Theory 1, 2, 3: Three Easy Concepts To Improve Your Playing

Music Theory: What a scary thought, right?

Do you know basic music theory? Do you know why you should dig in and learn just a little bit?

A lot of players are unaware of how even just a little bit of music theory knowledge can exponentially improve their playing, and how easy it becomes for you to learn your favorite songs and guitar solos after you’ve grasped even the most basic concepts.

Stifle my creativityAnd all that nonsense about “It will stifle my creativity...” Honestly, dude, that’s just ignorant. Don’t be one of those people, you’re better than that. It really can be a game-changer, so give it a try.

So how about we dig into music theory in simple groups of three and apply it to your guitar playing in a way that makes sense for the typical rock/pop/blues guitarist.

Let’s just talk about three easy concepts today.

Theory Concept 1: What Do Those Numbers Mean?

All music theory relates primarily to the major scale. You’ve probably heard of “3rds” and “5ths” and “7ths.” Certainly you’ve heard of a “7th chord,” or a ‘9th chord.”

Those numbers tell us how many notes you’ve gone up the scale from the “root note.”

If you’re playing a C chord, the note C is your root note.

The third of C is the third note up the scale from C. If you think “C, D, E,” then the note E is your third. Consequently, you could count up the scale to find the fifth: “C, D, E, F, G.” The note G is the fifth.

Theory Concept 2: Why Are The Numbers Different in the Second Octave

There are slightly different numbers when we go more than one octave above the root note. Here is a diagram showing the numbers of a two-octave C scale:

The Scale Numbering System




Keep in mind: A third is almost always called a third. A fifth is always called a fifth. Also, our root note is always called either “root” or “1.” That’s just the way it is, no need to worry about that.

But you can see from the above chart that after we’ve gone one whole octave above our root note, the note we labeled “2” the first time around is now labeled “9.”

And that’s where a 9th chord comes from -- a chord with that “9th” note in it. We’ll dig into chords deeper in future columns, but you have to admit, that 9th chord thing is not so difficult to grasp, right?

You also see that the note we labeled “4” is called “11” in the second octave. There are some pretty cool chords -- primarily used in jazz -- that are 11th chords. You actually know one: The Dsus4 chord that appears in so many rock songs. Technically, that “sus4” is an 11, but let’s just stick with calling it sus4 to keep our sanity.

If you play any blues, you may have reason to throw in a 13th chord now and then, and you see that the note we called “6” in the first octave is called “13” in the second octave.

Don’t worry yourself over what we call the notes in the third and fourth octaves. Let’s just refer to them as “lead guitar.”

Theory Concept 3: What About Flat 3rds, and Flat 5ths?

As I said above, all music theory relates primarily to the major scale. A major scale doesn’t have flat thirds or flat fifths. But those notes certainly do exist, so to account for them, we’ll have to look at a slightly larger scale, the chromatic scale.

A chromatic scale includes all 12 notes in existence, at least in “Western” music (as opposed to the “Eastern” music of Asia, India, the MIddle East, etc.)

And if we lay out a diagram of the chromatic scale, you’ll see where those “flat” note numbers come from.

Check out this diagram of a C chromatic scale:

Chromatic Scale Numbers


When I tell you the theory relates to the major scale, and you see that -- for example -- the Db note is called a “flat 2” or “flat second,”  you see that it gets its name based on the fact that D is the 2 note in the major scale. They didn’t call that “flat-2” something else. They didn’t call it “2,” because 2 was already assigned.

So clearly the guys who figured this all out hundreds or maybe thousands of years ago started by naming the notes in the major scale, and then added the names (such as “flat-2”) almost as an afterthought. That’s part of what I mean when I say all music theory relates to the major scale.

You can probably figure out that the notes in the second octave get much the same treatment, so I won’t diagram that out here.

Summary: Three Concepts

In summary, in this lesson, you’ve learned that:

  1. All music theory relates to the major scale, and that the notes in a major scale are given numbers, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. And those numbers tell you the “position” in a sense, of a certain note above your “root” note.
  2. Some of the number designations change in the second octave above the root note, and that’s where we get things such as 9ths, and 9th chords.
  3. To get the “flat-thirds,” and “flat-fifths” and other “exotic” notes we hear about and use from time to time, we expand out the numbering system to include all 12 possible notes, also known as the “chromatic” scale.

Let’s keep it at that for today. In future columns I’ll be showing you how understanding the above can really help you learn songs faster and easier, play better solos, and just improve your guitar playing all around.

So read through the concepts above a few times if necessary. If you let it, it will sink in and become a basis for your best guitar playing ever. I promise.

About the Author: Adam St. James is the Editor of and the author of many popular instructional music books , CDs, and DVDs, including the Hal Leonard titles “The Blues Guitar Handbook,” and “101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All The Pros Know And Use,” and his five-hour DVD course “Logical Lead Guitar.”


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