From the May 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GRETCHEN MENN
You want to expand your harmonic vocabulary and improve your ability to visualize chords on the fretboard.
Use a little music theory to learn how major and minor triads are built and to start connecting chord shapes. With an awareness of how these chords work, you’ll be primed to play songs as diverse as the Who’s “Substitute” and Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”—and to create your own chord progressions and solos.
Learn the notes on the fretboard
If your knowledge of the notes on the fretboard is questionable, take the time to learn and memorize them. All of them. Start with one string, counting your way up and down the neck and saying each note as you play it. Move to other strings as you gain confidence. Mix it up and quiz yourself. Once you know the entire fretboard, you’ll probably find it so helpful that you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
Brush up on your theory
Many musicians are convinced that theory is unnecessary and even antithetical to their creative mojo. But I can’t emphasize enough how much will open up to you from learning it. It won’t make you less inventive or interfere with your enjoyment of music. If anything, it will deepen your appreciation and foster your independence. Shedding any apprehension and diving into the building blocks of music will be incredibly freeing.
Though you could spend years or even a lifetime studying music theory, here are a few fundamental concepts you need to know. Not all of these points will be discussed directly in this lesson, but they’re necessary for understanding the bigger picture. (If theory is new to you, I suggest getting a book, teacher, or online tutorial to supplement these brief points.)
There are 12 notes in Western music, alphabetically from A to G: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab. These notes are all a half step apart (the equivalent of one fret). Notice the half steps that occur between two pairs of natural notes: B–C and E–F.
Accidentals raise or lower a note by a half step. A sharp (#) raises a note a half step; a flat (b) lowers a note a half step. And a natural (♮) negates a previous sharp or flat.
The term enharmonic equivalent refers to two notes that are spelled differently, but are the same pitch. The context will dictate how a note is written. For instance, an A# (a half step up from A) is the same note as a Bb (a half step down from B).
Many musicians are convinced that theory is unnecessary and even antithetical to their creative mojo. But I can’t emphasize enough how much will open up to you from learning it.
A scale is a pattern of half and whole steps that creates a characteristic sound. The most common scales in Western music are the major and the natural minor. The major scale is built from the following combination of whole and half steps: W, W, H, W, W, W, H. So the C major scale, for instance, is spelled C D E F G A B and G major is G A B C D E F#.
Chords can be built from the notes within each scale. The simplest chords are triads, made of three notes: a root, a third, and a fifth. The root is the foundational note of the chord. If the root is C, the chord will be some kind of C (major, minor, augmented, diminished). To keep things simple, we’ll focus on major and minor triads. A major triad differs from its minor counterpart only in the third degree. If the third is two whole steps from the root, as in the case of C to E, it’s a major triad. If the third is one and a half steps from the root, as in C to Eb, it’s minor. The notes of a triad can be repeated in different octaves and can occur in any order. If a note other than the root is at the bottom, then that triad is in an inversion.
Take it to the neck
Now, start building and connecting chords on the guitar. Play on the top four strings and work your way up and down the fretboard. As you go through these first six examples, notice how the shapes connect, with certain notes in common as others move upward.
Start with a G-major triad (indicated with a G-chord symbol) with the root on top and bottom, as shown in Ex. 1. Your first finger replaces your third finger on the fifth-fret G and you now have the third (B) on top in Ex. 2. In Ex. 3, notice how you have three notes in common with the voicing in Ex. 2, with just the lowest note moving, from G to B. Fret the fifth (high D) with your fourth finger for a new voicing in Ex. 4. Swap out your fourth finger for your first on string 1 to create another voicing with the fifth on top (Ex. 5), then partially bar fret 12, keeping three notes in common and grabbing the fifth with your fourth finger on string 1 for Ex. 6.
Connect different keys
Once you’ve become comfortable with the voicings in Exs. 1–6, extend the exercise by changing keys. In Ex. 7, climb the neck using inversions of a G-major triad. Then move to the nearest voicing of C major, and descend through voicings of that triad. After that, move up to the nearest voicing of F major, and so forth.
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Remember all that stuff about thirds determining the quality of the chord? If you skimmed or thought it might be irrelevant, think again. This is exactly why a little investment in the rudiments of theory really pays off. Move the third down a half step in each now-familiar major chord, and behold: you’ve transformed it to minor.
Locate the third (B) of each G chord in Ex. 8. Move it down a half step, to Bb, for six G minor (Gm) voicings. Once you’ve studied these voicings and have them in your brain and under your fingers, make use of your new vocabulary by playing chord progressions you know. Better yet, write some new progressions. Rather than sliding a shape around horizontally on the neck, try staying in one position to create smooth harmonic movement, or even a chord melody. As always, make this new knowledge relevant to what you are doing by writing with it and letting it enrich and inspire you.
Gretchen Menn is a guitarist and composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes, records, and performs original music and is a member of the popular Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.