probable that I had good rhythmic sense by age 7. However, many of my students do as well, although they often don’t realize it. When it comes to rhythm, anything we bring with us from childhood when picking up an instrument is extremely helpful.

Many amateur teachers are self-taught. Some are the opposite of classical method-only teachers. Some are very good players. But as teachers they are often giving only half the package.

Here is what I mean: They may want you to bring music to the first lesson, watch and copy. Some will use open tunings to give the feeling of playing right away. This usually means tuning the guitar to the notes of a chord. It can feel pretty good to the beginner.


      So does the successful completion of a page of connect-the-dots to a child, which is wonderful, as long as we are not confusing it with learning to draw!


I believe in putting sugar in the medicine, but not that much. Playing chords in open tuning is fun. Get a chord for free, much like an autoharp. Flatten the left index finger, move it up and down the neck, get the same chord high and low—easy! I don’t like it.

Learning not just rhythm, but the notes on the fretboard in standard tuning, the chords we are going to use, scales–we can’t do any of that in open tuning. Open tuning is great later, when we have covered some ground. And while it’s true I teach rhythm practice with”non-chords” (the left hand damping the strings), it’s very temporary.

I can’t graft rhythm onto anyone, but anything I can do to help inspire is what counts. I have always loved music so much that it fueled my desire completely. It’s hard to say how much difference it would have made if I knew at 18 or 20 what I know today.  I regret nothing, and I love to give what I can. My goal is to teach what I never had—the best things to know first. By reading rhythm in standard notation, we can categorize what we learn, so we are not relying on the ear and video alone to help us.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield


51. Diatonic Harmony Review 2

By this time, even if you don’t feel completely comfortable with these concepts, you can still move right ahead as you learn—as long as you get just a few basics. The most basic concepts of diatonic harmony are the following:

  1. I, IV, and V are the chords made from the 1st, 4th, and 5th degree of any major scale, and they are called PRIMARY chords. They are the only major chords made from the scale.
  2.  ii, iii, and vi are the chords made from the 2nd, 3rd and 6th degrees of any major scale, and they are called SECONDARY chords.
  3. The vii chord is diminished– again, disregard it for now.



ii, iii and vi are MINOR

Example:  Key of G major—G major scale—


The major chords are G, C and D

They are made when using the following notes of the G major scale:

G major   G     C    D         (1,3, and 5)

C major    C     E     G         (4,6, and 8)


D major    D     F#   A         (5,7 and 2)         (1 and 8 are the same note, G, we don’t count it twice)

The minor chords are Am, Bm and Em.

They are made when using the following notes of the G major scale:


                  A minor      A     C     E            (2,4 and 6)


                 B minor      B      D     F#          (3,5 and 7)


                 E minor      E       G     B           (6,8 and 3)

      Thus, when musicians refer to a chord progression, they will say, for instance, “one-two-six-five”, which in the key of G means G-am-em-D. By using this language, the emphasis is put on the progression, which stays the same in every key, rather than the actual chords, which change from key to key. This is exactly the same logic used in the do-re-mi song in The Sound of Music to teach the sound of the major scale.

      If an out of key chord is used, it will get a name to distinguish it from the diatonic chords, such as “major two”, which in G would be A major (instead of the diatonic A minor).  For now, always look for diatonic progressions first—they are by far the most common. Once you are familiar with these progressions, learning out of key chords and their use will be much easier.    

© 2012 Jim Greenfield

50. Diatonic Harmony Review 1

When we build 3 note chords from each note in the major scale, we say we have harmonized the major scale.  We see that there are seven chords made from it, one for each scale degree. The chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees of the scale are MAJOR chords (I, IV, V). These are called the primary chords of the scale.


These three chords are the basis of the vast majority of popular music; indeed there are thousands of songs written with only them. The other four chords from the scale are called secondary chords. Three of those four chords—the ones built on the 2nd, 3rd and 6th degree, are MINOR chords.


