COPYRIGHTS & PERMISSIONS: All arrangements and tabs in this blog are the original work of the blog owner, unless otherwise noted. They may be downloaded and copied at no charge, only for non-commercial church or home use. All other rights reserved. Ask for permissions-- I intend to be generous. Copyright information for each song is listed in its commentary. Arrangements and tabs of public domain songs are still covered by these copyright restrictions. Your cooperation is appreciated.

Music theory for real newbies

CPA OTR Trucker asked:

When you start talking 7ths and 5ths, etc. I get blown away . . . I know a few basic cords but I am really a total newbie . . . I really don't know where to start. Will you provide me with some guidance?


Well, OTR, we’ve all been there! There are two kinds of learning that have to happen to turn you into a musician: muscle learning, and theory. When you train your hands to make chords, that’s muscle learning. It’s not so different from learning any other physical skill. After much practice, your muscles learn to do it by habit, and you have to struggle to do it differently. That’s one reason to learn from a teacher, who will make sure you learn to do it RIGHT by habit, so you don’t have to unlearn it and relearn it right later, when you discover the limitations of doing it the wrong way. In fact, the reason the “right way” to play the guitar IS the right way, is because it’s EASIER, once you learn how. Once or twice in a generation, along comes a genius like Jimi Hendrix or Andres Segovia, to show us an even better way, but that’s another story. The theory part is “head learning.” That seems to be what’s got you stumped. I’ll try to go back to the very beginning.

When a string vibrates, the note produced is determined by the length and thickness of the string, and the tension on it. To change the note, you can either change the tension, as in tuning, or change the vibrating length of the string. The first stringed instruments were like harps, with a different length string for each note desired. Eventually, some genius figured out that you could change the length of the vibrating part (the “speaking length”) by putting a board behind the strings, and pressing down with the fingers in different places, to make different notes. It was soon discovered that the spots for making some notes were separated by very different intervals. This was especially apparent when frets were invented. Some of the notes were nearly twice as far apart as others! Most notes are separated by approximately equal intervals. But the intervals B-to-C, and E-to-F, are only half the size of all the others. Guitar makers quickly learned that they could not make all the notes on all the strings, unless they placed their frets at every half interval. That’s why the notes on the E string are E (open), F (1st fret), F# (2nd fret), G (3rd fret), etc. E and F are separated by only a half-tone, but F, G, A, and B are separated by a whole tone, or two frets.

This becomes important to know, when you are trying to figure out the scale of a song. The key of C, for arcane reasons, is the one that includes only the named notes (the white keys on a keyboard): C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. There are no sharps or flats (the black keys on the keyboard). In every other key, some of the notes of the scale fall on a sharp or flat (black key). For example, if you start playing a scale on the G string, the notes will be G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. The reason for this is that the human ear expects to hear a scale in which the first note and second note are separated by a whole tone, the second and third by a whole tone, the third and fourth by a half-tone, etc. If we number the notes of the scale 1 through 7 and start counting on any given note, the scale will be:

1 (+ 2 frets) 2 (+ 2 frets) 3 (+ 1 fret) 4 (+ 2 frets) 5 (+ 2 frets) 6 (+ 2 frets) 7 (+ 1 fret) 8

where 8 is the same note as 1, only an octave (from the Greek word for 8) higher. If we start counting on a C, the notes of the scale will be:


But if we start on D, the scale would look like this:

D E F# G A B C# D

The intervals are the same, no matter which note we start on. Musicians recognize this by referring to the notes of the scale by their interval, instead of by the note the scale starts on. Thus, in the key of D, the third note is F#, and the interval between the first and third note (four frets) is called a “third”, the interval between the first note and the fifth note (7 frets) is called a “fifth”, etc. We can even speak of intervals greater than an octave this way, as in a “ninth” (fourteen frets), etc.

Because the guitar has six strings, tuned to different notes, the interval between the lowest note on the guitar (the open bass E string) and the highest note easily played (the twelfth fret on the high E string) is three octaves, so it is perfectly possible to play two notes separated by a ninth, an eleventh, or a thirteenth, using two different strings.

It is also possible to construct other scales with different interval patterns, but this one is the most common, and is therefore called the “major” scale. Middle Eastern music, and lots of western music, is built on a scale in which the third note and sixth note are each one fret flat of their position in the major scale:

1, 2, 3b, 4, 5, 6b, 7, 8.

