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Guitar Tips and Tricks: Theory Journey Pt. 2

By: Josh Lucas

Musicians hardly get any sleep, working gigs through the evening and the occasional day job to make ends meet–and if you’re lucky, the daytime work will be music-related. Some gigs are great, others leave us a little drained one way or the other.

So how can we make the best of our time onstage? You wouldn’t go into a gig without knowing the songs first, right? So why would you go into a guitar solo blindly? And even if you only play rhythm guitar, how are you going to change keys without an understanding of the pattern and framework that makes up any key?

We’ve got lots of questions to answer, so let’s start by whittling players down into two types:

  1. Likes to memorize fretboard patterns, worries less about note names, and likes to feel around.
  2. Likes to know ins-and-outs, creates or adheres to a system of rules, and follows them.

Truthfully, neither is right or wrong, and we need a little comfort in both areas to play effectively.

The first method is way more fun to me, and it’s mostly how I approached learning to improvise (for better or worse). It was in sink-or-swim environments like open mics, paid gigs (though looking back, I can’t imagine who would’ve paid us), and cover shows where I cut my teeth and learned to be comfortable improvising live. Although I knew music theory, there wasn’t much time to stop and think.

To contrast that method, when I found out I’d reached a ceiling, I knew there were certain things I’d need to practice in order to work them into my muscle memory. We’ll start by memorizing the fretboard.

Let’s take one easy scale position and milk it for all it’s worth.

Here are the notes of an A minor Scale:

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

Hopefully that’s easy enough for you.

In music, we ascend the scale as we go up in pitch from our starting point. As we go down in pitch, we descend the scale. After we get to G, the note names start back at A, but this time the “A” sounds higher in pitch than the last time we heard it. This is called an “octave” because the pattern repeats on every eighth note of the scale.

For example, play the notes one at a time, and memorize their names and locations. You’ll start on A, on the thickest string at the fifth fret. As you ascend in pitch to each next note in the scale pattern, you’ll ascend the alphabet. The highest note in this position is “C” on the eighth fret of the thinnest string. As you descend in pitch, you will go backwards through the alphabet. Memorize the pattern backward and forward.

Your homework for next week will be to assign the proper letter to each note and commit that to memory in this position. Now assign a roman numeral to each letter name in this key. They are as follows:

  • C: I
  • D: ii
  • E: iii
  • F: IV
  • G: V
  • A: vi
  • B: vii*

Even though it seems out of order, don’t be intimidated. Memorize the pattern, and keep in mind that the key of C major is, for all intensive purposes, the key of A minor.

Upper-case letters mean that if you build a chord beginning on this note, the chord will be major.

Lower-case letters mean that if you build a chord beginning on this note, the chord will be minor.

vii* is diminished. It should be a “degree” symbol rather than an asterisk, but I’m not sure where to find one of those on my keyboard.

Don’t chicken out. Do the work, and you’ll have a better grip on your instrument and be prepared for almost any situation.