The other chord, the one built on the 7th degree, is a DIMINISHED chord. Although diminished chords are important in some music, and its construction is outlined in the Triad Types page (Appendix 1), its function in diatonic harmony is very similar to the V chord, so much so that we will disregard it for now. Let’s concentrate on the other six. Remember:


I, IV, and V are MAJOR chords, in EVERY key.

ii, iii and vi are  MINOR chords, in EVERY key.


Again, when chords are arranged in some order, it is a progression. Usually a song begins on the tonic chord (I) from a particular scale. Typically the song will then use other chords diatonic to that scale, moving to them and back to I again. Thus the scale of the tonic chord is said to be the key.  All the diatonic chords from that scale are said to be in its key.


In the key of C, this means C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished. In written music, the key is notated by a key signature, an instruction at the beginning of a piece indicating its key. The diatonic chords in the five keys most used by guitarists are C, A, G, E and D. They spell the word CAGED as an acronym, but also recognize that these keys are the following:

C, which has no sharps or flats…

and the keys that contain 1,2,3 and 4 sharps–G, D, A and E, in that order. (See the reference page Sharps in Order in Appendix 1)

The circle of fifths is a teaching tool that helps with this. It shows that the number of sharps increases by one as you move in 5ths clockwise around the circle. (See 39. The Circle of Fifths for more on this)

© 2012 Jim Greenfield


49. Basic Diatonic Harmony

The harmonized major scale is the source of most chord progressions in popular music. Make sure to review construction of major and minor chords before continuing. Here is a C major scale:


All major chords are derived from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of the major scale. All minor chords are derived from the 1st, FLAT 3rd, and 5th of the major scale. When building a chord from the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the C major scale, the resulting C major chord is known as the I (one) chord, or Tonic Chord.


We call any chord built from the scale ‘diatonic’, which means ‘of the key’ (scale)



However, chords can be made, or “built”, starting on ANY degree of the scale. All are built in THIRDS, using the 2nd, 4th and 6th, or 3rd, 5th, and 7th and so on. IMPORTANT! Note that the term thirds means counting to 3 INCLUDING the letter you start with—E is the 3rd of C, A is the 5th of D, G is the 2nd of F, etc.

EXAMPLE:  You can make a chord starting on the 2nd degree of the C major scale by starting on D. Look at the C scale below. If you build it in 3rds, you get D, F and A:




If you compare that with the 1st, 3rd and 5th of the D major scale below you will see that it is a MINOR chord, because the 1st, 3rd and 5th of D is D, F# and A.




Likewise, if you make a chord starting on the 5th degree of the C major scale, you get G, B, and D. This chord is G major:



Note that this G major chord is made from the 5th, 7th and 2nd degrees of the C scale, since we simply start again at 8, and do not count C twice.

This chord, when made from the C major scale, is known as the V (five) chord. However, when the same chord is made from the 1st, 3rd, and 5 degrees of the G major scale, it is known as the I chord:




Although this is the same G major chord  in both instances, its function is different. As derived from the 5th, 7th and 2nd degrees of the C major scale, G major is known as the V chord in the key of C. As derived from the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the G major scale, it is known as the I chord in the key of G.

Here is the list of  seven 3 note chords derived from the C scale, one for each degree, its chord type, and its function as a 1,3,5 or 1, b3,5 chord.

I    C        E         G                 Major          (1, 3, 5 of the C major scale)  


ii    D        F         A                minor          (1, b3, 5 of the D major scale)


iii   E        G         B                minor          (1, b3, 5 of the E major scale)


IV  F        A         C                Major          (1, 3, 5 of the F major scale)


V   G        B         D                Major          (1, 3, 5 of the G major scale)


vi   A        C         E                minor           (1, b3, 5 of the A major scale)


This chord, and its minor key, is also known as the relative minor. More on that later.


vii   B        D         F             diminished   (1, b3, b5 of the B major scale)

     (I have put a separation line between the 6th and 7th chord—disregard the diminished chord for now.) 

Here is another example of a chord as it functions in two different keys.



E             G#          B                              This is the I, or tonic chord, in the key of E major




E          G#          B     It is also the V chord in the key of A major



A series of chords together in a song is called a progression. If this progression is made entirely of chords in a particular key, this is called a diatonic progression. Again, diatonic means “of the key”, or derived from the key. Thus, the progression of C-Am-F-G is a diatonic progression in the key of C.


In theory terms, this progression is also known as I-vi-IV-V (one-six-four-five), because those are the scale degrees in C from which those four chords are built. Most popular songs are made from diatonic progressions, and many of the same ones are used over and over.  Familiarizing yourself with them gives you a much more manageable amount of information to work with when compared to the vast number of chords that exist. 


   I used to think if I knew all the chords I would be able to better master the guitar. I purchased several chord books with that in mind—one of them had over 1,000 chords!


It didn’t work for me because I didn’t know how to use them. I learned 8 different ways to play a G11 chord, but little idea of what to do with it.

Build your musical vocabulary slowly. Learning these 6 chords and how they function (again, forget the vii chord for now) is MOST beneficial. At the same time, focus your attention on the major keys of C, A G, E and D. They are by far the most common keys on guitar; the others can be easily learned later.  These 6 chords are the same in all 5 of these keys—the notes that change do so together, so there is essentially no difference. Gradually, 7th chords, suspended chords, slash chords and others can be learned, and they will make sense.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield

48. Chords/Lines With Open Strings In Higher Positions

As one moves up the neck, and the fretted notes become higher in pitch, the the open strings  of course remain unchanged. This juxtaposition makes for some potentially great sounds. The most common use of this is moving simple chords up the neck, essentially creating a different chord each time, such as:

E major:


Each movement of one fret creates a different chord.


Another very popular example:

C major—moved up one whole step:


Again, In this case, the C chord is the same, but since the open 1st and 3rd strings are unchanged, a completely different sound is created. The new chord is essentially a Dsus4 chord, although many players do not even consider its name—they just like the sound.


In the higher parts of the fretboard, chords will sound very different with open strings ringing against them. Consider this simple ‘power chord’ (root plus 5th):


As it moves about the upper range of the neck, some good sounds emerge. The skill level of the player will determine the effectiveness of its use.


Scale tones and lead lines are no different.  A simple lead riff against open strings might create this:


Or this:

Play with these types of figures often. You may be surprised by what you find!


© 2012  Jim Greenfield


47. Slash Chords And Inversions

All beginner chords on the guitar are said to be in root position. This means that the bass note, or lowest note in the chord is the tonic. If necessary, think of a root position chord simply as having its lowest note the same as the name of the chord itself. Thus, the lowest note in a C chord is C, the lowest in an A minor chord is A, etc. Since major and minor chords are the most common, I will use them as examples. Here is C major:





We see it is made of 3 notes, the 1st, 3rd and 5th of the C scale. Although 5 strings are being played, C and E appear twice (as octaves), and G once.




The following chord is an inversion. Here, the lowest note in the chord is E. It is still a C major chord, but the bass note is E, the third of the chord.  Its chord box looks like this:






Note that the chord is titled C/E. Again, this indicates a C major chord with E as the lowest note.  This is called first inversion. If the bass were in the fifth (G), we would call it second inversion.




Any chord that has a bass note other than the root (tonic) of that chord is called a slash chord. This is simply because a slash (/) is placed between the chord name and the designated bass note. Sometimes that designated bass note is in the chord. If so, it is a chord inversion. If not, it is still a slash chord, but not an inversion, since the bass note is not in the chord.










This chord, A major, is made of A C# E  (1,3,5 of the A major scale). However, the bass note is G, which is not in the scale. G is said to be a non- chord tone. 


Inversions and slash chords can add a lot of tone color and make ordinary chord progressions sound much more interesting. The most popular use of slash chords is to create a moving bass line through the chord progression. In a band or other ensemble, some other instrument, usually a bass guitar may play bass notes that are not the root note of the chord, or even a non-chord tone.  Many different chords, phrases, and movements of all kinds are affected by the choice of bass note. Always explore simple inversions and slash chords that you hear to begin to gain better use of them.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield

46. Fear Of The B Chord

Beginner players are usually intimidated by barre chords. The first barre chords learned are often F and Bm. Even when those become playable, B major (or any major chord based on the A chord bar form) can be tough. There are a number of options given to play a B chord. First we have the ‘beginner’ B chords such as this:




This chord voicing is useful for an experienced player, but as a “full chord” is mostly worthless. Although there is no bar, and it is relatively easy to play, the lack of a low bass note makes it sound thin and incomplete. In addition, strings 4, 5 and 6 are not to be played— unnecessarily challenging  for a beginner.

The other common ‘beginner’ B chord looks like this: 





Here, the bass note is F#, which makes the chord an inversion, meaning the bass note of the B chord is not B but F#, one of the other notes of the chord. Neither wonderful nor terrible, it still requires the beginner to avoid stings 5 and 6—not easy, and not a good sound if they are included.

Next we have the standard versions of B major:






On the guitar:

In this example, the 1st finger bar is at the 2nd fret, and fingers 2,3 and 4 play the rest of the chord.  The main issue with this fingering is the small space that the 2-3-4 fingers must fit into, especially in combination with the bar. This fingering works best for players with slender fingers!


Then we have this:






On the guitar:

Note that these are the same except the ‘3’ below the box instead of 234. This means the 3rd finger alone does the work of covering the strings that fingers 2-3-4 did in the first example. This is a very good way to develop a variation on what is sometimes known as a half bar, or hinge bar.  Its purpose is to bar some of the strings, while leaving those underneath the bar open. In this case, the only string under the bar not covered  is the 1st, but instead of it being open, it is covered by the first finger bar. In reality, though, the 1st string is almost always muted by the 3rd finger hinge bar:

 first string is muted by the lowest part of the half bar

A variation of this uses the pinky as the half bar, reinforced by the 3rd finger:


Then there is the 7th position B barre chord:







On the guitar:

This is often a good option, but not so much with lower position chords, since moving between them and the 7th position that this chord requires is too great a distance to execute gracefully, especially for beginners. Also, this voicing sometimes simply does not sound good in combination with the open position chords.

Finally, we have the B7 chord:







On the guitar:

While B7 is not B, it is often an acceptable substitute, since in many musical contexts they can be interchangeable. Plenty of players simply take up the B7 and forget about B entirely. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

However, there is one other option, one I  can recommend, the following:









 On the guitar:

This is B5, known as a ‘power chord’. A power chord is simply a 2 note chord, 1st and 5th of the major scale, instead of a major or minor chord, each of which has 3 notes.


The absence of the other note (3rd or minor 3rd, depending) changes the sound of the chord, but it often works well in context anyway.  In addition, the 2nd string B can be played (open) to create a slightly different sound:






The only real ‘trick’ here is to be sure to mute the 1st and 6th strings. For the 6th string, middle finger is best, while the 1st finger can mute the 1st string almost as if barring:




 Remember, just as B7 can often be played in place of B, so this B5 power chord can also. Even better, this particular power chord shape comes in very handy in other situations.

© 2012 Jim Greenfield

45. Suspended Chords


A suspension is musical terms is true to the word’s definition—in this case temporarily interrupted, “hanging” for a very short period of time. A suspended chord is simply a major or minor chord whose 3rd (in the case of the major chord) or minor 3rd (in the case of the minor chord) is replaced by either the 2nd of the scale or the 4th.  Therefore, the 2 types of suspended chords are called sus2 and sus4. Here is an example of their construction, using the key (scale) of C major:

C major scale         1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8

C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

1   3   5

C  major     C   E   G


C minor    1   b3   5

C   Eb  G


Csus 2       1    2    5

C    D   G


Csus4       1   4   5

C   F   G

The most common use of suspended chords is to play the sus4, sus2 and then the major or minor chord, depending musical context.  When the suspended chord is played, followed by the major or minor chord, it is referred to as suspension/resolution.  For popular guitarists, the progression of sus4—major chord—sus2—major chord has been used so much it is basically a musical cliché, especially in the key of D:


Note how this same sequence in a different key still sounds familiar, but less so.

Same sequence in C:


Although variations on suspension—resolutions are by far the most common, these chords are also valuable as chord substitutes. Here is an example of a sus4 chord in a progression, but not as a traditional suspension/resolution.

Note the good syncopation created at the chord changes, especially the move to G in the 2nd and 6th measures—on the “weak” beat.

Progression:    em    D     G    Asus4



When a sus4 chord is used and does not resolve, the suspension is felt strongly. The sus2, however, does not carry the same ‘weight’ suspension-wise. Here is a sus2 in a progression:

G    am   Csus2    D



In this case, the Csus2 is simply a substitute for C, and sounds very similar. This is true of sus2 in general. Another interesting difference between sus2 and sus4 chords in when substituting for the IV chord, as in the example above. Again, if we see this progression as:

I      ii    IV    V

G   am   C   D

The C is the IV chord in the key (G major). Since the 4th note of the C scale is F, the construction of the Csus4 chord is  C  F  G.  Note that F is not in the G major scale, F# is:

G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   G

Because of this, the use of Csus4 in the same progression sounds like this:

G   am   Csus4   D

Note how the csus4 sounds a little ‘off’. This is due to the F, which is not in the key. Many players will employ the b5 (in this case Gb) in the following manner:


Since Gb and F# are the same note, this is simply using a scale tone, the 7th of the G scale—F#–around the C chord. In the Csus2 (C  D  G) the 2nd, D, is a scale tone in G so it always ‘fits’.

Learn to use suspensions as much as you can—they are very expressive. Especially, do not forget their good sounds around minor chords. The same extremely common D major suspension sequence is less used, but to great effect, around Dm:

 Suspension can be very refreshing and compelling when used well.

©2012 Jim Greenfield

44. Uses Of The Capo

The capo has been called ‘the guitarist’s friend’, and for good reason! Its basic function is to raise all the strings together to a higher pitch of the player’s choosing. A capo is most commonly used for the following:

1. To allow favored chord shapes at open position to be used when transposing to a different key

Example: Favored chord shapes: C, F , G

Actual key is E—place capo at 4th fret

Here is the progression “C-F-G” (actually E-A-B)


This allows chord shapes of a different key than the original to be used, with or without actually changing the key. In the above example, the key of E is matched by playing in “C’ with the capo at the 4th fret. If the capo is placed elsewhere, the key of course changes.

2. To make easier certain movements with the fretting hand, since the scale of the guitar gradually shortens (the frets get closer together) as one moves up the neck.

Example: In this phrase, the pinky must reach the 4th fret, 2nd string (Eb). Without the capo, it is a challenging stretch:


However, with the capo at the 5th fret, it is relatively easy:


3. To change the timbre of the instrument; higher placement of the capo enables an almost mandolin-like sound


Example: Capo at 7th fret Progression-“D-G-A” (actually A-D-E)

4. 2 (or more) guitarists will sometimes play in the same key, but one will use a capo to give a different sound.

Example:  Guitar 1 is playing E, A, and B.

Guitar 2 plays D, G, A. With the capo at the 2nd fret, the chords are now both E, A and B

These are the most popular uses of the capo. Some guitarists use 2 capos on one guitar, each at different points of the neck. Experiment with this if it intrigues you.

Although the capo has only one actual function (raising the pitch of all the strings equally), it is truly a multifaceted tool.

©2012  Jim Greenfield