This "minor" scale makes the interval between the minor 6th and 7th notes three frets, and gives the scale an interesting sound. In the key of C minor, the scale would look like this:

C D Eb F G Ab B C

Remember that Eb and D# are the same note, midway between D & E. The names depend on which direction you are counting. D minor would look like this:

D E F G A Bb C# D

C# is also the same note as Db, halfway between C and D. There are reasons for this difference in nomenclature, but they are too technical to go into here.


Two or more notes played at the same time are called a chord. Most commonly played chords have at least three different notes. Each chord is named for:

--the first note of its scale,
--whether it is a major or minor scale,
--which notes of the scale it contains,
--any other special characteristics.

The most common chord contains the first, third, and fifth notes of the major scale, and is therefore called a “major” chord. Thus, the chord of C major contains the notes: C, E, and G. C minor has the notes: C, Eb, and G. Since music used to all be hand written, it was easier to leave out the word “major”, unless it was specifically needed for clarity, so the C major chord was written as “C”. Minor chords were indicated by the letter m. A chord in which the seventh note has been flatted is called a seventh chord, thus:

C = (1 - 3 - 5)
Cm = (1 - 3b - 5)
C7 = (1 - 3 - 5 - 7b)
Cm7 = (1 - 3b - 5 - 7b)

Most instruments only play one note at a time, so most musicians do not know much about chord theory, but guitarists begin with chords. Guitars also have so many strings that it is possible to play almost any note on the guitar in several different ways. For example, the E note formed by the open, high E string (the #1 string) on the guitar occurs in only one spot on the piano, the harp, the flute, etc. But on the guitar, you can play it by playing:

- the E string, open
- the B string, fretted at the fifth fret
- the G string, fretted at the ninth fret
- the D String, fretted at the fourteenth fret, etc.

This is bad enough when you are playing only one note at a time, but if you are trying to read chords as shown in piano music, you will quickly learn that ordinary sheet music is not well-suited to guitars. Most guitarists just memorize one way of playing each of the chords they use most often, and think of them as “the” way to play that chord. This works fine, if all you want to do is strum accompaniments for a vocalist. But if you want to learn to play a particular riff exactly as it is played on a record, or add melody notes to your music, or make the chords “follow” the melody as it rises and falls, something else is needed. That something is tablature, called “tab” for short.

The five-line musical staff of sheet music shows the musician where each note falls on the scale, and it is presumed that he knows where to find that note on his instrument. In tablature, the guitarist is shown exactly how to make each note on the guitar, which string to play it on, which fret to use, etc.

The six lines of tab represent the six strings of the guitar, as you would see them if you bent your head over and looked. (Don’t do it. You’ll end up playing with a bent wrist, and give yourself tendinitis.) That is, the top line in the tab is the high E string, the next is the B string, then the G string, etc. The numbers are the frets where that string is to be fretted. The number 0 is used to denote a string that is played unfretted, or "open". If there is no number on a string, don’t play it.

Unlike “real” sheet music, tablature has not been around very long, and there are few standardized ways of writing it. Some tab writers put in vertical measure lines (or “bars”), but not all do. The big disadvantage of tablature is that there is no easy way to tell how long a note lasts, unlike sheet music, with its half notes, quarter notes, etc. Fortunately, most notes on an acoustic guitar seem to come out as eighth notes, which makes tab-writing easier. So, tab is most useful for those who want to learn how to play a song they are already familiar with.

It’s easier to read tab if the lyrics of the song are included, so you can see where the notes go. That’s great if the song writer is dead, and cannot object to you publishing his work without permission. This is called, “being in the public domain,” which means that the copyrights have expired (or never existed at all). Most hymns were not written for guitar, so the guitar arrangement usually is the intellectual property of the guitarist who arranged it. The sticking point is the lyrics, which often are still in copyright.

Without the permission of the copyright holder, you cannot publish the lyrics, which means you cannot put them on the tab, even if you’re not charging money. You can usually get away with putting them on a sheet of tab you create for your own use, but many aspiring tab writers have learned to their sorrow that publishing on the web is indeed publishing, as far as the courts are concerned. That’s why you seldom see tabs with lyrics on the Internet. All the tabs I publish are either in the public domain, or I have gained permission from the copyright holder to publish them. Getting permission is usually a more difficult and lengthy process than arranging the music and writing the tab.

For further instruction in chord theory, see “Chord Theory”, and “What’s all this stuff about 7ths and 5ths, etc.?” on this blog.

No comments: